Lt. Col. Stephen “Slade” Mount, USMC (Ret) is the first wounded warrior to ever command an entire battalion of wounded warriors in the United States Marine Corps. I was honored to be at the retirement ceremony of my longtime friend and fellow warrior on September 28, 2018, at Camp Pendleton, California to see him off as he moves on to the next chapter of his life.
As we stood in the shade moments before he took his last steps through the grass as a U.S. Marine on active duty, Slade told me, “I’m not afraid of leaving the Marine Corps – even through the worst of it, this part of my life has made me who I am and I’m grateful for that – I’m better, I’m happy. I love my life and look forward to whatever the future holds.”
The words Slade spoke made us all reflect on our service to our country and Corps.
14 years earlier, in 2004, Slade’s UH-1N Huey helicopter and crew provided close air support to the U.S. Marines who were in a bloody fight in the city of Najaf, Iraq. A single enemy bullet sailed through the window of the cockpit and struck Slade in the face—violently piercing the bridge of his nose, exploding his right eye before exiting his temple.
The plane pitched out of control only several hundred feet off of the ground. The crew held on for life and braced for impact – not knowing if they’d live or die. Slade sat in the left seat a bloody mess as the co-pilot, Andrew “Smithers” Turner miraculously landed the plane hard on its belly and saved the crew. A rescue mission ensued, and all lived to fight another day.
But Slade’s journey after that life-changing day was one that really defined the career of a true leader of Marines. If anyone had an excuse to quit – Slade did. But his willingness to continue to lead was really what set him apart, and for the remainder of his career he served with distinction – but never flew again.
During Slade’s ceremony, Col. Glen “Mush” Butler, the retiring officer, recited touching remarks, although overshadowed mostly by sarcastic humor – it became more of a comedic roast than retirement for Slade in true aviator fashion. He cracked glass eyeball jokes and prodded Slade saying, “I don’t think there will be a dry eye in this place after I speak.” Slade and all in attendance wouldn’t have expected it any other way.
However, the colorful flags, military anthems and shiny awards serve only as backdrops to the real reason we gather for occasions like this. They honor the past of all who’ve served. Recognize the immense sacrifice of the families who’ve supported from home. Wives and parents that remain as pillars long after our warrior breed leave the Marines.
Butler waxed on and his humor subsided. He said something most important, “Even after you hang up the uniform, you can still continue to serve.”
Retirement ceremonies are part of military culture and tradition. They serve as memorable milestones along a path of service for veterans. Everyone leaving the military should have some type of ceremony that marks these essential points in life.
Some salty, hardened curmudgeons leaving active duty will scoff and say things like, “When I retire, I just want to slip out the back door.” I say, “Don’t do that!”
Our young Marines who serve and the families who endure the separation throughout a life of service to our nation deserve to see the importance of these celebrations — recognition for decades of service and to know that it mattered. Even if it may not seem important to all, it’s vital to our culture as Marines and soldiers.
When the time comes for your retirement, surround yourself with those you’ve served with, those who’ve supported you, and those who love you—it will be a vital part of your next step towards a life of continued service. For you and others.
There is no doubt in my mind that Slade will continue to serve. He embodies the truest sense of commitment, sacrifice, perseverance and that of lifelong leadership – a fine officer, a great warrior, and an even better friend. Semper Fi, brother.
Major Scott A. Huesing USMC (Ret) and Lt. Col. Stephen Mount USMC (Ret) were forward-deployed with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit in 2012.