COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, MS, UNITED STATES
Story by Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb
Reilly used hard work, brute force and creative problem solving together to perform exceptionally well throughout his career in the Marines and Air Force. His willingness to volunteer and work hard no matter where he found himself allows him to now teach Airmen their paths are not defined by their career field.
Once a Marine, always a Marine
“I came in initially and had to be a reservist, my parents didn’t want me to go on active duty at first,” Reilly explained. “I went to boot camp loving it, I hated the fact I was a reservist, everyone was getting orders around the Marine Corps and I was going back to my home in Phoenix.”
After returning home, he spent the next nine months training to be a combat engineer only to find he was actually going to be a heavy equipment operator in the combat engineer career field.
He was able to transition to active duty in 1990 where he was assigned to the 1st Landing Support Battalion in Camp Pendleton, California.
“Shortly thereafter in August of that year, the first Gulf War kicked off,” Reilly said.
He volunteered and became a part of the fight in Saudi Arabia, with no infrastructure and a handful of help, he would spend 18 hours a day on a forklift building a forward operating base. He spent nine months in Saudi Arabia, working 18-hour days and left a month after the ground war ended.
“I always did my best,” Reilly said. “Just because I wanted to be infantry Marine doesn’t mean I’m going to give up as a heavy equipment operator.”
His mentality is what has always led Reilly to raise his hand for any opportunity that may get him closer to the fight and to the front lines. He came home only to volunteer himself to deploy to Somalia in 1992 where he supported the 7th Motor Team as a M60 rear security gunner.
“One day we were coming back through a place we were taking fire and the whole convoy stops,” Reilly said. “[My gunnery sergeant] jumped out and screamed up and down the vehicles ‘Leave the drivers and the gunners, everyone else dismount, I’m tired of getting shot at from this village so we’re going to sweep it’ and I was disappointed because I had to stay and protect the convoy.”
While in the convoy, the gunners and drivers all sat complaining about having to sit out on the action, waiting for the town to erupt into a firefight, but the town stayed silent.
Coming from the other direction, a vehicle drove directly at the convoy with weapons in their possession, so Reilly and another gunner put endless amounts of bullets into the truck, eliminating the threat.
“I’ll tell you one thing, I’ve volunteered and volunteered and volunteered for absolutely everything. For every good detail there was a terrible detail,” Reilly said. “If there was any way to get me closer to the fight or get me off the heavy equipment, that’s what I would want to do.”
One day, he volunteered to search for vehicle parts to repair a Marine vehicle. From compound to compound, he and his team looked for what they needed when they happened to stumble upon a maintenance facility of some sort.
“We popped open a chained door and saw a room maybe 20 by 20 feet, full of ammunition, weapons and two Tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided missiles,” Reilly said. “I remember tiptoeing around the room and calling out what I found. By this time everyone is at the door, so we start slowly handing stuff out and loaded it into our trucks. All of a sudden, we had incoming rounds.”
During the firefight, a gunner was stumbling with his weapon. The Marine had loaded his ammunition upside down, Reilly reacted, taking the Marine’s place, and returned fire so the team could get away safely.
“Right there it clicked for me that; when other people are afraid or weren’t thinking clearly, I was good,” Reilly said. “I could make clear decisions. That was where I was meant to be.”
Pick up the pieces
Shortly after Somalia, he was sent to Sergeant School after his promotion to E-5. In Sergeant School, he called his assignment manager and told them he’d like to be a drill instructor.
“It’s a lot of hours and it takes a different mentality,” Reilly said. “I was sent to drill instructor school after a year as a platoon sergeant in Japan. I learned a lot about myself, I grew up in some ways, realized some of my shortcomings.”
He became a drill instructor in 1995 and remembers fondly training troops day after day for months at a time. His training was intense and he was regarded amongst his peers as a good fit in the drill instructor community.
Reilly became a senior drill instructor after five platoons and by his seventh platoon he was the company senior drill instructor. He was remarked to be the first E-5 Drill instructor at the highly selective Drill Instructor School.
He and his team were working hard pushing recruits through the program like usual, but a few drill instructors went overboard leading to allegations against the team and eventually replacing them all.
He went from zero to hero, he explained, and found himself sitting around working a boring 5-3 duty.
“What do you do when you crash,” he said. “You have two options; you give up or you get back into the fight.”
Reilly dusted himself off, earning a spot as a receiving barracks chief drill instructor and returned to the fleet, earning an early promotion to staff sergeant and on track to promote to gunnery sergeant.
Staying in the fight at 30
“I was really thinking if I could just be an infantry Marine, I would love that,” he said. “I love running around with a rifle in my hand, I love the tactical level stuff. I had a discussion with my wife about how I didn’t feel challenged and didn’t see any interest in the future … I wasn’t going to be sent to do anything cool, I was 30 years old. She asked ‘what if you could do anything in the world?’”
He found a website about Air Force special operations jobs and found combat control, which he said sounded like the perfect fit for him.
“It had everything I wanted,” Reilly said. “I also saw the requirements and knew I could do everything except the swimming portion, so I found a friend who would help me train and we trained at the base pool.”
Around 30 years old and roughly 13 years into his Marine career, as his friends would describe him, a die-hard Marine, he denied his re-enlistment under his own advice he had been given to disgruntled subordinates.
“Maybe the Marine Corps you’re looking for is not in the Marines, maybe it’s in the SEALs, the Army, the Navy, or the Air Force,” he would say.
When he went to the recruiter, he was told he was going to have to wait for a slot to open up and then he’d be sent to training.
“I sat and watched the war start on my couch that September when the trade towers fell,” Reilly said. “I said, ‘Holy shit what have I done? I’m not in the military.’ There I was sitting on my couch as a civilian, and I wouldn’t even be able to help in this war for three years because of the training I’d have to complete.”
Aim for the top always
During those years where Reilly wasn’t able to be on the front lines, he was still top of his class in just about every realm of training. Once he was finished, it didn’t take him long to get back down range.
He was a part of numerous deployments over the following years in Libya, Columbia and Afghanistan where he built airfields from scratch; called in the largest heavy equipment drop since World War II; and attached with other special tactics units to partner with communities to weed out terrorist groups or threats.
From earning a Silver Star and Purple Heart for his ability and unrelenting service during a mission on April 11, 2005, to a Bronze Star with Valor, and many other noteworthy missions, Reilly had no doubt the battlefield was the place he wanted to be.
He has been recognized with numerous awards for his leadership and ability to lead as an NCO in the combat controller career field and in the Air Force Special Operations Command community.
He was step promoted to master sergeant in the hospital after his son was born. His only request was to stay the team leader so he could continue training controllers and deploying with them.
“I always wanted to be challenged and invested in,” Reilly said. “I was on track to have a great career in the Marines, but it wasn’t the career I wanted. CCT is what allowed me to find what I was made of and what I was made for.”
From the start of his career, Reilly was firm in his beliefs, but not stubborn enough to dismiss the need to grow and evolve as a leader and team member. Through every rank, he said he has always tried to be involved in a training course, an exercise, or a deployment. His determination to try new things and his persistence brought him to where he is today, and he noted he still continues to learn.
“Your role is to be the best at whatever you do in your team,” he said. “If everyone is the best at what they bring to the team, there will be no shortcomings when the time to complete the mission arises.”
Leading and military service are not something everyone is cut out to do. His decisions were made by him to better himself. He now urges young Airmen to make their career what they want it to be, reminding them at the end of the day, it’s their choice to attempt to reach their full potential.
“You can’t see the future,” Reilly said. “Taking a guy from heavy equipment operator in the Marines and fast forwarding 30 years and that same guy is going to be ending his career on an assignment as the Presidential Airlift Group superintendent. Nobody could have guessed that.”
The original story is posted HERE.
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