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Marine making up for lost time with Iraq tour

24 May 2004 | Sgt. Jose L. Garcia

Cpl. Norman J. Sutphin knows that when it comes to being a Marine, it's not years, but the miles that matter.

The more than 10,000 miles he spanned from his home in North Carolina to here pale in comparison to the 12 years he spent outside of the Marine Corps

The 37-year-old High Point, N.C. Marine from Company L, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment is serving a tour in Iraq, the latest jaunt in a Marine career that began in June 1986.  That's when Sutphin first enlisted.  He left the Marine Corps in March of 1990 after meeting his wife.

"Once a Marine, always a Marine," Sutphin said of his broken service.  "The Marine Corps will always stay in your blood."

There was a time, though the machine gunner thought his days in uniform were over.

"I didn't want to get married and be in the military and live a grunt life," Sutphin said.  "I decided to give the civilian life a try.  I did not want to be a career Marine, so I decided to get out and get married."

His Marine Corps commitments recalled him during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1991.  Sutphin was recalled and spent six weeks training at Camp Pendleton, Calif.  Still, he never got to deploy.

"I was excited to be in the Marines again and wanted to serve in Desert Storm but after six weeks we were sent home," he explained.  "I was devastated and decided to try to get back in."

Sutphin said he talked to the recruiter several times but drawdowns in the force structure prevented his prior-service re-enlistment.  He gave up and returned to civilian life.

The time in between stints in uniform for Sutphin found him working in several jobs.  His tour as a Marine opened doors for jobs in construction work, a lumberyard, waste plant, and furniture factory. 

He landed a job laying underground power lines.  The money was good and he was able to support his wife and four children.  Still, he knew he wanted something more.
He took another job where he soon found his ticket back into the Corps.  He met Gunnery Sgt. John Zachman, a reservist from Greensborough, NC. 

Sutphin's sense of duty also tugged at him after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  Soon after, he raised his hand again and swore his oath again as a Marine.

"Gunny Z was a big factor for me coming back in," Sutphin explained.  "Plus I missed the Marine Corps and the civilian life, well ... it's not the same."

They both took a trip to the recruiting office and a year-half later after all the paperwork, he enlisted once again but this time into the reserves for a two-year contract.   

"You never think about coming back," Sutphin said. "When you get out, you get out and that's that." 

Sutphin now finds himself in Camp Al Asad participating in different convoys, along with providing security, conducting foot patrols, standing observation posts.  He's also taken part in operations that uncovered several cache of weapons.

It's not easy keeping up with the younger Marines.  Sutphin's at an age when most enlisted Marines are looking forward to retirement.  Instead, he and his fellow Marines joke about him being the oldest lance corporal when he first came back in.

"He's just one of the guys," said Cpl. Steven C. Boring, a 24-year-old from Maryville, Tenn.  "Younger guys look up to him. We call him grandpa as a joke and he just laughs.  He gets along with everyone from private to colonel."

Sutphin admits younger Marines see him as an older brother and he sees himself in a lot of them when he was their age.

Other say it's a quirky having an older noncommissioned officer.  Lance Cpl. Joshua A. Morris, a close friend of Sutphin's from Johnson City, Tenn., said some Marines they see Sutphin as a staff NCO.

"He should be a gunny or something.  It's weird," explained 21-year-old Morris. "He's a great person to go for help and good guy to hang out with.  I hope he stays with us for a long time."

"He is real good in schooling the young Marines in what to expect and what is normal," said Maj. Don R. Avant, 46, from Charlotte, N.C., and the commanding officer for Company L. "He definitely is a good mentor.  I'm very pleased to serve with him and have him in this unit."

Sutphin's coy about what his future plans are as a Marine.  He's soon got to decide if he's going to again re-enlist or shed his uniform once more. 

Still, he offered one hint.

"I'll hang around for a while and see what happens."