MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- The name “Iron Mike” resonates throughout the U.S. military, referencing statues and servicemen who hold a distinguishing legacy. Even the 1st Marine Division, the Corps’ oldest and most decorated division has its own Iron Mike, Sgt. Maj. Mike D. Mervosh. The decorated combat veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam still makes appearances around Camp Pendleton, but according to one seasoned sergeant major, he won’t be the only one holding the title.
No other Marine has spent as much time in 1st Marine Division as Sgt. Maj. Michael L. Kufchak, and he said he will become the division’s self-declared “Iron Mike of the 21st Century” after he retires on April 5. With the endurance to put in 80-hour work weeks, a loud and sometimes brash voice, and recent battle scars proving his mettle, Kufchak’s proclamation hasn’t been contested.
The division sergeant major began his career in 1982 as a guard at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. After being promoted to corporal, Kufchak received his first assignment to the 1st Marine Division, where he would spend most of the next 28 years of his life.
He began as a mortar squad leader and forward observer with 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in 1985. Since then, Kufchak took on many different roles throughout division units, including platoon sergeant and company first sergeant. He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as the sergeant major of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, and Regimental Combat Team 7, respectively.
Kufchak’s career culminated with his assignment as the sergeant major of 1st Marine Division in April 2011, taking over for now Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Micheal P. Barrett.
His 31-year career took him from being an “apprehensive” recruit at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., to overseeing more than 25,000 Marines serving in the Corps’ largest and most decorated division, known by its logo, the Blue Diamond. He said the Marine Corps gave him the discipline and maturity to excel at his job, but more importantly, the experience to be a leader of Marines.
“(The Marine Corps) developed me into a caring leader - an involved leader,” said Kufchak, a native of Youngstown, Ohio. “Every Marine and every sailor has that very same opportunity. Nobody is exempt. What you put into it is what you’ll get out of it.”
Leading from the Front
As a young noncommissioned officer, Kufchak learned the importance of leading by example. Kufchak served under a first sergeant who he said refused to spend time with the unit. Kufchak said whenever he and his fellow Marines were in the field, the first sergeant was usually nowhere to be seen. Instead of being with the Marines, or “trooping the lines,” the first sergeant would stay in his office.
“He didn’t interact with us,” Kufchak recalled. “He never asked me how I was doing, didn’t care about my family, and was a bit more concerned about himself.”
Kufchak said he didn’t want to be like that first sergeant. He later served at 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, under Sgt. Maj. Greg Grizzle, who inspired and mentored him from the rank of staff sergeant and beyond. Grizzle’s professionalism, calm demeanor and intelligence served as a model for Kufchak as he rose through the ranks and took on greater responsibilities.
“He was everything I wanted to be,” Kufchak said. “The men loved him, and they didn’t love him because he was giving them time off. He was working them into the ground, but he motivated and inspired those Marines to want to do their jobs and be as proficient at their (military occupational specialties) as they possibly could. That’s what inspired me – when you could motivate people in that fashion instead of rewarding them with time off or money. He never rewarded like that at all. I wanted to be like that guy.”
Kufchak’s efforts did not go unnoticed. Colonel Patrick G. Looney was the battalion executive officer when Kufchak was the Bravo Company gunnery sergeant. The two later deployed to Iraq with 3rd Bn., 5th Marines.
“He was a squared away, hard-charging company gunnery sergeant,” Looney said. “Hard as woodpecker lips, demanding of his subordinates, but took care of everyone.”
For Kufchak, leading from the front was an integral part of inspiring troops, especially in combat. As the 3rd Bn., 5th Marines sergeant major, Kufchak deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in December of 2005. The battalion operated near the city of Fallujah, where improvised explosive devices posed a vicious threat to the Marines. Whenever they traveled, Kufchak insisted on riding in the lead vehicle of a convoy.
“I would never send the Marines or direct them to take us anywhere that I was not willing to go,” Kufchak said. “I always felt it important for me to be in that lead vehicle all the time. I thought that was kind of a calming sense for the Marines that were in our five (vehicle) configuration. That (Marines would think), ‘Hey, if the sergeant major’s up front there, everything’s gonna be fine. He’s not afraid to be up there. None of us have anything to be afraid of.’”
On May 21, 2006, Kufchak and the command section were headed back to Camp Fallujah after conducting a site survey in Habbaniyah when an IED exploded, sending the brunt impact of two 155 mm artillery shells through the up-armored Humvee he was riding in. The blast injured everyone in the vehicle and killed the turret gunner, Lance Cpl. Benito A. Ramirez, a 21-year-old native of Edinburg, Texas.
Kufchak said he remembers fragments of the incident. Shrapnel showered his face, piercing through his ballistic glasses and severing a nerve in his right eye, blinding it. Bloody and disoriented, Kufchak wiped blood from his left eye to see his flaming vehicle running out of control into a field before slowing to a halt.
Kufchak was moved to the surgical unit at Camp Taqaddum, where he remembers Looney standing over him at the operating table looking very concerned.
Looney, now the commanding officer of the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., recalls the day was very difficult for him as a commander.
“His injury was one of many that happened that day,” Looney said. “I was devastated. I lost a Marine more importantly, and I lost my right hand man at the same time.”
Kufchak’s injury was severe enough for him to be sent back to the United States to recover. His wife, Barbara, picked him up at Naval Hospital, Camp Pendleton, and she said she was nervous until she saw him. She gave him a big hug and took him home.
He endured several more procedures including readjusting his nose and some plastic surgery, said Barbara, a native of Santa Ana, Calif. He didn’t complain to her about his condition or pain, though he had bad headaches and was noticeably more quiet and less social, she added.
Though noticeably more concerned about the other Marines than himself at the time, Kufchak clearly remembers the difficulties of his recovery.
He attended physical therapy and medical appointments while continuing to support his Marines from back in the States. His wife sometimes drove him to work, and he often needed to lie down during the day from exhaustion. Though he struggled a bit physically, Kufchak was most unhappy about leaving his Marines, Barbara said.
“The worst feeling in the world for me was knowing I was back home in the continental United States in the safe warm arms of America, and my battalion, the men, the Marines, the sailors … were all still in harm’s way, and we were still losing men at that time too,” Kufchak said. “It just didn’t sit well with me, and I felt very guilty … I felt that I still needed to contribute; to support my Marines from afar.”
Looney said Kufchak’s hard work immediately raised the level of service at the remain-behind element of the battalion, greatly enhancing the care given to the Marines and sailors back home.
“He was a guy that had first-hand knowledge of the things that were going on,” Looney said. “He was one of the first guys back. He was able to interact with the families in the greater Pendleton area and respond to their issues. My right hand man knew what I thought, how I worked and what I was thinking.”
Though effective on the job, administrating for the battalion wasn’t enough for Kufchak to secure a future in the Marine Corps. Despite his efforts, Kufchak still had to confront the issue of possible medical retirement, he said. At the very least, doctors said he would probably never be able to serve in the infantry again.
“I wouldn’t accept that at all,” Kufchak said. “There was no question in my mind. The only thing that I consciously accepted was the fact that I wasn’t going to sit around and lick my wounds and be the victim. It was more important to me to get recovered as fast as I possibly could because I still had men that were in harm’s way.”
As part of Kufchak’s recovery, he had to prove himself by meeting annual training requirements. Marines can be granted medical exceptions for the rifle range, but Kufchak didn’t ask for one. He said it was necessary for an infantry sergeant major to continue to qualify on the rifle range with the M-16 service rifle. Blind in the right eye, and with much difficulty, Kufchak learned how to shoot left-handed, eventually qualifying as an “expert,” the highest shooting qualification class.
“They were trying to put him out to pasture, and he said ‘No,’” Barbara said. “He proved them wrong, and he was fine. From that point on, everything kind of turned.”
Into the sunset
Kufchak later served as the RCT-7 sergeant major and deployed to Helmand province, Afghanistan, in 2010 before assuming his role as the 1st Marine Division sergeant major. Though he will soon retire, he continues to lead from the front. At 51 years old, he normally works 14 hours or more in addition to his one-hour commute from his home in Corona, Calif. He actively visits units throughout the division and makes his presence felt.
Barbara said her husband is practically at work 24 hours a day, and when he’s at home he has his BlackBerry cellphone to keep him occupied.
“I can’t wait till he gets rid of the damn thing.” Barbara said. “Even when he comes home, he’s at work. Everything is all about taking care of the Marines and the job. That’s his personality.”
Kufchak’s enthusiasm and energy impressed Master Sgt. William J. Swiger, the staff secretary chief with 1st Marine Division. He said he met Kufchak three years ago while they were deployed to Afghanistan.
“He was a ball of fire,” said Swiger, a native of Pompano Beach, Fla. “He still is. He seems like he has one speed and that is it. He doesn’t stop. He’s personal. He’s got that genuine care and concern, and he’s always positive.”
Kufchak said the Marine Corps allows him to be a part of something bigger than himself. The bravery and hard work of his Marines and sailors motivate him to give his best effort and continue to lead from the front.
“These guys were staring into the eyes of the adversity and fearlessly going after ‘em,” Kufchak said. “Just brave men. I always wanted to be part of this team. I didn’t feel like I could let them down.”
Kufchak said he wants to help his Marines and be involved with them as much as he can following retirement. He will continue his service as the new Iron Mike and, if he’s anything like “Iron Mike Mervosh,” he won’t be going away any time soon.