CORBIN — Neighbors, May 29, 2010
By Bobbie Poynter / Community Editor
The son of a Kentucky coal miner, Johnny R. McKnight set his sights early on joining the military. In fact, he always wanted to be a marine.
“When I first saw that uniform, I knew that I wanted it, said McKnight. “I just didn’t know it would be that hard to earn it. I knew that they were the toughest, and I always liked being challenged, and I can say that this has been a real challenge.”
True to the promise he made to himself as a young child, Gunnery Sergeant Johnny R. McKnight, now 38 years old, joined the United States Marine Corps in August 1991.
Gunny - as the marine is affectionately known by friends and family - has spent the last three years at the Armed Forces Recruiting Station in London speaking to young men and women about what it means to be one of “The Few, The Proud.”
GySgt McKnight has seen a good share of the world, serving as the platoon sergeant in Okinawa providing communications for other battalions deployed throughout Asia.
But as is expected of a marine, when the need arose, he joined more than 2,000 other marines in the 7th Marine Regiment and deployed to war zones including Afghanistan, where he spent months gathering intelligence so he could come back and train other marines.
Serving as an infantryman in Somalia, the marine lost one of his best friends, Domingo Arroyo, when they were ambushed on a night patrol. McKnight himself was awarded the Purple Heart after that tour.
“I got stabbed a few times and shot in the leg,” he explained matter-of-factly. “but, that was nothing compared to the loss of a friend.”
In war-torn Somalia, the marines were there to help restore peace in a country ripped apart by Civil War. Gunny’s unit was tasked with helping get the convoys of U.N. and C.A.R.E supply trucks to the starving civilian population.
In Iraq, Gunny trained Iraqi soldiers in infantry tactics and hand-to-hand combat. During that time, his team lived amongst the Iraqi soldiers.
“I know it sounds strange,” said Gunny, “but the people in Iraq worshiped the ground we walked on. I remember one time being the only American on patrol with 30 Iraqi soldiers. It was like I had a bulls-eye stuck to my back. I was scared to death.”
It was the women and children of the villages who ultimately kept the American marine grounded as they continually ran up and shook his hand shouting “Thank you, George Bush!”
After nearly 20 years with the United States Marine Corps, GySgt McKnight has earned a total of 11 medals and seven ribbons including the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, National Defense, and two medals for the Global War on Terrorism.
Of all the commendations bestowed on a serviceman, as a marine, the Combat Action Ribbon, actually means the most to Gunny McKnight.
“It says that we’ve been there, done that,” he said. “It’s not that easy to get. It’s proof that you have received and return fire in combat, and there has to be absolute proof before you receive the ribbon.”
Simply put, the marine helped put another page into the Marine Corps history book.
Recruiting wasn’t Gunny’s first choice of assignments after combat.
“The first time I was ‘voluntold,’ laughed Gunny. All I ever wanted to do was be a drill instructor. I thought it was the most extreme marine there is, the trainer that makes marines.”
However, Gunny accepted the appointment as an Armed Forces recruiter, and soon saw it as a special duty assignment.
Gunny explained. “I’m the first living example of a marine the these kids come face to face with. I want them to see a true human being, not the people’s perception of brainwashed robots.”
As a recruiter, Gunny is looking for mentally, morally and physically qualified candidates, those who aren’t in trouble with the law, have either graduated high school or are on track to graduate.
There are numerous rewards for joining the Armed Forces, including educational and professional opportunities; however, GySgt McKnight will not sugarcoat the true job of a marine. He knows that any recruit that sits at his desk could end up paying the ultimate price of combat.
His only assurance to a potential recruit’s family is that he or she will be in good hands, because joining the marines is like a joining a family, and family takes care of its own.
Gunny tells each and every family, “It ain’t no sniper’s bullet, it ain’t no roadside bomb; only God knows when your time’s up.”
As proud as he is to be a marine, GySgt McNight is also proud of his membership in several of the local veteran’s service organizations, including the American Legion Post 16, AMVETS Post 116, and the Tri-County Veterans Post 911, all in London, and the VFW Post 3167 in Williamsburg.
“I like hanging out with other veterans,” said Gunny. I just feel accepted. I admire these veteran’s organizations and what they give to the community. Being a member helps me show my loyalty, support and appreciation.”
Gunny believes that every service member should sign up with a service organization even while still on active duty.
“It’s a place to clear your mind. Vets have a tendency to ball a lot of stuff up inside. Sometimes, it’s just good to be able to talk to a fellow veteran because they understand. My personal heroes are the Viet Nam veterans because of what they suffered both during and after the war.
“Besides, there’s a plethora of veteran’s benefits that I didn’t know anything about. These organizations stay up on that information just so that they can pass it on.”
This and every Memorial Day GySgt McNight extends his support and thanks to the military service organizations and the communities who take the time to organize memorial services for our country’s fallen heroes.
“I personally think Memorial Day should be celebrated every day,” said Gunny. “Our country is quick to forget how we got here, and some don’t seem to realize that others had to lay down their lives so that we could live in a free nation.”
And here, Gunny quoted a never-forgotten quote written by a marine in Vietnam on a sea rations box: “Freedom has a flavor that the protected will never know.”
Semper Fi (always faithful) is the motto every marine lives by. In less than two years, GySgt Johnny R. McKnight will have served 20 years and can retire. Even so, he will continue to live the marine’s code.
“Semper Fi is a code to live by,” said the marine. “Usually it helps you stop and think before doing something, whether right or wrong.”
When asked what his plans for retirement might be, Gunny could only laugh, “I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.” Then a serious look passed over his face as he said. “There is one thing I know I will never NOT be, and that’s a marine.”
Gunnery Sergeant Johnny R. McKnight, was born in Cumberland, Kentucky, to Sharon and Johnny McNight, Sr. He has three children, Brittany, 14, Jared, 8, and Madison, 10 months.PLUS MUCH MORE!