Lance Cpl. Andrew Luna

by Matthew M. Burke
Stars and Stripes

When Lance Cpl. Andrew Luna put on his flak vest and Kevlar every morning at Okinawa’s Jungle Warfare Training Center, he was an emotionless man on a mission, a slave to Marine Corps doctrine.

His dream is to become an officer.

He doesn’t come from a military family; he said he joined the Corps because it looked “badass” in a TV ad — plain and simple. He was within an arm’s length of graduating the Corps’ Officer Candidates School in 2011 when a fractured tibia sidelined him, he said. After a year of recovery, the dream did not fade; he just found a less-traveled path to achieve it.

Luna joined the Marines in 2013. Fast-forward nearly two years, and he is an enlisted grunt with 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment’s India Company, 3rd Platoon, 1st Squad. He’s hoping to make the transition from enlisted to officer – becoming what is commonly referred to in the Marine Corps lexicon as a “mustang.”

“You can lead enlisted men a lot better knowing what they go through,” Luna said. “It’s a longer process, but you get more respect and you rank up faster. So far, it’s been the best choice, no matter how difficult it sometimes gets.”

After shrugging off the sting of the pay cut, Luna is learning the ropes under seasoned enlisted leaders like Staff Sgt. Mark Mlachak, a former drill instructor; squad leader Sgt. Donald Horn; and team leader Cpl. Logan Hampton.

Because of his lofty goals, Luna takes things a lot more seriously than some in the platoon.

“Luna is really eager to learn,” Hampton said. “He’s constantly coming to me and asking me like, ‘Hey, can you show me some of this, show me some of that?’ ”

When Luna and the 3-2 Marines arrived at the JWTC, there was no way to be prepared for the unforgiving terrain, with its thick undergrowth, mud and sheer rock faces, and the constant rain that plagued their weeklong training.

“The weather was awful, the terrain was horrendous, but it was pretty cool,” Luna said, flashing his Cheshire cat smile. “We learned a lot — survival, what to do in those environments, how to navigate. … It’s much different than what we’re used to. So this new environment training taught how different it would be to patrol, and how much you need to take into consideration of what’s around you.”

Luna found it exhilarating to take on the treacherous hasty rappels even though it was his first time barreling down the slick sides of steep cliffs without a safety harness.

“This was pretty much a new experience for us all,” he said.

Luna’s quiet determination was a boon for his team on the E-Course – the arduous final challenge at the center. His squad was one of the platoon’s top performers.

“That was mostly because everyone was completely working together, moving as fast as they can, listening to others who had a little bit more knowledge about that environment,” Luna said.

For the lance corporal, getting used to operating in the jungle, adjusting his weapon to be ready while laboring uphill in thick mud, and carrying a teammate on a homemade stretcher were the toughest challenges. He said he plans to use those lessons to become a stronger leader.

“I have purpose and a mission here,” he said.

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