CAMP HANSEN, Okinawa, Japan -- Marcus Aurelius, a roman emperor who reigned from 161 to 180 A.D., once said, “When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love…”
This famous quote became a personal mission statement for Sgt. Maj. Gonzalo A. “Butch” Vasquez during his 30 years in the Marine Corps, a career that concluded during his post and relief and retirement ceremony with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit at the Camp Hansen parade deck, June 6.
Vasquez was born Nov. 21, 1965 and grew up in Corozal Town, Belize. At the age of 12, he was inspired by John Wayne in the movie “Sands of Iwo Jima” to travel to the United States to join the Marine Corps. He enlisted on April 12, 1984, and stepped on the yellow footsteps at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego a month later. He later would go on to become a reconnaissance Marine, with his first assignment here on Okinawa with 3rd Recon Battalion at Camp Schwab.
He quickly rose through the ranks and the billets by serving in numerous leadership roles, from a team leader to 1st Force Recon’s company gunnery sergeant, I Marine Expeditionary Force’s Special Operations Training Group chief instructor, a dive supervisor and a company first sergeant. He has had countless deployments to places like Panama, Honduras, Saudi Arabia, The Netherlands and Australia, among others. He has also supported Operation Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom and most recently, Operation Damayan in the Philippines.
Out of his many roles and experiences, Vasquez’s three favorite billets were serving as assistant detachment commander in the American embassies in Cameroon and Luxembourg, the director of the Staff Non-Commissioned Officer Academy and the 31st MEU’s sergeant major.
“During (Marine Security Guard) duty I met my wife, visited many countries and was promoted to staff sergeant meritoriously,” said Vasquez. “Being the director of the academy allowed me to stimulate, educate and motivate many sailors, Marines, airmen and soldiers between the ranks of E-4 and E-8. As for being the MEU’s sergeant major, I had the chance to teach, coach and mentor a huge number of Marines and sailors.”
His nickname, “Butch,” came from his father, and when he first introduced himself to his new Marine brothers, the name stuck.
“I prefer people not butchering my first name, which is why I named my son Gabriel; we still share the same initials,” said Vasquez.
With his active duty time in the Corps complete after three dedicated decades of service, Vasquez impressed superiors and subordinates alike with his unselfishness, engaging speeches and his positive attitude.
“To me he’s like the grandfather of all the Marines,” said Master Sgt. Ivan Collozosanchez, the 31st MEU’s headquarters commandant, and a native of Huachuca City, Arizona. “He gives respect first, he’s always full of energy, he’s ready to motivate Marines; the man would give the shirt off his back no matter the cost.”
Vasquez’s charm is best seen when he passionately reads certificates aloud during award or promotion ceremonies. Or when he eloquently explains his love for Popeye’s fried chicken during his renowned A-to-Z leadership brief. Or maybe it’s because he is a walking thesaurus and would relentlessly bombard Marines with bursts of similar words with purposeful meanings.
Vasquez would also be seen carrying a small black backpack wherever he goes, although the contents remained a mystery to this day.
“I’ve seen him pull out binders and a day planner out of the pack,” said Maj. Phillip A. Tweed, a native of Orem, Utah. “I don’t think there’s a dumbbell inside or it would have thumped when he sets it down. I’ll give that to the Lance Corporal Underground, because if he was carrying (a dumbbell), I wouldn’t put it past him.”
Vasquez isn’t just a magnanimous entity while on duty; he’s just as high-spirited and passionate out of uniform. He frequently volunteers his time to multiple civilian programs and activities such as the Boy Scouts of America.
“For quite some time he served in various positions with a Boy Scout group where he mentored the youth,” said Tweed. “Even after receiving the Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal, he continues to volunteer, influencing others outside of the Corps as he (much as he) does inside it.”
Angie M. Fortune, Vasquez's wife, knows the Corps is losing a Marine in its ranks but is happy for her husband’s retirement.
“Every time he was deployed, I was wondering how much longer I have to hold my breath,” said Fortune. “I can finally exhale.”
As part of the post and relief and retirement ceremony, a regimental-size parade that included the III MEF band was held for the hundreds of spectators in the audience. Friends and coworkers from across the island were present, from Lt. Gen. John E. Wissler, the commanding general of III MEF and Marine Corps Forces - Japan, to U.S. Army Special Forces and Japanese Ground Self-Defense personnel. Vasquez relinquished his position of senior enlisted advisor to his replacement, Sgt. Maj. James Roberts, before being retired from active duty.
“It's a great way to end, being a sergeant major of a (Marine Air-Ground Task Force),” said Vasquez. “I’m one lucky guy – I got to live out my childhood dream of being a United States Marine. And I always wanted to end my career with an operational unit that's exciting and dynamic, and out of all the other MEU's (in the Marine Corps), I chose the most exciting and dynamic one.”