After more than 30 years of service, Sgt. Maj. James Roberts Jr. is hanging up his uniform for the last time.
What Roberts, sergeant major for Headquarters and Service Battalion, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific, leaves behind is a legacy of Marines who have learned and carry on his traditions of being a leader who truly cares about his troops, always remains positive and is never comfortable sitting behind a desk.
The Allendale, S.C., native may be best remembered for spending time with his Marines. Roberts recounts numerous instances when staff noncommissioned officers came to him and said, “I came by earlier, but you’re never in your office.”
“I think I walk the halls a lot,” Roberts said. “I’m always in someone else’s office, talking to the Marines, getting to know the Marines. I gotta stay in touch with them. If they have questions, I want to be there to answer them. I’ve always preferred being hands on.”
Growing up in a small town, Roberts described his early years as always having something to do. It was there that he learned a work ethic that propelled him through his career as a Marine. He joined the Marine Corps after watching a recruiter enter a convenience store he worked in as a teenager. Blown away by how the sergeant presented himself, Roberts took his first step toward becoming a Marine.
“I thought to myself, ‘man that’s a nice looking uniform. I want to be a Marine,’” he said. “Back then I didn’t think a whole lot about serving my country. I’d seen the commercials on TV, but what really did it was when I saw that Marine and that way he carried himself.”
Roberts enlisted as a field wireman in November 1980. He attended recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C.
One of the unique aspects of his career is that he never requested to be stationed anywhere. The Corps bounced him from duty stations on the East Coast to Japan. He never complained and made the best of where the Corps needed him.
One such occasion was in 1984. Shortly after arriving to Albany, Ga., Roberts learned his section was overmanned and would not be working in his section.
“They offered me a couple of different jobs,” he said chuckling. “I took assistant athletic director because it sounded better.”
It was during his time in Georgia that he decided to change his career field to utilities.
Roberts said he enjoyed doing his work as a utilities Marine because it made life better for Marines. He worked with water purification, generators, air conditioning systems, everything a unit needs to improve the quality of life for deployed Marines and in many occasions, essential to mission accomplishment.
But it took some time before he mastered his craft. Changing career fields as a sergeant required him to be humble and in many cases take advice and learn from his juniors, an experience that helped shape his leadership style today.
“Because I (changed career fields) as a sergeant, I had to rely on my lance corporals and corporals to correct me,” Roberts said. “They knew the job and I didn’t. That experience taught me to never lose touch with the Marines and to always have that level of communication. Sometimes, they just have a better way of doing it, that you haven’t thought about. It’s all about team work.”
A sentiment noticed by many of Marines he frequently speaks to.
“He was just driven,” said Elger Talley, a retired Marine who served with Roberts and now works as a civilian contractor with MarForPac. “He and I were staff sergeants together in Iwakuni, (Japan), and I just thought he was dynamic. He’s one of the top 10 Marines I’ve ever known. He was always well received, squared away. When I ran into him, working here, and saw that he was a sergeant major, I could see that. Even back then as a staff sergeant, I saw that he had it in him.”
“I’ve learned a lot from him because of his leadership and who he is as a man,” said Sgt. Diamond Robinson, MarForPac Operations Section administrative chief. “He’s impacted my life in a lot of ways. He’s very, very, very understanding. He’s not the kind of leader that hounds his Marines. He’s straight and to the point, but you can tell there’s some compassion. That he really cares about his Marines. Just the way he carries himself and all the activities he does outside of the Marine Corps. You can tell he’s a man of morals and values and that’s something to look up to.”
With his retirement ceremony scheduled for April 16, Roberts has taken advantage of the time he has left to pass his secrets of success to the Marines under his charge.
“Be where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there, in the right uniform and in the right frame of mind. Keep a positive attitude with everything you do, and everything you do should be positive. You gotta embrace change. If you’re plan is to just do four years and get out, that’s fine but take the opportunities to do certain things you thought you couldn’t do. The Marine Corps is a great way of life, ohh and one more thing, save your money,” he said grinning from ear to ear.
“We can’t stay (in the Corps) forever. We have to prepare for the day we take off the uniform.”
Roberts officially retires Sept. 1 and will dedicate the rest of his life to his college education, mentoring at risk teenagers and working on his golf swing.