Military Fools
Remembering the Master Guns

Related Links
Discussion Boards

By aegamemnon
October 24, 2007

Posts selected for this feature rarely stand alone. They are usually a part of an ongoing thread, and are out of context when presented here. The material should be read in that light. How are these posts selected? Click here to find out and nominate a post yourself!

I miss the Master Guns. It's been almost three months since he died and I really miss him. I still can't believe he's gone. Master Gunnery Sergeant Nicholas J. Formosa was larger than life. His Marine Corps career spanned 37 years of service on active duty beginning in the closing days of the war in Vietnam through Desert Storm and two more tours in Iraq, where he participated in the invasion in 2003 and the battle for Fallujah in November 2004. Master Guns had been a reservist since finishing his initial active duty enlistment in 1972 but he seemed to have spent his career waiting to pounce on opportunities to be mobilized for active duty overseas. He was a jack of all trades in his hometown of Philadelphia and knew virtually everyone and everything that went one there. He was the son of an electrician and learned his father's trade. Nick met his future wife Christina when they were both 12 years old, they married as teenagers and have a son who is now 26. When he was not in pursuit of some active duty orders he worked in security at the Philadelphia Mint. Blue Dress Alphas were for the Birthday Ball and Memorial Day but he lived for the chance to go overseas on an operational deployment.

When I first met him almost two years ago he reminded me of someone I'd read about but I could not put my finger on who it was until recently. As I reflect on the time that I spent with him it's clear that his eccentricity and grandfatherly presence reminded me of the stories I had read about another icon of the Marine Corps from an earlier era, Master Gunnery Sergeant Leland "Lou" Diamond. By coincidence, Nick was born just a few weeks before Lou died. Like Lou Diamond, Nick Formosa was unmistakable even from a distance. Marines and locals out in town recognized his motorcycle with the custom mounted Stars and Stripes, Marine Corps, and POW&MIA flags on the back. If there was one Marine in the midst of 500 who was wearing a boonie cover instead of the standard naval blocked cover authorized for wear in garrison the odds were good that that Marine was Master Guns Formosa.

It was dumb luck that he came to work for me in an ad hoc billet created to support a convoy and mounted patrolling trainer. I had a new training simulator that was fielded rapidly to address the growing number of casualties inflicted among Marines in Iraq in ambushes. There was no similar virtual environment trainer like the Virtual Combat Convoy Trainer (VCCT) and I needed a Staff NCO in Charge with recent operational experience running convoys in Iraq to run the simulator and develop the program of instruction for it. Then Master Sergeant Formosa answered what amounts to a help wanted add for Marine Reservists posted on the reserve duty on line (RDOL) website. He accepted mobilization orders that sent him 2500 miles from home and family after deploying twice in the past two years.

I was prepared to accept just about anyone with a rocker on their shoulder to do the job but the experience, wisdom, and insight that came with Master Sergeant Formosa was more than I could have hoped for. I learned some months later when reading an award citation for actions during Operation al Fajr that his truck platoon logged over 90,000 miles on the unfriendly roads of al Anbar province in 2004-2005. He wasn't a computer technician and the operation of the 96 networked computers under the hood of the VCCT were something that he was happy to delegate to the two junior Marines that he recruited to serve with him from the 6th Engineer Support Battalion and the field support representatives from Lockheed Martin.

Master Guns Formosa was dyslexic by his own declaration but was an avid reader and even more avid listener. He collected stories and discussed TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures) with every Marine who had recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan and then smoked a few cigarettes while he decided what it meant. In 2005 "the book" on Convoy Operations for the Marine Corps had only recently been revised in response to the evolution of IED ambushes and the tactics of the Ba'athists and al Qaeda guerrillas in western Iraq but for the most part the book was taught in classrooms and practiced in live fire training. The VCCT was a new training medium and one that is still viewed with skepticism by many Marines as it appears to resemble a really expensive networked video game than conventional field training. Master Guns Formosa's dedication, commitment, and creativity removed any doubt that the VCCT was REAL training. Awareness of the VCCT and other training simulators at Twentynine Palms spread by word of mouth and units that got a taste of it could not get enough training time in the sim. Master Guns and the two Staff Sergeants working for him and three FSRs were soon working seven days a week from morning till evening to meet the demands of the training audience.

Shortly after Master Guns reported for duty we discovered that we had a friend in common in the person of the former OpsO from 3d Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. I knew our mutual friend through Church and Master Guns truck platoon had supported his 3d LAR Marines during the battle of Fallujah in November 2004. When I told him that Master Sergeant Formosa was my new training chief he raised an eyebrow and replied, "Which one, the smiling fatherly one or the raving lunatic?" He said that during the time they served in combat he wondered if Master Guns wasn't a little bit on the bi-polar side because he was calm and relaxed in the midst of chaos and stress but would quickly become energized and "animated" if he saw something that struck him as evidence of a complacent attitude among the Marines. As I got to know him I observed his judicious use of wrath as an instructor to get the attention of Marines who needed to learn a lesson that would save their life in combat.

He adored kids and they adored him, especially my two daughters. On occasion I would go in to the office a little late so that I could drop the girls off at school myself and I made it a point to stop by the PX to get them a doughnut before dropping them off. Master Guns would usually be standing out front smoking a cigarette, drinking his cup of coffee, and talking with or squaring away young Marines as they walked by. My six and eight year old would tell him the news of the day as they ate a doughnut and he would give them his undivided attention. We ran into him one evening at dinner out at Ramona's when my oldest daughter was taking donations for some charity fundraiser. She ran over to his table as soon as she recognized him and asked if he would sponsor her in the read-a-thon. He put a $20 bill in her collection box and she was so excited she could hardly speak but I think that there was even more satisfaction on his face for seeing her reaction.

I was always amused at some of Master Guns Formosa's habits. He punctuated at least one sentence in every conversation with "Praise the Lord!" On almost every meeting or phone call there would be a pregnant pause followed by "How are you doing? Are you doing all right?" He had a funny habit upon parting company of saying, "You be careful now, you hear?" that reminded me of the precinct sergeant on Hill Street Blues who ended every shift brief with "Let's be careful out there." His frame of mind seemed to be almost as if he were always doing pre-combat checks and inspections before exiting a bunker in the midst of a firefight going one outside even when it was just another hot sunny day in the Mojave Desert.

He knew better. Less than a month before he died Master Guns was hit at an intersection while riding his motorcycle, by a driver who ran a stop sign. Though he was knocked unconscious and had a stiff neck he was otherwise unscathed. It was hard to believe that there had even been a collision as there was no evidence of it to be seen. I got to the hospital about two hours after he arrived and was just in time to pick him up and take drive him home. The only casualty of the incident were his cammies that the EMTs had cut off of him while keeping his spine immobilized until they could get him X-rayed. It seemed that he was living a charmed life.

A junior Marine who served with Master Guns in 2003 posted this recollection of him in the memorial guest book after his death.

The night of the invasion in 2003 I was scared and terrified of the unknown. Artillery was pounding, missiles were launching and the only light I could see came from cannon flashes in front of us and the (then) Gunny's cigerette. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Kid, you got nothing to worry about. The battle field is the holiest place on earth. You will never stand any closer to the hand of God then right now. If you got any closer you'd be dead. And right now he's picking and choosing. All you got to do is put your hand in my back pocket and you'll be home before you know it."

In late July I was in the process of executing PCS orders and departing MCAGCC. The departure was bittersweet in for a number of reasons but I had a great since of satisfaction and comfort in knowing that the training programs I had begun were in very capable hands and if it is possible for a relative youngster like myself to think of a sage like Master Guns Formosa as part of the legacy I was leaving behind, I did. Late on the afternoon of the 27th I was in the midst of a heated conversation with the loan processor who was sparing no effort to bungle the closing on a house I was attempting to purchase back east. The movers had already come and the household goods were packed in boxes. I got a call on my cell phone from my deputy who asked me if I had seen Master Guns Formosa that afternoon. I told her that I had spoken with him a couple of hours ago and that he had some business in Yucca Valley that he wanted to attend to so I told him to take off early. She said that she was on Highway 62 headed toward Yucca Valley and that traffic was backed up as the police cleaned up after a catastrophic collision between an F-250 and a motorcycle and that the rider of the motorcycle was dead. I dropped the other phone and asked her if she could see if the motorcycle had three flags mounted on it and she said that it was too demolished to tell. Within ten minutes I had multiple calls confirming the worst.

Master Guns Formosa was killed at about 1600 local time by an unguided missile piloted by a drunk driver (also under the influence of Percoset) who crossed the center line without warning and collided head-on with his motorcycle. He died instantly and the front of the pickup was collapsed by the impact all the way to the windshield. I have been told that the driver of the pickup had previous DUI convictions and some other criminal activity in his history. He was well known to the local police.

I'm back in Twentynine Palms now on TAD for the last time. As I drove toward MCAGCC from Yucca Valley I looked for the cross at the side of the road and it's still there. Nevertheless I still find myself looking for him. This place is just not the same without him.

Semper fi my Friend.