HMM-263 sergeant perseveres, pins on gold

26 Oct 2004 | Lance Cpl. Sarah A. Beavers

Following a road decidedly less traveled, one sergeant from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit received an unusual reward for his dedication - a commission to second lieutenant. 

Spanning 17 years from recruit to officer, 2nd Lt. Earl Trouerbach, 36, a Rochester, N.Y., native with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 263, struggled against time and a possible career-ending injury for the honor to become a Marine officer. 

"Trouerbach has shown us all the 'never quit' attitude needed to succeed in the Marine Corps, and in life," said Sgt. Maj. John Rethage, 39, a Pittsburgh native and HMM-263 sergeant major. 

Trouerbach originally enlisted in 1987, spending most of his tour as a radio operator with 2nd Radio Battalion, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force. After serving nine months in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, he was honorably discharged from active duty in the summer of 1991.

"When I first got back from (Operation) Desert Storm, I was really pumped up," said Trouerbach. "But at the time, there weren't any more boat-spaces left (for my military occupation), and my wife said she couldn't take me being deployed anymore, so I got out."

Three years after his discharge, having worked part-time as a deputy sheriff and full-time as a drill instructor for convicted felons, he decided to re-enlist as a reservist.

"I wanted to come back to active duty, but they said I'd lose too much rank. So I joined the (Marine Corps) Reserves, and was promoted to sergeant at my second drill."

After serving four years as an Assault Amphibian Vehicle crewman with Alpha Company, 4th AAV Battalion, out of Norfolk, Va., he decided to move back to Rochester, N.Y., and return to school for his degree. At the same time, he re-entered the reserves, joining at 8th Tank Battalion, 4th Marine Division, in Rochester.

While there, he graduated from the University of New York with an associate's degree, pinned on staff sergeant in 1999 and became the regional vice president at National Car Rental.

But the success he found in the civilian sector would be short-lived, as his company was soon dissolved, leaving him without a full-time job. He decided this was his sign to return to the Marine Corps. In July 2001, he returned to active duty a corporal at age 34, with 14 years of service. While attending his new MOS training in Pensacola, Fla., he followed his first sergeant's advice to submit a package to the Meritorious Commissioning Program.

Accepted to MCP in April of 2002, he reported to Officer Candidates School in October of the same year. Following a successful first five weeks of training, he was suddenly faced with his biggest hurdle yet. An attempt to beat the obstacle-course record would leave him with a career-altering injury and temporarily halt his pursuit of a commission. 

After coming up short by mere seconds on his first attempt, Trouerbach challenged the course record again. Halfway through, he jumped over a wall too fast, tearing a ligament in his knee completely in half and causing his joint to become precariously unstable.

Refusing to quit, he spent the next four weeks in excruciating pain as he gritted his way through at least ten more events, including the combat readiness course.  This was in addition to his 5-hour-a-day physical training regimen. Even with his injury, he scored more than 290 points on his physical fitness test, completing his run just seconds over 19 minutes.

"My platoon sergeant and platoon commander did everything they could to make sure I didn't miss any events (so I could graduate)," he said. "I used everything I could (to stabilize my knee) -- even duct tape. Medical (eventually) gave me a brace for it. They didn't do an MRI, so we didn't know how bad it was."

While combating his torturous condition, and the looming prospect of a medical discharge, he developed a concern for his ability to positively influence the other struggling members of his unit.

"I never allowed anyone to give me any pity," he said. "I just kept trying to motivate the other candidates while I struggled with my injury. (I was afraid) they would look at me as being weak if I couldn't accomplish a task. I wanted them to still (be able to) respect me, and look to me for inspiration."

Having just completed the final event -- Small Unit Leadership Evaluation II -- with a score of 98 percent, Trouerbach entered the ninth week of training second in his platoon, and in the top ten percent of his company of more than 300 candidates. The only events left to complete before graduation were the 10-mile hike, the final PFT and a final run of the obstacle course. He made it more than five miles on the hike before medical staff intervened, determining he was in no condition to complete the training.

"At the advice of the orthopedic surgeon, I was dropped from OCS on the final week of training. The company and battalion commanders recommended my return (though), saying, 'If you can have your surgery, get better, and be capable of performing your duties, you can come back and do it all over again.'"

The surgeon had diagnosed him with a disintegrated medial meniscus. The fibrous cartilage within his knee had deteriorated because his initial injury had been left untreated for so long. Surgery was his only option to remedy what the doctors already considered 'irreparable damage.' Bedridden for two weeks, and forbidden to run for at least three months, Trouerbach soon began the arduous process of returning to full duty, despite various recovery complications.

"I had gotten a blood clot in my knee, so (the) blood wouldn't circulate through my leg. They had to cut my leg open to release the pressure. (For awhile), I had to get three stomach shots of blood thinners a day. Every time I'd lower my leg, blood would rush into it, and fill it like a balloon. It was a very painful process."

A month after his surgery, he inquired about an opportunity to return to OCS and begin the training all over again, when the worst news of all hit him. He was informed that he'd be too old by the time he graduated to qualify for another chance. According to Title 10 of the US Code, a Marine must be commissioned by his 35th birthday to be eligible for OCS.  That was a deadline he wouldn't be able to meet. After contacting his congressman, who proved to be powerless in this situation, he temporarily shelved his dreams to be commissioned and checked into HMM-263 in September 2003. It was here he met the person who re-ignited his aspiration to become a Marine officer.

"One day we were talking, and he mentioned that he went to OCS, so I asked him why he hadn't been commissioned," said Maj. Heath Lawson, 37, a Bremerton, Wash., native and maintenance officer with HMM-263. "When he told me about his knee, it just didn't seem right, so I helped him send off a package to (fix his records)."

According to Lawson the package made it to the Commandant of the Marine Corps in less than a month.

"I was just trying to let him know that there was still hope," Lawson said.
After a successful petition to the Board for Corrections of Naval Records and receiving a written endorsement from the Commadant of the Marine Corps in September, Trouerbach was promoted to 2nd lieutenant a month later, on Oct. 03, 2004. His commission was backdated to June 20, 2003, what would have the date of his original OCS graduation.

"Being prior enlisted gives (officers) an appreciation for enlisted (Marines), and helps them become a better leader," adds Lawson. "He was a hard-working sergeant, and you knew just by the way he carried himself that he had great potential."

After the tribulations Trouerbach had met, and conquered, he reflected on why he desired to push himself beyond the limits to become a Marine officer.

"(I think) life is all about creating and seizing opportunities... (and) the Marine Corps is full of them."