Parris Island, South Carolina --
MARINE CORPS RECRUIT DEPOT PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. - On the outskirts of Lexington, Kentucky lies the town of Versailles, a tight-knit community of roughly 10,000 residents, less than three miles long from end to end. Sgt. Maj. William Carter will tell you Versailles was also where he first learned the value of selfless service and teamwork from his greatest role models: his mother and his high school wrestling coach.
“Everything I have I owe to my mom,” Carter said. “She worked two jobs as a single parent and what made me respect her even more was the fact that she still made time to take care of me. We have conversations sometimes and she says she hopes she did right by me. I’ll tell her, ‘Mom, you have no clue the kind of example you set.’”
In high school, Carter had aspirations of joining the wrestling team, but it wasn’t until he bought his first vehicle senior year (which he lovingly refers to as his “hooptie”) that he was able to drive the three miles from his home to make it on time for practice. The coach of the wrestling team, Joe Carr, instilled a desire for challenge and competitiveness that first spearheaded Carter’s interest in the military.
“[Coach Carr] taught me that you never want to be a ‘been brother’ or ‘been sister’ – could have been, should have been, would have been,” Carter said. “I could have been a Marine, I could have been a sergeant major, I could have succeeded in the Marine Corps. I never thought that I would make it past four years as far as staying; I never thought that I would make it to being a sergeant major, but I’ve always maintained that attitude, that even if I lose, I will still give 110 percent because of what he taught me. That man probably doesn’t even realize that I have thrived off of that for 30 years.”
Military commercials from the 1980’s and the memorable slogan “Be all you can be, in the Army,” first piqued Carter’s interest in service. After one year of college and a summer of hard shift work at a lightbulb manufacturing plant, he realized that he wanted something different for his future. Unfortunately for Carter, who was born without a lower left pectoral muscle (despite being able to max out the physical fitness test), the Army medically disqualified him from enlisting. Carter became downtrodden and frustrated, convinced that military service was simply not in the cards.
A Marine Corps recruiter stopped him one day as he was leaving the armed forces career center and asked him if he’d ever thought of serving in the Marines. At this point, Carter was somewhat jaded by his experience, and it took some convincing, but ultimately his recruiter was able to get a medical waiver approved on Carter’s behalf, which gave him a new outlook and motivation to continue his calling to serve.
“I wanted to go for what would challenge me the most, physically and mentally,” Carter said. “After the Army had frustrated me, I wanted to find another way and I was determined to overcome that experience. Building off of what my mom and Coach Carr instilled in me, those values I still carry with me."
Upon completion of recruit training at Parris Island and a tour at 3rd Medical Battalion in Okinawa, Japan, Carter returned to Parris Island and began work as a Boardman in Depot Clothing. It was here where he first saw the potential of having a career in the Marine Corps.
“I was placed in charge of a whole platoon of Marines as a lance corporal, guiding them through the process of how to complete a task,” Carter said. “That leadership instilled in me as a young Marine was really cool, to be able to lead and guide others; and I was around people that I genuinely liked.”
His enduring passion for leadership and teaching led him to be selected as an instructor with Field Medical Service School in Camp Pendleton, where he trained a variety of Navy Hospital Corpsman, Dental Technicians and Religious Program Specialists. Carter said this further sealed his desire to take care of and mentor others, and what ultimately drove him to volunteer for drill instructor duty at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.
“On the drill field as a sergeant, I really learned how to be humble,” Carter said. “Being a drill instructor helped me as I have moved through the Marine Corps; it taught me that you might know the answers, you might know a lot, but you don’t have to be the one who sits and shrugs off advice or counsel like ‘yeah, yeah, I know.’ [During] your younger years, you really don’t pay attention to the big picture. As I grew in rank I started looking outside of my own bubble and realizing the true meaning of why I was there.”
Carter will be the first to tell you his success is because of the Marines who’ve mentored him throughout his career. His greatest achievements are those for whom he was able to provide “rudder steers” and reach their goals in life, regardless if they decided to stay in the military or not.
"I’ve learned that the sergeant major’s job is like a chaplain - everyone wants to come and talk to you for guidance,” Carter said. “When people know they can confide in you, it’s a great feeling as a leader of Marines and one of the biggest things that I will miss when I retire; I hope where I end up in the civilian world, I can help build the community and camaraderie that we have as Marines."
Marines and families that come on to Parris Island these days may be greeted by Sgt. Maj. Carter as they approach the entrance to the depot; he oftentimes spends early mornings and weekends scanning ID’s and getting to know the Marines who serve at the Provost Marshalls Office. Sometimes if you’re lucky, you’ll see him zipping through base in his Gator all-terrain vehicle, making stops everywhere from the chow hall to the rifle range to spend time with Marines and depot personnel.
“I owe it to them, because I am a huge believer that if I just sit on top of a pedestal as being the job I have, it’s fake,” Carter said. “I want to make sure that people know, ‘If he can do it, what’s your excuse?’ This little island, city, place - whatever you may know it as - it’s great just to get out and see how the Marines are doing. If I had a choice, my meetings would be outside with the Marines, just listening to and learning from them. My purpose is to serve them; that’s it.”
As Carter reflects back on the grand adventures of the past 30 years, he still credits Coach Carr and his mother with helping shape him into the Marine and man he is today. Before the Marine Corps, he had never left Kentucky; now he says he genuinely couldn’t have seen his life working out any other way, although it passed in the blink of an eye.
“As I get ready to close this chapter, I think I finally get the ‘why’,” Carter said. “I will tell you if I had never joined the military I probably never would have understood that, because I would never have been able to work with folks who could potentially be put in harm’s way at any point in time, being able to come back home from deployments to hug and kiss your family after months.”
“At the end of the day – and maybe I’m fighting to accept it in my mind- but I know it’s time. I just want to leave knowing that I left it all on the table.”