MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
Armed with a spray can, most walls were considered fair game. Graffiti was his medium and more often than not, it was not appreciated by the public. Kicked out of the New York school system, most would have considered the ‘skater boy’ from Queens a lost cause – a hoodlum, nothing more, and nothing less.
After moving to Massachusetts as a high-school sophomore, artistic attributes were honed – earning Michael Kropiewnicki seven scholarships to art colleges across the nation for line art and graphic design. His graffiti skills were even used to mural buildings in the Big Apple.
“I just couldn’t find a type of art that had money behind it. A lot of it was just freelance,” said Kropiewnicki. “So I started researching.”
But as high school graduation neared, the rebellious teen longed for something – and for some reason chose the military as the tool to get it. Like so many before him, he chose the Marine Corps, because “it was the best.”
“I wanted to do more,” said the gunnery sergeant. “My family, they were all shocked. The type of person I was – all rebellious – not listening to anybody – that was a big surprise to everyone.”
He added, “I knew if I went back home or to any of the art schools, I would fall back into that hole. I needed a ticket out of that artsy, free-spirit life style.”
If change is what he was looking for, change is what he got.
Enlisting in the Marine Corps in March 2000 on an open contract, and ending up as a bulk fuel specialist, Kropiewnicki learned the building blocks of leadership.
“The guys that I worked with were A-type Marines. They were the Marines the commercials showcase,” said Kropiewnicki. “They were locked and cocked.”
A day after reenlisting in 2003, Kropiewnicki read a Marine Magazine article on combat cameraman Sgt. John Carrillo.
The article struck a chord with Kropiewnicki – who was instantly angered by what he learned.
“My recruiter knew my interest in art and never said a word about jobs like that,” he said.
Although he was initially angry about the left out information, he admits that he wouldn’t want to change the way life happened.
Kropiewnicki immediately went and talked to his command about laterally moving into the 4600 field – combat camera, but was told he would have to wait. He needed to deploy. After an eight-month tour in Fallujah, Iraq conducting convoy security with Combat Support Services Detachment-36, in 2005, he was given an opportunity to learn video production on the job with Marine Corps Base Pendleton Combat Camera.
“I learned the leadership basics and Marine Corps structure from the engineers,” said Kropiewnicki about his time as a bulk fueler. “All those pep talks; those talks of what it means to be a noncommissioned officer, they just stuck with me.”
He explained that the Marines in his initial military occupational specialty were a stark contrast to the Marines in his new job.
“The combat camera Marines were more relaxed from what I was used to in the engineer community,” he said. They were that artsy, creative, less structured types that he had sought to escape in New York.
As much as basic training was a bolt to his senses, Kropiewnicki was a shudder to the Marines within the combat camera field.
“At first they were a little shocked, but I was just enforcing basic regulations,” said Kropiewnicki. “Once they saw their roles and responsibilities, they turned into a smooth, well oiled machine.”
Learning wasn’t a one-way street for Kropiewnicki. Changing jobs wasn’t easy and often he was being taught by his junior Marines.
“A lot of them disliked lateral movers. We were seemingly promoted faster, but they saw my passion and would stay late with me. They always answered my questions,” he said.
In December 2005, Kropiewnicki moved from Camp Pendleton to Cherry Point, where he continued his on-the-job training.
Then in 2007, less than a year after getting married, Kropiewnicki volunteered to once again deploy to Iraq for 12 months. This time he was in Ramadi as the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, information operations and combat camera chief
Unbeknownst to his new wife, Kropiewnicki was volunteering to support combat operations with several different units.
Unfortunately, his mentor let it slip to the Bronx native that her husband was volunteering.
“I would call the families from Iraq,” said Master Sgt. Henry Weaver, the staff noncommissioned officer in charge of Combat Camera, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. “I wanted to ensure that everything on the home-front was good. I let it slip that he had volunteered to go … he was in pretty hot water.
“But Gina has always supported him 100 percent.”
Kropiewnicki added, “Needless to say I didn’t get a nice email about it.”
She was, however, pretty excited to hear that he would be returning a month early. That excitement lasted two weeks, which was how long he was home before leaving for the three-month Video Production and Documentation Course at the Defense Information School, Fort George G. Meade, Md.
Now, after a year-long deployment as a videographer and after serving as the combat camera chief during combat operations, the staff sergeant was going to MOS school.
After graduating, Kropiewnicki left to once again pack. This time he was moving his family to Iwakuni, Japan.
“Once we got to Japan, we were finally able to be together as a family,” he said.
Filling the billet of both the ComCam chief and officer in charge, Kropiewnicki explained that he loved it. It was a good mix of veteran noncommissioned officers and junior Marines straight from school.
“I was able to take them and train them the way I saw fit,” he said. “It was also a great experience because I had to learn the officer side of the house.”
Blessed with good luck and great writing skills, Kropiewnicki was able to secure funds to outfit his section with good gear. One thing Kropiewnicki valued most about Japan was the opportunity to send a lot of correspondence to Headquarters Marine Corps concerning his job field.
“That correspondence really made me see that I’m not just some combat camera chief at the small unit level,” he said. “I realized I can have a hand in shaping this MOS.
“Everything was awesome. I loved Japan,” he said. “
His Marines, like most, were chomping at the bit to “get into the fight.” Kropiewnicki warned them that they must always be ready ‘cause they never know what was going to happen – and then it did.
An earthquake and tsunami hit, devastating Japan and Operation Tomodachi ensued.
“To see their excitement, their willingness to jump on those birds (military aircraft), put a smile on my face,” Kropiewnicki said. “I was told that I had the most productive ComCam section in the Corps, while also being under staffed. That made me feel accomplished.”
This sense of accomplishment was coupled with the recognition of being the 2010 Corporal William T. Perkins Combat Cameraman of the Year Award.
Kropiewnicki says it Weaver who set him on that course.
“He sculpted my path by allowing me to do what I needed to do; whether that was to excel or fall on my face,” said Kropiewnicki attributing Weaver’s way of caring for his Marines and developing them, while also treating them as a family, are what has shaped him as a leader.
“He may call me his mentor, but he is mine,” said Weaver. “I have learned so much from him. I don’t know how he does it. He can go into a unit with no budget and poor equipment, hold his Marines accountable, all while getting a better budget and cutting edge.”
Although Weaver says he doesn’t know how Kropiewnicki does it, he knows that is not all entirely true.
“He couldn’t do it without the support of Gina,” said Weaver. “She put everything – a career and school - aside so that he could pursue what he loves.”
Now, the gunnery sergeant attributes two sources for his motivation and ambition.
“It’s that basic Marine Corps motivation mixed with my passion for the occupational field. It also comes from seeing junior Marines with that same motivation – that is where my drive comes from.”