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As the final days in his Marine Corps career end, Lt. Gen. Robert E. Milstead Jr. Reflects on his past experiences and how he has molded his career to guide and inspire younger Marines.

Photo by Sgt. Jose D. Lujano

40 years of leadership comes to close

2 Oct 2014 | Sgt. Terry Brady The Official United States Marine Corps Public Website

How about that? 40 years. It’s amazing isn’t it?” said Lt. Gen. Robert E. Milstead Jr.  “It’s inconceivable to my young lance corporals and corporals.

Milstead is a surfer, a father, a husband and a pilot, but more importantly a leader of America’s premier fighting force. He spent many years taking care of Marines and learning about how he can lead in different and improved ways.

In the twilight years of his Marine Corps career, he served as the Deputy Commandant, Manpower and Reserve Affairs, at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. Milstead left a legacy, as he passed the torch to the leaders of tomorrow’s Corps.


I didn’t set out to join the Marine Corps for 40 years. You don’t set out to eat the elephant, but when you turn around the years have gone by and you’ve eaten the elephant. You do it one bite at a time.

I’m not one of those guys who says, I’ve always wanted to be a Marine since I was a little kid. I grew up in the Air Force. My father was a career Air Force officer and he was a pilot. I grew up around Air Force bases and around airplanes. The one thing I knew I always wanted to do as a kid is—I wanted to fly.

Finding his place:

Nothing happens by mistake in this world. We all are walking a path we are supposed to.

One day, I’m walking from the Navy office by the federal courthouse in Houston, and there was one of those signs that had a picture of a Marine. It said ‘the Marines are looking for a few good men,’ and he had an aviation helmet. I said, ‘I didn’t know the Marines had pilots. I’m going to see what this is all about.’

That night I called my folks and I said ‘I’m joining the Marines.’ That was over 40 years ago. That’s not a just a chance encounter.

When I walked in the recruiter’s office he asked me some questions. He says, ‘How old are you?’ I said, ‘22’. ‘When’s your birthday?’ I said, ‘10 November, 1951.’ He says ‘This is supposed to be!’

Milstead was commissioned as a second lieutenant on March 1975. The following year he graduated from aviator school and was designated as a naval aviator. He was able to live up to his aspiration of reaching new heights as a pilot.

I was on the first unit deployment program ever. The first UDP was an aviation unit of six AH-1 Cobra Helicopters. We were part of that in July 1977.

I loved flying Cobras. It is a young man’s game though. As you advance in rank you’ve got a lot of other things you need to be doing.

In those days we used to be in a west coast Cobra squadron. We spent a lot of time in Twenty Nine Palms. We would deploy out there for several weeks at a time [as a unit] and all you did was fly, shoot and blow stuff up. It was a lot of fun! That was good flying! The deployments were good. My first deployment was to Okinawa and my second was on a ship. I got a little over 4000 hours in flying.

Continuing forward:

 I remember telling my wife ‘my initial obligation is up, we can get out of the Marine Corps if we want. She said, ‘You’re having fun?’ I said ‘Yeah.’ [We kept] going.

I do feel like it was meant to be. I’m a man of faith. I believe nothing happens in this world without a reason. I think this was the path I was supposed to do. I was supposed to be a Marine and see the people, who I have worked with and touched and who have touched me. That touching between us has helped them, and they have helped me.

I think there is this grand plan. It happened exactly the way it was supposed to happen. I don’t think I would go back and change anything. It’s been fun and that’s what kept me around. That and the young Marines have kept me young.

Conquering fear:

Life is all about adversity and challenges.

The first challenge was when I wasn’t selected for command. I was a major selected for lieutenant colonel. When they did the first command screening boards, they didn’t pick me, because I was still a major and they picked the older [officers], but to me that was failure.  I had never faced failure like that. I struggled for a while until I worked my way out of it.

There have been good challenges too. There have been the challenges of taking men and women into combat. That was a very challenging time, but it was also one of my most rewarding times.

As a wing commander in Iraq it was very challenging, but those are the times I will look back on and smile. Those are the ones that jump out at me.

In February 2005, Milstead was promoted to brigadier general during a deployment in Iraq as commander of 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Fwd). The challenge of transitioning into higher ranks presented challenges of their own.


The challenge when going from colonel to general is that it’s a whole different level of thinking.

Anytime you walk into a position of responsibility, if you don’t feel some anxiety or apprehension then you are on a fool’s mission, but its good for you. It’s ok to be scared. It’s how you handle it, which defines you. Be yourself, and it’s ok to be afraid.

[Being a general] gave me an opportunity to reach out to people and talk to them.


During the decades of his time in the Marine Corps, Milstead has seen the Corps


 How we take care of our families has changed. The officer’s wives took care of each other but no one was taking care of [enlisted] wives. This changed during the Gulf War. We have changed with society.

It is significantly different, and then in many ways it’s the same. We cut the cake the same, we read the same message, we grab ahold of the same traditions that we’ve had in the Marine Corps for years and years. We remained constant.

We’ve changed where we should and remained where we should, where we needed to be.

Advice to the younger generation:

Milstead has molded his career as a Marine to inspire others and encourage them to keep a positive approach to everyday.

I am a cup half full, not half empty guy. I always try to look at the bright sides of stuff.

I try to have fun. I try to have a good attitude.

If I had to give advice to [my younger Marines], it’s to work hard and have fun. If you don’t enjoy being a Marine and the challenge of leading men, then get out.