Pilot’s rare flight through Marine Corps
By Cpl. Ryan Mains, Defense Media Activity
CAMP HANSEN, Okinawa -- Playing a favorite instrument, kicking in doors, and flying an aircraft are some of the different career opportunities in the Marine Corps. In the case of Capt. Sean M. Stephenson, he would do a little bit of everything, or so it would seem, on his journey to his current rank and position.
At the start of his career, Stephenson synchronized with fellow Marine band members to achieve the perfect sound. Later, with hopes of achieving his goal of becoming a pilot, Stephenson was accepted for a highly competitive commissioning program and was commissioned a 2nd Lt. in 2008. Now, almost a decade after becoming a Marine, he works with his new crew to ensure a successful take-off as an AV-8B Harrier jet pilot.
Stephenson’s parents inspired him to try different things in life, which led to developing his musical talent. His dad played the trombone and in the fifth grade, a young Stephenson decided to play the instrument as well.
Growing up in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, Stephenson is the oldest of eight siblings. Unlike the small 500 square acre town, his large family made it difficult to pay for college. After graduating from Northern High School in 2002, he decided to enlist in the military…which led to the same yellow foot prints that his father, stepfather and uncle once stood on.
“We all grew up in the shadow of the Marine Corps,” said Stephenson. “My dad brought us all up in that ‘yes sir, no sir’ mentality, so everything growing up exposed us to the Marine Corps.”
With the decision to join finalized, finding the right job wasn’t too difficult either. Stephenson remembers his recruiter’s priceless reaction when he mentioned his musical background.
“I was into music in high school and when I talked with the recruiter, I asked him, ‘What do you have?’” said Stephenson. “The recruiter asked what I was good at and when I mentioned ‘music” I could see the dollar signs in his eyes.”
Ask any recruiter and they will tell you that finding a musician to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps is no easy task. With his musical background, Stephenson was proficient with at least 10 instruments, so he joined with a basic musician contract. After boot camp at Parris Island and Marine Combat Training at Jacksonville, North Carolina, Stephenson spent the next 30 weeks at the School of Music in Virginia Beach. After graduation he reported to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California, and began playing the trombone for the 3rd Marine Air Wing Band. His time with the band offered more than a few regular gigs.
“The most memorable part about being in the band (was when) we played during the presidential visit and when the 3rd MAW band was a part of the national ceremonies for the funeral of Ronald Reagan,” said Stephenson.
Band members, just as other Marines, are expected to be ready to fight whenever they are called upon.
“The band’s secondary (military occupational specialty) is military police security forces,” said Stephenson. “When 3rd MAW deployed to Iraq in 2004 the band went as well, so essentially (we) put the instruments down and grabbed our rifles.”
Although Stephenson enjoyed his time playing the trombone in the band, there was something missing - a desire to do more.
“Sean has dreamed of flying airplanes since he was a little boy,” said Courtney Stephenson, Sean’s wife. “His parents have told me that he could tell exactly which aircraft was flying overhead just by the sound it made.”
Stephenson said he asked himself, “What could be better than (being) a Marine who can fly?” But high hopes and dreams could only lead him so far.
“To fly, you need to go to college,” said Stephenson. “The original plan was to enlist and switch to officer to become a pilot and I was fortunate enough to be able to do that.”
After serving his enlisted time, Stephenson became an officer through the Marine Corps Enlisted Commissioning Educational Program. Stephenson earned his bachelor’s degree in December 2008 from Texas A&M University, double-majoring in music and history. After Officer Candidates School and The Basic School, he went to flight school in Pensacola, Florida and earned his wings as an AV-8B Harrier pilot.
“The biggest challenge was going from the stigma of being in the band to flying,” said Stephenson. “A lot of people think that the Marines in the band are not real Marines, and that’s just not the case.”
Learning how to fly wasn’t the only challenge that Stephenson faced during flight school.
“I think a big hurdle was that as I was going through flight school I was a little further along in life (than most of the other students),” said Stephenson. “By then I was married. (My wife and I) had our daughter while I was in advanced flight training and our son was born while I was going through the Fleet Replacement Squadron. It was hard enough trying to learn how to fly and execute tactics at 500-plus knots while at the same time learning how to be a dad.”
Sgt. Maj. Max Garcia, Stephenson’s senior drill instructor from boot camp, was recently reunited with Stephenson during the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Spring Patrol.
“You train the recruits to the best of your ability but you never know how they are going to turn out, and to see (Capt. Stephenson’s) success makes me extremely proud,” said Garcia, the sergeant major for Combat Logistics Battalion 31, 31st MEU.
During his journey, Stephenson has gone from keeping time in measures as an enlisted band member to now measuring speed in knots as a harrier pilot with Marine Attack Squadron 231, 31st MEU.
“He knows that he is living the life that many out there are only dreaming of,” said Courtney, from Battle Ground, Washington. “It takes a monumental dedication to your job, a deep desire to succeed and the self-motivation to push through when everything is willing you to fail."
After reaching his goals and becoming a Marine pilot, Stephenson has few regrets.
“The only regret that he may have had is that I scooped him up before he had the chance to live the life of a handsome, single Marine pilot,” teased Courtney.