SEMO grad now top Marine

Sunday, November 19, 2006
Gen. James T. Conway took the oath of office to become the commandant of the Marine Corps during his promotion ceremony Monday.

On the Southeast Missouri State College campus 38 years ago, a young man from St. Louis led the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. Today James T. Conway leads a different kind of brotherhood -- the U.S. Marine Corps.

Conway, a 58-year-old Arkansas native, was sworn in as the 34th commandant of the corps on Monday. He has risen from leading a platoon to leading one of the most feared and respected fighting forces in history.

The qualities that would make Conway a leader were clearly evident during his days at Southeast, said David Ludwig, Cape Girardeau County auditor and "pledge father" to Conway in the fraternity.

"He was a standout, a very organized and well-disciplined young man," Ludwig said. "Obviously, the Marines and he were a perfect fit. He would have been a success in business, in the private sector, successful in whatever he decided to pursue."

Conway will return to the campus, now Southeast Missouri State University, to deliver the winter commencement address Dec. 16, university president Ken Dobbins said Friday. Pressures of military leadership could change that, Dobbins cautioned -- Conway has been invited back twice and has accepted both times but has been unable to make the date.

The serious side Conway displayed at Southeast doesn't mean he didn't take part in the frivolous side of campus life, Ludwig said. On the Sigma Phi Epsilon page of the 1968 "Sagaa Hell's Angels Party, a Viking Party and a Beach Party receive prominent mention. Conway was president of the fraternity in the spring and fall of 1968.

The unrest and anti-military attitude spawned by the Vietnam War wasn't strong at Southeast at that time, Ludwig said. When young men thought about the military, he said, they thought about keeping their grades up to maintain a draft deferment and, after graduating, whether to accept being drafted into the Army or signing up for another branch of the service.

"It was pretty much mainstream America," Ludwig said. "We had very traditional values, and we were supporting the government and the military at that time."

Conway's career has been marked by a steady rise through the ranks. His first assignment after receiving his commission as an officer in 1970 was as a rifle platoon commander at Camp Pendleton. As he progressed, he commanded other platoons and companies in the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions; commanded officer students and taught tactics at The Basic School in Quantico, Va.; and served as executive officer for the 31st Marine Amphibious Unit, including contingency operations off Beirut, Lebanon, in the early 1980s.

Conway commanded the 3rd Battalion of the 2nd Marine Division during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. He has served as commanding officer of The Basic School, deputy director of operations for the anti-terrorism unit of the Joint Staff in Washington, D.C., and president of the Marine Corps University in Quantico.

Most recently, he has served two combat tours as commander of the Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq and as director of operations for the Joint Staff in Washington.

Through it all, reports show he has maintained the respect of his commanders and those he commanded. "He always listened to his Marines," Lt. N. Lee Bliss Jr. told Seapower magazine after the announcement of Conway's elevation to commandant in June. "He never stopped doing that. Even when they projected a fear of the future, he continued to comfort them and train them all the while."

And Conway hasn't shied away from frank, public discussions of the limits of Marine capabilities or the commands he has received from the civilian political ranks.

After four Americans working for contractors were killed, mutilated and hung from a bridge in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004, Conway was ordered to send his Marines to root out insurgents. He didn't like the order, he said at a news conference as he was preparing to depart in September 2004.

"We felt that we probably ought to let the situation settle before we appeared to be attacking out of revenge," Conway said. "I think we certainly increased the level of animosity that existed."

The operation was halted after three days on orders from Washington. "When you order elements of a Marine division to attack a city, you need to understand what the consequences will be and not perhaps vacillate in the middle of something like that," Conway said. "You have to stay committed."

And during his confirmation hearings this summer, Conway said that while Marines in Iraq remain prepared for their mission, those back home are not up to standards. "The readiness of the remainder of the equipment -- ground and particularly aviation -- is suffering, as a result our readiness ratings for the remainder of the force are not what we would ordinarily show," Conway told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The return to Cape Girardeau would be his first chance to speak to students at his former school. He has visited Missouri, said Ludwig, who has kept track of his former "son," but usually to visit his in-laws, who live in Ste. Genevieve. Conway met his wife, then Annette Drury, while a student at Southeast.

Regardless of whether Conway speaks to graduates, Dobbins said the real-life example of a Southeast graduate who has reached the pinnacle of his profession helps showcase the school. "We are very pleased that we have the commandant of the Marine Corps who is a graduate of our university," Dobbins said. "He has distinguished himself throughout his career and he will do a great job guiding the Marine Corps."

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