FIRE BASE FIDDLERS GREEN, Helmand province, Afghanistan --
When Hurricane Katrina blew through New Orleans decimating homes and changing lives, it also set into motion the fate of one young man and ensured his destiny to become a United States Marine.
In 2005, Mason Panyko, a 15-year-old high school student, had no idea what the future held. When the hurricane warning went out, Panyko and his family left the city they loved to move to a safer place until the water receded. The hardest part, he said, was leaving all the people he knew.
“It's all about the people who make New Orleans what it is,” said Panyko, currently an artilleryman with 1st Battalion, 12 Marine Regiment. “It's a boiling pot of different cultures that comes together to make it truly unique.”
The hurricane took a considerable toll on Panyko’s family and the rest of the New Orleans residents, and the devastation forced his family to move from place to place for several months. They stayed with aunts and uncles, grandparents and friends before returning to their home, though it had changed a great deal in their absence.
“The people were excited to see each other, but everything had definitely changed from that point on,” said Panyko. “A lot of people were scared for their lives and thought this wasn't the place to be anymore. A lot of people were put into homeless shelters; just seeing them end up like that – they didn't deserve it. They were calling us refugees in our own city.”
The people began to rebuild the city, but many of Panyko's friends moved away for good. Jumping from school to school during the reconstruction was difficult, and his father passed away from a massive heart attack in 2006, one year after the hurricane, adding to his stress. He had to quit playing baseball, the sport he loved, in order to get a job and help support his family. He began to get mixed up with the wrong crowd, and his grades started to suffer.
Panyko said he made a promise to his father before he died that he would graduate high school, but his promise soon began to slip through his fingers. It was his uncle, his inspiration, who extended a helping hand and got Panyko back on track. Panyko said he remembered growing up seeing his uncle in great shape, and he remembered always liking the dress blue uniform his uncle wore from time to time. His uncle had served in the Marine Corps and was now a high school teacher at West Monroe High School, where he enrolled his nephew to finish school.
Panyko's grades began to improve, and his dream to become a Marine like his uncle began to materialize before him. He prepared himself physically by running with the Marines at the local recruiting office, and his uncle mentally prepared him for recruit training by testing him on Marine Corps knowledge on the way to and from school every day. Panyko fulfilled his promise to his father to graduate high school and left for training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., in May 2009.
Now Panyko is a corporal in the Marine Corps, proudly wearing the Eagle, Globe and Anchor, the symbol of the U.S. Marines he worked so hard to achieve. He holds immense responsibility as an artilleryman for an M777 howitzer gun section deployed to Afghanistan. He is charged with recording fire mission data, such as ammunition expended and gun movements to ensure rounds are hitting targets accurately. When Marines are in trouble and the call for artillery fire comes in, Panyko ensures quick and fluid communication between the Fire Direction Center, which provides target coordinates, and the gun’s section chief or verifier. Every second counts and lives are on the line, so it is imperative Panyko remains focused at all times.
“He's intelligent and motivated, and whenever we have a mission, he's right there,” said Manassas, Va., native Cpl. Alonzo Arvizo, an assistant section chief with 1/12. “He always has to multitask, listen, write and repeat fire mission commands – he handles it excellently, I've never had a problem.”
A lot has changed for Panyko through the years, but the change has made him a more versatile Marine, capable of handling responsibility. Panyko remembers what it took for him to get to where he is now, and he reflects on how a troubled young man from New Orleans became a noncommissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps.
“Putting on this uniform everyday – knowing what I stand for – is what gets me,” Panyko said. “When I put on this uniform and look at myself in the mirror, I think about all the things I had to do just to get here, and how bad I wanted it. Now I'm here, and I'm not just going to throw it all away.”
Editor’s note: First Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.