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Diversity of Experience: a voyage through the ranks
24 Apr 2020

MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C.— At the end of a long, dark, wooden table in a dimly lit conference room sits a man with his hands folded neatly in his lap. He appears strong and poised. His black-framed spectacles twinkle as the sunlight peaks through the window, illuminating the room around him. The sleeves of his green Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform, rolled tightly and neatly, symbolize the detail and dedication that has formed the past 20 years of an adventurous and successful military career. A faint smile fills his face as he recounts his journey.

U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Paul Croom II didn’t always dream of becoming a Marine. Although he grew up in a military family, the service lineage stood only as a model of character, not a professional path to follow.

“Both of my parents were military when I was born,” said Croom. “They did not grow up by significant financial means, but they were very successful in their adult lives. So, they never directly told me what to do to be successful, but their approach to life was an example for me.”

Croom’s mother enlisted in the Navy as an air traffic controller, and later became one of the Navy Staff Judge Advocates who tried the legal case that inspired the movie A Few Good Men, and his father was a multi-instrument musician in the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego Band. When his father left the military to teach high school band students, then five-year-old Croom took every opportunity to hone his skill, becoming proficient in piano, oboe, and saxophone.

“Ever since I was little, I remember going to my dad’s band rehearsals and grabbing any instrument out of the band locker,” Croom remarked. “I would sit down next to that instrument’s section, listen to what they were playing, and just figure out by ear how to reproduce the sound on whatever instrument I held.”

His curiosity helped shape the future of his musical career. As a teenager he had many musical endeavors, but focused mainly on marching band and his love for the oboe; a finicky and temperamental woodwind instrument not traditionally found in the marching music setting. He entertained the idea of forgoing marching band until his father gave him some life-shaping advice.

“You have three months until the high school’s band camp starts. Plenty of time to learn alto (saxophone),” the elder Croom recommended. “Do marching band for a year. After that, if you don’t like it, no big deal.”

Four years later and Croom had been a lead alto saxophone player at his high school marching band in South Central Pennsylvania for two years, and then led the band as its drum major his junior and senior years.

“I loved everything about high school marching band: the comradery, the music, and particularly the competitions,” Croom remembers. “I simply could not imagine being a part of any marching ensemble that did not compete.”

By the time he graduated high school, Croom received a full tuition scholarship to the University of Colorado (CU) as an oboe major, which required two years of successful college marching band participation. But, according to Croom, the CU marching band did not use oboes, was not a competing ensemble, and he had no desire to march with another instrument.

Unexpectedly, a fellow music major and friend introduced Croom to an obscure brass instrument called the mellophone, a distant cousin of the French horn, little known outside marching music circles. Just as with many instruments before, Croom picked up the mellophone and enthusiastically began to sharpen his skill.

“From that moment on, I was hooked,” Croom said eagerly.

Croom continued to study music and as graduation approached, realized he needed to look for a job. His father had warned him the life of a professional musician was a hard one, even with a degree in music. Unsure of what career path to pursue, Croom entered the US Army’s Delayed Entry Program, with orders for duty as an oboist with the US Army Forces Europe Band in Heidelberg, Germany.

While awaiting a ship date to Army basic training, Croom found himself at a civilian drum and bugle corps competition in Allentown, Pennsylvania. There, he serendipitously encountered “The Commandant’s Own,” United States Marine Drum and Bugle Corps. Fascinated with the idea of playing the mellophone for a living, Croom exited the Army’s pipeline and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps (USMC).

“It wasn’t so much about the Marine Corps itself,” explained Croom. “It was the fact that I wanted to play the mellophone for money and the only place I know of that you can get paid to play is the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps.”

Signing the paperwork was easy for Croom, but his parents were wary of their son enlisting in the Corps.

“The Marine Corps they knew was a racially volatile, drug-ridden and misogynistic boys’ club emblematic of everything negative that came of the Vietnam War,” Croom recalls. “Both my parents strongly warned me against joining the Corps.”

True to their values though, Croom says his parents respected his decision to enlist. He left for recruit training in 2000, and as soon as he stepped onto the yellow footprints at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, he immediately realized this adventure would be about more than just the mellophone.

“My transformation definitely began the moment the first Drill Instructor campaign cover stepped onto our dark bus in South Carolina,” remembered Croom. “Striving to truly become one of these professionals at arms became my singular objective.”

Upon graduation from boot camp and follow-on training he began his service at Marine Barracks Washington, D.C. He travelled with the Commandant’s Own and performed in the annual Memorial Day Ceremony at Belleau Wood, France, in 2002.

“I remember seeing then-Commandant General James L. Jones narrate the ceremony in both French and English,” said Croom. “I was in awe, and thought that looked like the most awesome job to have.”

He quickly progressed through the ranks and won a meritorious Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) board early in his career. This transformation propelled him into planning for his next step in the Marine Corps.

“Winning the board was so humbling to me,” Croom expressed. “Now being an NCO and understanding everything the NCO creed stood for, I wanted to be a Marine for the foreseeable future.”

Croom admits being part of The United States Marine Drum and Bugle Corps offered him an opportunity to perform at unique events.

“The pomp, circumstance, and pageantry we purveyed was second to none,” Croom recalled. “Not too many Marines get to experience playing for the Queen of England in Scotland’s iconic Edinburgh Castle on the fiftieth anniversary of her coronation.”

Still, the pull to the operating forces was undeniable, and in 2002, Croom was selected for the Enlisted Commissioning Program, commissioning months later.

He originally sought to become a Marine aviator but was disqualified for childhood asthma early into the training process. Croom then looked to become a judge advocate like his mother, but lacked the requisite commissioned time in service. Weighing his options against his natural strengths, he decided to explore the world of public affairs as a stop-gap while he accrued enough time-in-service as an officer to apply for the law program.

“When we think about lawyers representing a client and trying cases, they prepare an individual for the questions they will get asked in court,” said Croom. “You do the same thing when preparing an individual for an interview on the public affairs side. So, I figured this would be the best use of my time for my goals.”

Not long into his time as a public affairs officer, a hopeful Croom endured a moment in his career that changed his life forever.

In 2005, then-1st Lt. Croom deployed to Al Anbar, Iraq, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom as the public affairs officer for Regimental Combat Team 2. While escorting civilian news reporters during Operation Matador less than two months into his tour, Croom’s vehicle ran over what was later identified as three anti-tank mines stacked on top of each other. The detonation killed six Marines inside the assault amphibious vehicle (AAV), and left Croom and several others with severe burns.

In the midst of the chaos, Croom noticed the capabilities of one reporter which changed his view of public affairs, and sparked a new purpose for his career.

“I had managed to exit the burning AAV and was applying first aid to one of the Marines,” Croom stated. “I looked up and I saw Solomon Moore of the Los Angeles Times, one of my civilian embedded reporters, on his satellite phone filing a story about the event almost in real time. Yet, for us as Marine Corps Public Affairs, it would end up taking several layers of review and many days to get the story out.”

Croom was medically evacuated back to the United States to recover, and eventually returned to duty as the public affairs officer for the 4th Marine Corps Recruiting District in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. Fired up and ready to influence change, Croom made it his mission to fix the lack of responsiveness and relevance in his job field. He dedicated his time and effort to the cause, but unfortunately ran into more obstacles than he imagined.

The years 2007 and 2008 saw the height of the surge in Iraq, a military endeavor that produced visceral reactions among some American demographics. Minority recruiting and black officer recruiting in particular were exceedingly difficult during this time. As an African American officer with a Purple Heart and Combat Action Ribbon, Croom’s commander explicitly tasked him with reaching young, college-educated minorities in the District with a propensity to serve.

Among other duties as the District PAO, Croom was responsible for coordinating educator workshops at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island. These events brought teachers, coaches, principals, counselors and local news media from all over the central-eastern United States to the depot to see and experience first-hand how the Corps makes Marines to win battles and return to society better than before.

At one particular workshop, then-Capt. Croom noted that at least half of the educators were African American. As political conversation ensued, he used this occasion to encourage more black representation in the Marine Corps.

“At dinner, they asked me how, as a black man, I can sleep at night serving in a military fighting ‘illegal’ wars,” said Croom. Executing off his commander’s clear intent for him as the District’s professional public communicator, Croom says he answered honestly, anchoring on the fundamental irrelevance of personal politics to one’s military duty. “I couldn’t have scripted a better opportunity to explain to them that my job as an officer is to lead my Marines and ensure they have everything they need to succeed and accomplish the mission. Service is agnostic of politics. Period.”

According to Croom, his candor was largely well-received.

“So many of them had black students who were struggling to square their strong desire to serve with their equally strong political opposition to the Iraq War,” Croom recollects. “An overwhelming majority of the educators told me my response to their question provided them a credible way to answer their students’ concerns.”

Unfortunately, one individual deemed his statement inappropriate, and reported the discussion to Croom’s command. Although his District commander backed his actions, Croom faced serious repercussions from higher echelons. Ultimately, Croom decided to move into another MOS.

“I felt more than a little bit betrayed because I was asked to engage with this population at their level in ways that they would relate to, and I succeeded,” Croom said. “The textbook approaches to communicating taught to the recruiters and officer selection officers were not working for that demographic. I wanted to make a difference, and honesty is most always the best policy. But in my view, it seemed like the Corps was gun-shy of engaging in that controversial, but necessary, conversation to our continuing collective detriment.”

Disenchanted, Croom submitted a lateral move package and transitioned to the intelligence specialty in 2009. Over the course of the next five years, he deployed for combat operations to Iraq as the intelligence officer for 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, and then to Afghanistan as the intelligence production and analysis officer for Task Force Leatherneck (2d Marine Division). During this period, he also served as the Air Combat Intelligence Officer, Assistant Chief of Staff G-2 and Senior Intelligence Weapons and Tactics Instructor for 1st Marine Aircraft Wing in Okinawa, Japan.

In the fall of 2013, then-Maj. Croom was selected for the Marine Corps Personnel Exchange Program. He attended the six-month Basic French Course at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Departing as the honor graduate, he reported to French Land Forces Command in Lille, France. He immediately put his language skills to use in 2014 when the 2d Marine Division Band performed at the annual Memorial Day Ceremony and Battle of Belleau Wood commemoration at the American cemetery in Aisne-Marne, France. As a French linguist, Croom was responsible for translating and narrating the band’s performance program in French, just as he observed General Jones years before.

“It’s humbling how it all comes back full circle,” Croom reminisced. “I remember being a part of this ceremony as a junior enlisted Marine. And then I got to go back and do it again 14 years later as an officer.”

The man sitting gracefully at the end of the dark wood conference room table returns to the present, his eyes gaze slightly towards the ceiling. He reflects on the memories forged by his voyage. Though his journey was not always smooth sailing, Lt. Col. Paul Croom II still counts the positive outcomes worth their work.

Nearing twenty years of service, he preaches staying true to yourself during times of tribulation creates a strong and better Marine Corps. Through diversity of experience, the musician, communicator, and translator uses life’s past lessons to pursue future endeavors; and he is confident there are more to come.

“To anybody that cares to listen, I say ‘control the controllable, influence what you can, and forget about the rest,’” Croom advises. “Take the time to set up the domino pieces how you want them, and then put your plan into action. Stay Semper Fidelis—always faithful—to your goals, and the chances are better that things will fall your way.”