top of page

Keeping The Heritage Alive

Kyle Watts

Oct 17, 2023

Museum Docent Shares His Experience With New Sergeants

Noncommissioned officers (NCOs) perform one of the most critical functions of the Marine Corps. They serve as the first line of leadership in every small unit and can make or break the officers over them. In combat, the significance of their role expands greatly as they make decisions with immediate impact on the lives of their Marines.

Active-duty personnel and civilians on Marine bases around the world ded­icate their full-time efforts to the pro­fessional military education (PME) of up-and-coming NCOs. In Quantico, Va., the Col­lege of Enlisted Military Edu­cation enjoys the benefits of their prox­imity to the National Museum of the Marine Corps and all the resources it can offer.

One of the most important resources comes from the experience of docents who volunteer their time to help preserve the history on display and educate the public. Ronald Echols has served as a docent since 2008. He left the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant in 1968 after four years of service. At first glance, his lowly rank and time in service may seem unremarkable, but for those who know him, Ron’s time on active duty proved an action-packed whirlwind of combat, leadership challenges and, ultimately, a battlefield commission. As a result, today he helps lead a portion of the PME for new sergeants during their four-week primary course.

“I try to explain to them that caring for the Marines under them is the most important thing they’ve got to do,” Ron said. “It’s like being a parent. All of them are now in charge of somebody and they’ve got to take care of them. I have the students for about 45 minutes, and it always makes me feel good to feel like I’m giving something to these young Marines.”

Baptism by Fire

Ron joined the Marines in 1964 at the age of 18. He received selection for sea duty and spent two years aboard ship before joining the 2nd Marine Division rifle team at Camp Lejeune, N.C. He made sergeant in less than three years, and in June of 1967, deployed to Vietnam. Assigned to “Mike” Company, 3rd Bat­tal­ion, 26th Marines, Ron endured his baptism through fire in short order. The battalion operated in the northern part of South Vietnam along the Demilitarized Zone. Through the summer, several Ma­rine units were bloodied and nearly wiped out by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) near Con Thien. 3/26 arrived in Septem­ber for their turn in the melee.

The battle opened on Sept. 7. Ron’s company witnessed their heaviest action three days later.

“We had four tanks, two Ontos, and a battalion of Marines,” Ron remembered.

“Who is gonna mess with a battalion of Marines and all that armor? Well, the 324th NVA Division attacked us. Within 15 minutes, we had one Ontos left, and the tanks were blown all to crap. It was raining artillery on us. For seven and a half hours, it was on, with hand-to-hand and everything.”

At one point during the battle, Ron pushed forward with his Marines. A punch to his face temporarily stunned him before he surged ahead again.

“He’s hit!” screamed one of Ron’s Marines.

“Who’s hit?” Ron yelled.

“You’re hit!”

Ron discovered a splash of blood across his flak jacket increasing in size. He put his hand to his face and lowered it covered in red.

“Well, give me a bandage then!”

This immersive exhibit at the National Museum of the Marine Corps allows visitors a glimpse into the world that SSgt Ron Echols and other 3/26 Marines faced during the siege at Khe Sanh. Kyle Watts.

“These interactions at the museum are not little things. They are profound mo­ments that embody our culture of, ‘once a Marine, always a Marine.’ A lot of young Marines might look at that and think it’s just a cliché, but then they see it in action and see these docents volunteering their life to serve the betterment of the Marine Corps and keep our heritage alive. There is a lot of opportunity for reflection.”

bottom of page