Pfc. William N. Cunningham fireman carries another Marine in the course of a casualty evacuation drill during the Crucible at Edson Range aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Feb. 26. Cunningham began his journey to become a Marine in 2008. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Pedro Cardenas/Released)
The quest to earn the title “Marine” usually starts at recruit training. But for Pfc. William N. Cunningham, it started when he attended the Platoon Leaders Course to become a commissioned officer.
Cunningham battled adversity and waited almost six years for the opportunity to become a Marine.
Cunningham was studying Aero Space engineering at Texas A&M University and began attending a commissioning program known as Platoon Leaders Course. PLC is a six week course spread over two summers or an 11-week course over the duration of one summer. It was in 2010, during his second six-week course, that Cunningham received a letter from his then wife. In the letter, she stated she was seeking a divorce.
“It was heartbreaking,” said 27-year-old Cunnigham. “It completely shattered my world.”
Cunningham was denied full financial aid loans because his marital status had changed. As a result, he withdrew from school with only a few classes away from graduation. Cunningham was able to complete Officer Candidates School through PLC, however, because he was not able to complete his degree, he was not commissioned a second lieutenant.
But Cunningham was determined to become a Marine, officer or enlisted. His personal problems were not going to deter him from achieving one of his life goals.
“Before OCS, I only had a superficial idea of what the Marine Corps was,” said Cunningham, a native of Abilene, Texas. “Being in OCS and around Marines bolstered my desire of wanting to be a Marine.”
He decided to enlist in the Marine Corps. Cunningham’s enlistment package took 23 months before it was approved. He had to obtain serveral waivers in order to go to recruit training because of his failure to complete his commissioning program. His quest to become a Marine would take longer, nevertheless, it made him more determined than ever.
At his local recruiting station, Cunningham met Gunnery Sgt. Robert K. Keller, who took him under his wing. Keller died in a car accident while he was transporting a potential recruit to a Military Entrance Processing Station. Keller died from injuries when the vehicle he was driving collided with an 18-wheeler on Jan. 9, 2013. Keller steered the vehicle so the driver side would receive the blunt of the hit, saving his passenger.
“I became close to him; he was a good mentor to me during the entire enlistment process,” said Cunningham. “Gunnery Sgt. Keller embodied the kind of Marine I wanted to be.”
According to Cunningham, Keller’s sacrifice meant that the sense of honor and duty, synonymous with Marines, is real. It was not just an advertisement, but something that is part of being a Marine.
“It makes me want to be in a position to make an impact on someone else’s life,” said Cunningham. “To provide someone else with a guiding compass to do what is right.”
During recruit training, Cunningham was selected to be a platoon guide. According to his senior drill instructor, he has the natural skills to lead Marines.
“He has good leadership skills and a good work ethic,” said Sgt. Brandon M. Shaughnessy, senior drill instructor. “He would always put other recruits ahead of himself; helping other recruits who were weaker in different areas and help them improve.”
Cunningham hopes to continue his education, and eventually, have the opportunity to lead Marines as an officer.
“He is determined and will do whatever it takes to accomplish his goals,” said Shaughnessy, a native Cincinnati. “He is willing to make sacrifices, including his personal life, to accomplish what he wants in life whether it takes him 10 minutes or two years.”
The next step in Cunningham’s training is to attend Marine Combat Training at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. He then will head to the Marine Detachment Corry Station at Pensacola, Fla., to learn his Military Occupational Specialty and become a communications signals collection Marine.
“I’m very excited. It has been a long time coming,” said Cunningham. “I have pursued the Marine Corps since 2008; it’s kind of surreal because it has been so long and a deep-seeded goal of mine.”