Michael L. Kufchak Jr. graduated from The Rayen School and left Youngstown’s Smoky Hollow neighborhood in 1982 to become a Marine.
When he retired Friday, 31 years later, he was a Marine’s Marine, a combat veteran with a Purple Heart and sergeant major of the 1st Division at Camp Pendleton, Calif., the Marine Corps’ highest enlisted rank.
Born in Warren’s Trumbull Memorial Hospital, Kufchak is the son of Sandra Treharn of Girard and Michael L. Kufchak Sr., who is deceased.
Treharn and other family members joined Kufchak, 51, for his retirement ceremony in California.
Kufchak has a brother, John Kufchak in California, and two sisters, Robin Streb of Poland and Tammy Kornegay of Youngstown. Kufchak and his wife, Barbara Mendez, who live in Corona, Calif., have two foster children, Stephanie and Dee.
“We are very proud of him. Everybody loves him. He’s a wonderful person,” said his mother.
During his career, which started with boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot at Parris Island, S.C., Kufchak was a rifle-range instructor for entry-level Marines and a drill instructor and senior drill instructor at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, Calif.
Among numerous assignments, he served as an infantry platoon sergeant and gunnery sergeant, battalion operations chief and company first sergeant in various units, and was an instructor for the Sergeants Course at the Staff Non-Commissioned Officers Academy in El Toro, Calif.
He said he believed leading from the front was an integral part of inspiring troops, especially in combat. As the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines sergeant major, Kufchak deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in December of 2005, and he lived his words and was seriously wounded May 21, 2006.
Kufchak and the command section were headed back to Camp Fallujah after conducting a site survey in Habbaniyah when an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded, sending two 155 mm artillery shells through his Humvee. The blast injured everyone in the vehicle and killed the turret gunner.
In an article published on the 1st Marine Division’s website, Kufchak said he remembers fragments of the incident during which shrapnel showered his face, piercing through his ballistic glasses and severing a nerve in his right eye, blinding it.
Fearing a medical discharge that would force him out of the Marine Corps and away from his men, he underwent plastic surgery, endured headaches and physical therapy, and learned to shoot left-handed. He made himself combat-ready for two subsequent deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008 and 2010.
“I wouldn’t accept that at all. It was important to me to get recovered as fast as I possibly could because I still had men that were in harm’s way,” he said.
Kufchak said the Marine Corps gave him the discipline and maturity to excel at his job, but more importantly, the experience to be a leader of Marines.
“The Marine Corps developed me into a caring leader — an involved leader. Every Marine and every sailor has that very same opportunity. Nobody is exempt. What you put into it is what you’ll get out of it,” he said.
Kufchak said his inspiration and mentor was Sgt. Maj. Greg Grizzle when they served together with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.
“He was everything I wanted to be. The men loved him. He was working them into the ground, but he motivated and inspired those Marines to want to do their jobs and be as proficient ... as they possibly could. I wanted to be like that guy,” he said.
Kufchak said the Marine Corps allows him to be a part of something bigger than himself, and that the bravery and hard work of his Marines and sailors motivate him to give his best effort and continue to lead from the front, even in retirement.
Contributor: Sgt. Jacob Harrer, 1st Marine Division public relations.