Kustra Keeps Reserves Ready

June 21, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Mark Kustra has lived over half his life overseas.

He learned to speak Thai before he could speak English. Having spent 10 years of his pre-college life in Thailand, Japan and Germany, he had ample exposure to military life.

“I always knew I wanted to join the service,” Kustra said. “It seemed like the right thing to do. Then when it came time, I picked the Marine Corps, because it seemed like the best thing to do.”

Kustra graduated from the Naval Academy in 1990, earning a commission as a second lieutenant. He was initially stationed at Camp Pendleton in Southern California with the 1st Marine Regiment. Soon after, he joined the 1st Recon Company at Camp Pendleton before moving on to the 3rd Recon Company in Okinawa, Japan.

During nearly four years of reconnaissance duty, Kustra served both in Somalia and the Persian Gulf. He participated in the evacuation of the United States Liaison Office in Mogadishu and in Operation Southern Watch, an intense two-week activity designed to keep Saddam Hussein warned and cautious after the Gulf War when it seemed a second conflict might erupt during the mid-’90s.

“I have never seen combat in the normal definition of the term. I haven’t had much experience with shooting at people and having them shoot back,” Kustra said. “But I have been around the block, and I have seen some pretty bad stuff.

“Usually just our being present is enough to stop bad things from happening, and that’s a much greater success than any combat action.”

In August 2000, Kustra came to Grand Rapids, where he assumed command of the active duty section of Alpha Company, the USMC Reserve unit of Grand Rapids, bringing in individuals from all over West Michigan.

He was suddenly faced with working with men who somehow coexisted as both hard-working Marines and productive civilians. After years of participating in primarily forward operations, he was now the head of a staff of active duty personnel whose main purpose was to instruct and inspect the staff of the reserve side of the unit.

“My job here is to provide a bridge between what is happening on the reserve side of the Marine Corps and their counterparts on the active side,” Kustra explained.

“Inspector or instructor? More on the instructor side. I want to ensure that we have trained personnel, and that they, especially the leadership, have the instruction and tools necessary to perform their duties if they are called to active duty.”

This includes monthly training exercises at Michigan training centers Camp Grayling and Fort Custer, as well as two weeks of active duty training each year. Under Kustra, Alpha Company has consistently been the most qualified unit in the battalion (roughly the state of Michigan), and was ranked as one of the top five units in the nation last year as a finalist for the Cates Award.

Kustra has also been faced with an interesting new task.

“The other side of our role here is to tell the USMC story to the local community, to provide a local presence,” Kustra said.

A significant portion of his work is devoted to activities within the community, including support of local veterans, the Young Marine program, numerous speaking engagements and the Toys for Tots program.

Members of Kustra’s unit have volunteered their time to participate in an average of two funerals a month this year, and over 100 events during the two months of the Toys for Tots program.

Toys for Tots, one of the most recognized and successful charities in the nation, delivered 73,397 toys to 27,137 children last year in 14 West Michigan counties. The program kicks off its 2002 season Nov. 20 at the Amway Grand Plaza.

Although Kustra epitomizes the role of the public sector, many problems facing employers in the private sector, such as employee retention, also arise.

“You know that is by far our biggest challenge,” Kustra said. “There is very little tangible reward to this job. Guys stay in because of esprit de corps and a sense of unity. Things like pay and incentives are important, but pride is the reason most stay … and like employees anywhere, they want to feel like they’re doing something special.”

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