“I said to myself the day I met my wife, ‘man, I’m going to marry you,’” Gunnery Sgt. Arthur Padilla’s eyes were far away. He mindlessly ran a thumb across the sweat clinging to his cold aluminum beer can on the table between us. “I met her in environmental science. She had a boyfriend and everything, but it didn’t matter,” he said, smirking as his eyes slid into focus. He glanced at his beer, coming back to our interview at the Marine Corps Base Hawaii staff noncommissioned officer’s club, July 3, 2019. “I knew I would marry her the same way I knew that I was going to be a Marine.”
That was 12 years ago. Padilla was a high school kid in the delayed entry recruiting program with big plans for himself and his future wife, with only one thing standing in his way- making a good impression on her father.
Michael J. O’ Malley, a retired Marine who served with distinction in the Vietnam conflict, was a tough sell, Padilla said.
“When I first met Mike, he was not welcoming at all,” Padilla recalled, laughing. ““One of the first things I told him was that I was joining the Marines, though, and the dynamics of the conversation changed immediately.”
Even after he told him he was going to be a Marine, he had to earn Mike’s blessing, Padilla said.
“Mike was old school,” Padilla said. “He saw it as his duty to provide for my wife’s mother, and he expected me to be able to do the same for his daughter.”
Eventually, Padilla was able to convince Mike that he was the real deal. Holly O’Malley became Holly Padilla, and as the years passed, Mike became an intrinsic link to the heritage of the Marine Corps for Padilla. They spent many nights conversing in his garage over a few beers, discussing the age-old question asked by every generation of Marines: Has the essence of the Corps changed or weakened with the passage of time?
“I would compare his tour to Vietnam and the stories he told to my own experiences in OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom), and I would think, ‘man, I don’t know how he did that.’ OEF was hard, don’t get me wrong,” Padilla paused, reflecting. He was getting far away again. “But when I compared it against his own combat experience and the situations he faced in Vietnam, it didn’t even seem close. I told him that, but one thing that he held close to him was that it wasn’t the caliber of Marine that changed; it was only the setting. He told me that if we were to flip generations, he knew I would do the exact same things that he did without hesitation. It was extremely humbling to hear that from Mike.”
As he spoke, the familiar voice of Lt. Gen. Chesty Puller crackled to the surface. His iconic words “Old breed? New breed? There’s not a damn bit of difference as long as it’s the Marine breed,” seemed to echo through Padilla. Another sip from his beer.
Mike recently passed away due to sudden heart failure. Padilla and his brother were among his pallbearers, and Marines who served with his father-in-law stood watch over his casket.
“I’m not a spiritual person at all,” Padilla said. “I was raised very Catholic, but that sort of fell by the wayside as I’ve gotten older.”
Regardless of his agnostic stance, Padilla said he still looked for Mike after his death.
“I just wanted a sign,” Padilla said. “A sign that he’s watching me or with me in some way, shape or form.”
He didn’t get it.
“I was hanging out in his room, I slept in his bed, I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning in his house, waiting for something- a door slamming, anything. It never came.”
Several days later, Padilla was with his family at the Base Exchange. He saw an older gentleman loading groceries into the back of his SUV and offered to help. The man declined, and Padilla went to his own car with his family.
“I was closing my car door, and someone wrenched it open,” Padilla said. “The guy was standing there, drenched in sweat. He scared the hell out of me.”
Padilla shifted a little in his seat, bringing his hand to the corner of his mouth and stroking his chin.
“He thanked me,” Padilla said slowly. “He grabbed my hand to shake it and said, ‘I really appreciate it Marine, Semper Fi.’ But he didn’t let go. He must have been holding on to my hand for five seconds.”
Padilla had reached across the table while he was talking. He had my hand now, and his eyes bore into mine. His grip loosened, and tightened again as he spoke.
“The old man loosened his hand just like that. Then he said it again. ‘Semper Fi.’”
His voice broke slightly. It might have been a cough.“I know that was Mike,” He said with a certain finality, leaning into the back of his patio chair.
“Even though I’m not terribly religious, I still have my faith. People sometimes confuse spirituality with faith though, I think,” Padilla cleared his throat. “My faith is in this organization. If it’s not church, I’m praying that I get to live another day in the uniform. You carry a debt, believe it or not on your shoulders. We train, live, breathe this debt that we owe to the Marines before us. Me being so close to Mike, I’m reminded of that debt. I owe him blood, sweat, and tears. That will never go away.”