MARINE BARRACKS WASHINGTON — The Marine Corps has a new top sergeant major.
Sgt. Maj. Troy Black, the outgoing sergeant major of the Marine Corps, handed the reins to Sgt. Maj. Carlos Ruiz Thursday, marking the end of a four-year term that took place amid a bold restructuring of the force and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are incredibly grateful for your dedication, for your commitment, for your sacrifices, for your tenacity,” Gen. Eric Smith, the acting commandant, told Black at the ceremony.
Black isn’t retiring, though — in November, he will become the military’s senior enlisted service member as adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
As sergeant major of the Marine Corps, Black told reporters Aug. 2, he took on a big role in decision-making because his commandant, now-retired Gen. David Berger, encouraged him to do so.
“Gen. Berger was never satisfied with the last comment made at the end of the meeting [being], ‘Hey, Sergeant Major, do you have anything?’” Black said. “It was, ‘Hey, me and the sergeant major.’”
“I’m not saying other sergeants major and commandants didn’t do this,” he continued. “But more and more and more, he opened the voice of the sergeant major of the Marine Corps — on behalf of the larger population of the Corps — to have a bigger voice.”
Black has spoken up on quality-of-life issues affecting Marines and their families, like pay and housing — issues, he said, that still need work.
He has also been a champion of Berger’s Force Design 2030 initiative, which seeks to transform the Corps into a force ready for conflict with another great power, especially China.
That initiative has not gone over well with everyone in the Marine veteran community. But Black, like other top Marine leaders, has insisted that change — or, as he said he prefers to call it, “modernization” — is necessary.
“The force we have right now can win, and will win, today,” Black said Aug. 2. “However, tomorrow morning we should wake up with a force better than today, because that also should not be the day that any adversary … has an advantage over the United States.”
Ruiz has “more momentum” going into his term than Black and Berger did because the overhaul of the Marine Corps is already happening, Black told reporters.
Retired Sgt. Maj. Mario Marquez, who, as senior enlisted leader of III Marine Expeditionary Force, worked with Black, said he effectively communicated Force Design concepts to commissioned and noncommissioned Marines alike.
“Sgt. Maj. Black immediately showed that he was well read in, he was all on board with the commandant’s guidance for the future of the Marine Corps, all while dealing with a pandemic [and] keeping the Marine Corps combat-ready, focused and … being the force that’s ready to fight tonight,” Marquez said of Black’s 2020 efforts to brief staff noncommissioned officers about the initiative.
In November, Black will become the senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top enlisted role in the U.S. military.
“He’s forceful, he’s aggressive, he’s an innovator,” Marquez said. “He thinks out of the box. And I think that’s why he was chosen, because of his desire to push innovation and change and modernize DoD.”
But before Black gets his new insignia, he plans to sleep, think and get a lot of advice, he told reporters Aug. 2.
Black said he will thank his wife, retired 1st Sgt. Stacie Black, for letting him take on the new role — because if she’d told him no, he would have declined the job. He emphasized that Stacie has been involved in the decisions he made as the top enlisted Marine, especially when they pertained to Marine families.
And there’s plenty he has to get up to speed on. The Defense Department is a broader area of responsibility than the Marine Corps, he noted.
“I know what I know, but I probably need to learn to know a lot more,” Black said.
Ruiz takes charge
During the ceremony Thursday at Marine Barracks Washington, Black handed the sword of office to Smith, who passed it on to Ruiz in a tightly choreographed sequence of movements. An announcer presented Ruiz as the sergeant major of the Marine Corps.
Then, with the formalities concluded, the two sergeants major clapped each other on the back.
A native of Sonora, Mexico, Ruiz enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1993 out of Buckeye, Arizona, according to his official bio. He became a supply warehouse clerk and later worked as a recruiter and drill instructor. He did one tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, among other deployments.
As a sergeant major, his most recent assignment was as the senior enlisted leader of Marine Forces Reserve and Marine Forces South, in New Orleans.
As of Thursday, Ruiz is already the official sergeant major of the Marine Corps. Unlike general officers in leadership roles in the Corps, he doesn’t require Senate confirmation for his promotion.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has unilaterally held up confirmations of senior military nominees in protest of a Defense Department policy that provides time off and travel expenses for service members seeking abortions out of state. Since July 10, Tuberville’s hold has left the Marine Corps with no confirmed commandant.
Smith, the assistant commandant, and the president’s nominee for the top job, is stuck awaiting the Senate confirmation that would allow him to become the commandant and get an assistant commandant of his own. For now, he is acting commandant.
During the ceremony, Smith emphasized the Corps’ “complete commitment” to Ruiz.
“(For) every Marine, from the most junior Marine, down there holding onto Chesty, to the most senior three-stars and myself, you are our sergeant major,” he said.
In his remarks, Ruiz briefly switched into Spanish to thank his relatives for their sacrifices. He said he hoped they were proud of him; he was proud of them.
To Marines, he said, “I will ask from you that you take ownership of your place in our tribe, that you discipline yourself in that role, and to continue to demand from yourself more, to continue to demand from each other more, to continue to raise the standards.”
“But … I would want you to please understand when it’s time to stop demanding and begin to encourage,” Ruiz continued. “To encourage. To give hope.”
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.