Not yet 30 years old, Michael McCabe has already served 11 years with the U.S. Marines, done three tours with the infantry in Iraq, and within a month, the young staff sergeant will become the platoon sergeant of about 50 Marines, likely to be deployed overseas.
The last two years, he has been on recruiting duty, mainly in the rural Iron Range mining area of northern Minnesota.
All this has taken the 29-year-old a far distance and through cultures far different than that of his childhood on his grandfather’s ranch in the high desert at Little Water, on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico near Shiprock. But it hasn’t been a long distance from what he learned about himself working with his grandfather and about how he wants to live his life.
“I’ve always liked pushing myself,” McCabe said, who was a wide receiver and defensive end in high school football and a member of the wrestling team. “Through high school sports, I was very competitive. My parents definitely pushed me. My grandpa taught me everything from mechanical work to ranching to construction.”
As the eldest of five brothers, McCabe jokes that he got used to bossing people around “all the time,” so leading a platoon may come naturally.
A trim man with a winning smile and a love of motorcycles, McCabe joined the Marines just after high school. It’s been the perfect match with his abilities and goals, though he’s the first in his family to serve in the Marines.
“It’s something that I’ve always sought,” he said about the Marines’ tough expectations. “The challenging part is really what caught my eye. There’s no other place like it to gain the experience, to go see places.”
His career in the military did not surprise his family, though they did have trepidations about his three deployments to Iraq – 10 months each in 2003 and 2004 and 6 months in 2007.
“They were for it,” McCabe said. “It really was no surprise. They’re very supportive. They were scared at first.”
The conditions in Iraq changed from his first deployment in 2003 to his last in 2007. “Every time I went back, it was something different.”
Fighting was the most intense in 2003. “We’d have one calm day, and the next day we’d be in a firefight.” He also got to meet Iraqi people, who generally were friendly and glad of the U.S. military presence. “They were just happy to see us.”
McCabe has enjoyed his time as a recruiter in Minnesota, where he also met and married Kasey, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. It has been quite a change, however, to be operating mainly alone, covering about a 200-mile-square territory. He has done recruiting in high schools, county fairs and on regional reservations, such as at Red Lake and Leech Lake.
In recruiting, McCabe tries to follow the example of the Marine who recruited him in New Mexico. “He was straight forward and honest, just got to the point. It worked with me, so it’s what I do.”
Commitment and loyalty are necessary in the Marines, and McCabe looks for that determination in potential recruits. “The Marine Corps definitely shows what your body and your mind really is capable of. The standards are set high so that you can push yourself and make yourself a better person. … That’s what we look for before we even put them in, to make sure that they’re committed.”
Besides preparing for his new assignment, which begins at the end of March at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, McCabe is working online toward a bachelor’s degree in history. “I love it,” he said of studying U.S. and world history, “especially tying it in with the Marine Corps history.”
Among that history, of course, are the famed Marine Navajo code talkers of World War II. One of the first 29 code talkers was a marine named William McCabe, though not a relative of his, the staff sergeant said.
McCabe is anxious for an assignment where he’ll once again work directly with other Marines and to return to the camaraderie he felt in his Iraq deployments and that confidence that your fellow Marines “definitely watch your back,” he said.
“Every Marine that I know of is proud that they are Marines. The Marine Corps definitely will show you who you are.”