THE PENTAGON – Sgt. Maj. Carlos Ruiz readied himself to join the U.S. Space Force when fate stepped in, as it had so many other times during his career as a Marine.
Instead of switching branches, the former top enlisted leader of Marine Corps Forces Reserve and Marine Corps Forces South would take on the role of the highest serving enlisted Marine.
On Aug. 10, Ruiz became the sergeant major of the Marine Corps, accepting the position from Sgt. Maj. Troy Black, who heads next to the Joint Chiefs of Staff where he’ll serve as the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman.
Ruiz called becoming Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps surreal in an early August roundtable with reporters.
“I feel like I had a body experience because I never thought that I would ever be a sergeant major of the Marine Corps,” Ruiz said. “I thought that I would do my time, [serve] four years and then move on.”
Ruiz knows the responsibility he now shoulders as the senior enlisted leader of the service.
“And that when the moment comes for me to deliver on something, I just want to feel good that I’ve done everything possible to be ready for that moment,” he said.
Ruiz has held a number of positions in the Marine Corps since he joined. He spent time in supplies, as a recruiter, leading reservists. Now he’ll work under Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Eric Smith, who is currently acting commandant. Ruiz’s experience will give him different perspectives in the new position. As an example, coming from Marine Corps Reserve taught him to see the total force.
Using the total force is something Smith laid out in his first guidance as ACMC and acting commandant. Under Smith’s leadership, the Marine Corps will continue to implement Force Design 2030, which Ruiz will now take on as well as the top enlisted Marine.
That does not mean Ruiz plans to come in and make changes, he said. He plans to listen to the force in first months on the job.
“It’s not about what I’m going to change, it’s about what’s not going to change,” Ruiz said.
The Marine Corps is constantly changing, Ruiz said, reflecting on his 30 years in the service. But standards, a focus on the people and discipline are bedrocks that remain steady even during modernization.
As the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, one area of focus for Ruiz will be personnel, which falls under Talent Management 2030. Under the Force Design 2030 approach to personnel, the Marines focus on the maturation of the force through retention, a shift from the previous paradigm of a young, strong force that will not serve for long.
While the Marines are not struggling with retention or recruiting, it is not something the service can take for granted, top leaders have said. For Ruiz, this means the Marine Corps needs to create an environment where the Marines feel supported. It is about making the service reflect the individual’s reason for enlisting, he said.
It also means that Ruiz will have to tackle ongoing issues, like access to healthcare and living arrangements, he said. Issues Black had to tackle as sergeant major of the Marine Corps and will likely continue when he begins as the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman.
The military is an all-volunteer force. That means attention to pay, medical care, retirement plans and equitable housing, Black said.
When Black takes on his new role, it will be the first time a service senior enlisted moves in the senior enlisted advisor of the chairman, he said.
In his time as Marine’s top enlisted leader, Black oversaw Force Design 2030, introduced by former Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger. Force Design brought modernization to the force, not change, he said. Change scares people.
“There’s been much change,” Black said. “There has been much advancement. There are technology and capabilities that we have right now that didn’t exist on paper four years ago. They’re being deployed now. That is massive, massive, massive modernization of our corps in a very short compressed amount of time for the right reasons.”
The Marine Corps, under the leadership of Smith and Ruiz, needs to continue the momentum, Black said.
“Because we have an adversary who’s doing the exact same thing,” he said.
Ruiz is taking over a role expanded by Berger, Black said. Berger gave Black a bigger voice, which gave a larger voice to the force. People are the foundation of the force.
“The sergeant major is a people person,” Black said.
Black and Ruiz will have to learn different perspectives as the people the services recruit now come from different walks of life, Black said. He compared it to how his leaders were Vietnam veterans, but his first combat experience was in Kuwait. Now the leaders are veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, while those who are being recruited were born after Sept. 11, 2001.
Black said he would sum up the last four years in the word “blessed.”
“I’m a one in a million,” Black said. “Sgt. Maj. Ruiz is one in a million. And there are many to choose from. Many to choose from, and it ended up being him, and it ended up being me… Once you’re given that level of blessing… you must put 100% of your time and effort into it because the weight to bear of that blessing is so great.”