How a 70-year-old Marine officer from Columbia, S.C. proves the Marine Corps still builds men

By Thomas S. Mullikin, PhD

America’s Marine Corps was established on November 10, 1775, when the Continental Congress ordered that two battalions of Marines be raised for combatant service aboard ship, as Naval landing forces, and in service ashore as maritime Infantry detached to Washington’s Continental Army. Since that time U.S. Marines (originally the Continental Marines) have participated with great distinction in every war and lesser armed conflict in which the United States has been engaged. “From the Halls of Montezuma, to the Shores of Tripoli” to Belleau Wood, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Chosin, Hue, and Fallujah; the Marines have an uncanny reputation for fighting prowess stemming from its truly unique culture and a severe brand of training admired, feared, and respected throughout the world.

The great Athenian General Thucydides once said: “We should remember that one man is much the same as another, and that he is best who is trained in the severest school.”

The Marines are known for turning out some of the toughest warriors in the world from the aforementioned severest school: Whether officer or enlisted, the entry-level and follow-on training for U.S. Marines is demanding far beyond most other nations’ boot camps and officer candidate schools with those schools breeding warriors who are prepared for the worst possible scenarios in “any clime and place” as denoted in the Marines Hymn.

None of it is easy. Young men – eager to earn the Marines’ famous eagle, globe, and anchor – must first endure extreme physical and mental hardship on the front-end with that training only ratcheting up during what civilians might refer to as “Continuing Ed.” In reality, it is more like a newfound life – whether a four-year hitch or 20-plus year career – wherein training becomes progressively more extreme, hardship is a given, and deployments are often in some of the most austere and dangerous environs imaginable.

This type of life literally changes men and it consequently produces, post-service, some of America’s toughest, most resourceful leaders who continue to serve and, yes, survive, well beyond their time in uniform.

I have been blessed to know a few such men: I’ve commanded them in my role as S.C. State Guard commander when they have extended their U.S. Marine Corps federal service into service at the state defense force level. I’ve also worked closely with them professionally. I’ve explored the most isolated and remote destinations on earth with them: Shared hardships indeed. And I’ve become very close friends with several.

One such man is a retired colonel of Marines, Col. Steve Vitali, who accompanied me and my team as we humped one of the toughest-to-climb mountains on earth (a “severe school” in itself if you will). Though no stranger to mountains and tough expeditions, this was a first for Steve in terms of it being the highest altitude he had ever experienced on foot.

Steve served for three decades-plus as a commissioned officer in the Marine Corps: Being commissioned in 1976 and serving both at home and abroad including operations Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, and Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, Steve was the senior U.S. military advisor during the time he was there and the only Marine maneuver element commander in that country. Commanding forces through several extremely volatile crises during the war including a citywide uprising in Kabul in which he had to declare martial law on the city, and later surviving an Army Black Hawk helicopter crash in the Hindu Kush mountains, Steve is best known for standing atop a cliff and shouting at the Taliban: “Come and fight me!”

In fact, his extraordinary experiences in both Afghanistan and Iraq would make for a stirring bestseller.

A 2021 article in THE SOUTHERN EDGE magazine referred to Steve as “one of the most dangerous combatant leaders on the planet,” adding, “…but who would know?”

Still, the man is human and subject to all the human trials and frailties that any of us might endure.

In early June and only days before meeting with my team to climb to Ecuador’s famed Mount Chimborazo, the highest geographical point on earth, and mere weeks before celebrating his 70th birthday, Steve, was in the doctor’s office being administered painful shots into his back to address service-related injuries.

Still he was determined to climb.

Traveling to the remote areas of Ecuador to even attempt Chimborazo is tough for even the youngest, fittest, most-experienced mountaineer.

Steve had only the deep mental and physical resolve that was burned into him nearly 50 years earlier. Mount Everest’s peak is the highest altitude above mean sea level at 29,029 feet but Ecuador’s Mt. Chimborazo’s peak is the furthest point into the atmosphere with Chimborazo’s summit being more than 6,800 feet farther from Earth’s center than Mount Everest’s.

Age and back-injuries aside – in fact no one would have recognized either from his day-to-day countenance and physical performance – Steve demonstrated a grit that only a grizzled combat Marine would have been able to summon. It was simply remarkable and inspiring to witness. Stopping only a couple times as we climbed against freezing winds of nearly 50 mph and enroute to high camp at 17,500 feet above sea level (or more than 24,000 feet into the atmosphere), Steve set the example for all; climbing strong and without complaint or a negative word that might have been expected from a lesser experienced mountaineer. Steve was the best type of teammate — eager to help, committed to the mountain and to the team, and always with an encouraging word for everyone.

Unusual to be sure, but not for a man like Col. Steve Vitali.

The Marine Corps should be impressed to know that their training and demanding service created one of the toughest men on one of the world’s toughest mountains I have ever seen. Truly, what I witnessed in Steve is that which makes me proud to be an American and it renews my deep respect for America’s Marine Corps.

– Pictured (L-R) Colonel Steve Vitali; Maj. Gen. Tom Mullikin, PhD; and U.S. Army Green Berets Lowell Koppert (right rear) and Dan Lenz (right front) in Ecuador, June 2024.

– Dr. Tom Mullikin is a global expedition leader, attorney, university professor, former U.S. Army officer, and retired two-star commander of the S.C. State Guard. He serves as chair of the gubernatorially established S.C. Floodwater Commission and he is the leader of the annual SC7 Expedition from the mountains of South Carolina to the sea. Dr. Mullikin is currently on an exploratory mission in Ecuador where he penned this piece during his trek from Mount Chimborazo in the Andes to the famed Galapagos Islands.

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