Lieutenant Colonel Todd Mahar enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves as a college student in 1995 and was commissioned three years later. He has since served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and, from 2013 to 2015, was the Military Aide to Vice President Joe Biden. Currently, Mahar is the Commanding Officer of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
LtCol. Mahar is also a husband and a dad. Speaking with him, it’s evident that despite his impressive advances through the ranks of the Marine Corps, his roles at home top his priority list.
Parent co: I’d like to start with a question that I’m always curious about when I meet a member of the military. What led you to serve?
LTCOL. TODD MAHAR: What led me to serve initially was a little bit of extra money for college. When I was in college, the recruiter called me up when I was home for one of the breaks and just started talking to me and basically asked me some questions that I really didn’t have good answers for.
One question that he asked me that I did have an answer for was, “How would you like some extra money for college?” I would love some extra money! I enlisted into the reserves at that time. Once I got down to Parris Island and boot camp, something changed in me over those 13 weeks. It just seemed like there was something that kind of awakened me, so to speak, and it became more of a passion to do a little bit more and experience a little bit more in the Marine Corps. What kept me serving, though, has been the Marines and the people that I work with.
I can’t think of another job out there where, just by the fact that you wear the same uniform, you can trust them with your life, and they can do the same with you. Plus, I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.
Still trying to figure that out, huh? Well, it sounds like even though the marine corps wasn’t something that you were expecting to become involved with, you knew pretty quickly that it was something special to you.
Yes, absolutely. It was something special and something that I could be proud of. There was a sense of duty. I have served in three-year increments since then, so it’s never been a career. It’s been, “Let’s see what the next three years hold, then we’ll decide after that if we stay in or if we choose to do something different.”
Interesting. Is that normal? I know so little about the inner workings of the marines – the obligations and the time commitment.
Normally everybody comes in on an eight-year contract. You serve four years active duty and then four years in the inactive ready reserves. After your first four to six years on active duty, then, for officers, we get what’s called “career designated.” You get an “indefinite end of active service” date. So the Marine Corps says that they would like you to continue to serve until you feel that you want to leave, and there are some other requirements that also go in there, but after you get your indefinite end of active service, then it’s on you to reevaluate every few years.
Essentially, I could resign my commission at any time and choose to leave the Marine Corps, but I haven’t gotten to that point yet.
And what sorts of things factor into your decision every three or so years? How much has your family been a part of that decision for you?
My family has been a big part of it, and they have been involved in my career since I first came on active duty. My wife and I have been married going on 16 years, and she was there from the start of my active duty time and has been though the four deployments that I have been through. Realistically, the thing that has allowed me to stay in and focus on being a Marine has been their support and their sacrifice.
My wife didn’t necessarily know what she was getting into when she married a Marine, but at the same time she was open to the adventure. And there is a support structure and a social fabric within the Marine Corps that we were able to enjoy, and it has become a part of us. It’s really been one big family. We may have to move around and leave our own families behind, but when you do move around, the Marine Corps is so small that we end up meeting and reuniting with families that we’ve served with in the past.
What are some of your observations about how military life affects your children?
When you’re picking up and moving every three years or six years, it’s tough. You know, as a kid you grow up, and you make friends and you don’t necessarily want to have to leave those friends and start anew.
But what it teaches them a little bit more is the socialization skills and the interpersonal communication skills and relationship-building skills. My son and daughter can go into different situations and immediately try to get to know people and meet people. That’s, I think, from having to move around.
We have some friends that we’ve known in the Marine Corps for years; they have children the same age that we get to either visit or get stationed together every few years. They always have friends that are out there. They’re the old friends that you and I both had growing up except that we say goodbye for a few years and then come back together a few years later.
What is school like for kids on base?
Most bases do not have Department of Defense (DoD) schools on base. A lot of times, military kids are going to school in town. And a lot of military families, like ours, live out in town, so the kids go to school in the local community.
On base, though, when everybody is in similar situations, there’s a similar understanding of what everybody’s kind of going through and that many of the kids will be moving every few years, and the DoD teachers, a lot of them are spouses of military. So they understand and regardless of where you go, there’s always that support structure and that support network that’s out there.
Even out in town, there’s such a large military community in the civilian community that most of the schools understand that and kind of support the fact that many of the parents of the military students will be deploying, and that is a tough time for the children and the dependents. They’re there to be able to kind of help them get through that as well. We’ve had no issues with any of the schools that the kids have attended.
Have you found that it’s much different living on base versus living among the civilian population?
There’s more of a sense of security on base, where you know that your neighbors also fall within the same regulations and kind of orders that you do. There is that respect for authority that may or may not be out in town. There is the respect for the law, but you know, on base, there’s just kind of a common mindset so to speak. I think that having all of the different services and support on a military base, there’s not a huge need to go off base, since you have everything right there. The other big benefit of living on base is that the commute is normally much shorter and you don’t have to come through the gate to get to your office or anything like that.
I would imagine it’s quite a culture shock, changing from military family life to civilian family life. It seems there would be a whole world of challenges for every member of the family, not just the service member.
Yes, we do that within the service as well. As you return from deployment, we have reintegration and transition type discussions and classes. We know that home is not the same as being deployed and vice versa. If you have been deployed for seven months to a year, certain things become second nature to you in different areas. You want to make sure that the Marines transition back to where they know that they’re going back to a different environment and there’s different expectations and that we know that there’s going to be challenges going back home with the families and with the other marines and civilians in and around base. But one of the things that I think, at least for me and my family, the deployments are not … It’s hard to go away from home for that long, but when you come back and you reunite with your family, it makes things fresh again.
Every few years when you have to go on a deployment, it’s like the honeymoon begins again and an appreciation of the things that you have. That is, to me, the upside of deployment. Many civilians don’t know what it’s like to be gone from their families for long periods of time and have to accept the fact that you never know if you are going to come back again. Then on the other side of it is coming back and being able to appreciate what you may or may not have had again.
It sounds like you’re saying deployment makes it almost impossible to take your family for granted.
Are there any misconceptions about military life that you hear a lot and wouldn’t mind dispelling?
For me, the conceptions, the different things that you may hear, family-wise it builds a resiliency because of the amount of challenges that we go through, whether it’s moving every few years, whether it’s deploying to different places, the inability to communicate on a daily basis while you’re deployed… I hope that when my kids talk to their friends that may not be in the military, that they can be proud of what their daddy does. The other part is, I deploy and go to combat so hopefully one day my kids won’t have to. I always keep that in mind.
As far as any other misconceptions; everybody chooses their course in life. Just like you’ve chosen your profession, we all have a place in society and a job to do, and I really do appreciate those that will thank me for my service but at the end of the day, I thank them for what they do for myself and my family and for society. We just all make our choices. We do the best that we can with the cards that we’re dealt.
What can civilian families do to support military families?
Well, I mean, to me it’s the understanding and really the appreciation of what those families are going through. When you look at a military service member or family, (know) that when we deploy, we go and have to fight our nation’s battles, and we do that out of service. We do that as a responsibility to support and defend our constitution. It may not be our choice to do it, but the choice was made when we raised our right hands and swore an oath.
The choice was to take care of one another, to make sure – to the best of our abilities – that we all come home safely, and also knowing that it’s just the fact of the matter that we may not. That’s what we experience on a daily basis, and not that we deserve different things as much as just that understanding and again, that our kids don’t choose this life. You may see a new face every year, but it’s not the kid’s choice that they’ve had to move three times in the last nine years of their life.
Is there anything your kids could say that would make you opt out of the corps the next time the decision came around for you?
If my kids get to the point where they understand what I do and the impact of it, they can request that I don’t deploy again. That would be something that I would consider. I do feel, and I learned early on, that the military will be done with you at some point in your life. When that day comes that you take the uniform off and you look around, your family is going to be the only thing that you have left.
Making sure that you have that family support and structure, and really just the caring and the love, you want that to still be there when you hang up the uniform. Hopefully you don’t do anything to destroy that while you’re in the service.