Deputy commander reflects on joint base experience, Marine Corps career

By Alice SwanSeptember 6, 2022

Deputy commander reflects on joint base experience, Marine Corps career
Deputy joint base commander, Lt. Col. Mark Paolicelli, smiles for a photo with his family during a performance of the Twilight Tattoo during summer 2022 at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL

JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Va. -- When Lt. Col. Mark Paolicelli turns over his duties at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall to Lt. Col John Dexter this month, he will do so as the longest-serving deputy commander for the base, having been on the leadership team for more than four years.

As just the sixth deputy since the joint base was established, Paolicelli has helped guide the installation through several crises that made his time at JBM-HH not only challenging but rewarding.

From addressing infrastructure and housing issues, supporting state funerals and ceremonies, addressing child care staffing challenges, increasing the base’s security posture, coordinating installation construction projects, to dealing with a the COVID-19 pandemic, the JBM-HH staff has tackled some very difficult and complex problems and have consistently accomplished the mission, Paolicelli said.

“Regardless of what challenges this team faces, everybody comes together, rolls up their sleeves, gets to work and figures out how to solve them. Being a part of that has been an honor,” he said.

Reflecting on his 29-year Marine Corps career, which will officially end Dec. 1, Paolicelli shared stories on how he became a Marine, the people who influenced his leadership style and his thoughts on his time at JBM-HH.

Q: As you look back on the past four years, what were your expectations originally, and what are your feelings now?

A: When I came into the job in 2018, I didn’t know much about the position, but it has been beyond my wildest dreams and expectations. We are the only Army-Marine joint base in the Department of Defense, and to be the deputy commander here is a privilege. I am not only representing JBM-HH but also the Marine Corps. And I’m okay being the only Marine surrounded by a bunch of Soldiers. Some of the best leaders I’ve served with have been in this command – Brig. Gen. Kimberly Peeples and now Col. David Bowling, who are both incredible leaders and two of the best bosses I’ve ever worked for. The leadership and guidance they provided has kept a steady state for this base through some challenging times.

JBM-HH has become a special place for me and my family. My daughter has been at the Cody Child Development Center since she was infant, and the phenomenal staff there have helped raise her. My wife is a dietitian in the Army Reserve and supported The Andrew Rader U.S. Army Health Clinic on her reserve duty. My family is very invested in this place; it’s not just a bunch of buildings behind a fence line. This is a home for us.

Q: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in your time at JBM-HH?

A: Obviously COVID-19 was a challenge for everybody. We couldn’t shut the base down; we had to stay open and provide services in a pandemic and virtual environment. We were able to come together and figure out how to do that in safe manner. I am very proud that we kept our CDC open through the pandemic to assist mission-critical personnel, keeping the staff and kids safe.

I am also proud of how our team handled an Arlington Public Schools rezoning proposal that was going to move many of our military children to a different elementary school. After gathering data, our team successfully advocated for our families in front of the school board and superintendent, and got our kids grandfathered into Long Branch Elementary School, where they were already zoned. Ultimately, we aligned with the new school, Fleet Elementary, once it was open, but our priority was to make sure our families were taken care of and that they didn't have any additional stressors. Military kids go through enough turmoil and change, and this one was avoidable. Since then, we have developed a strong relationship with APS, meeting with the superintendent once a quarter.

Q: Was a military career always in your plans while growing up?

A: If it wasn’t for the Army, I wouldn’t be here. My father enlisted in the Army at age 18 in 1969, because he wanted to go to Vietnam. But the Army sent him to Korea where he met my mom and they got married. At a young age, I saw my father’s Class A uniform hanging in a closet and thought it was the coolest thing. Growing up, I knew I wanted to be in the military and an officer. But the road to reaching this goal wasn’t easy.

I am the product of perseverance. At the end of my freshman year at Norwich University, my grades weren’t great. I went with my father to the local recruiting offices, where a U.S. Marine Corps recruiter told me about a program that would keep me in school and allow me to train in the summers. If my grades went up and I proved myself in training, then I could apply for Officer Candidate School. So I did just that, taking a semester off from college and going to Marine boot camp in 1993. When I went back to school, my grades improved, and I was drilling every month in the reserves. And in the end, I got accepted to OCS when I graduated.

Q: What have been some highlights of your Marine Corps career?

A: Because I started as an infantryman and eventually became artillery officer, I’ve been presented with a lot of unique opportunities both on and off the battlefield. I had seven deployments, including four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The combat tours are what we train for, and nothing can compare to leading a group of Marines into harm’s way, doing your job and bringing them all home.

I also had three noncombat tours, one of which included a humanitarian mission to the Philippines in 2006. For that mission, my unit was called in to help with a massive mudslide that destroyed an entire village. We worked closely with the Philippine Army, doing everything we could to rescue survivors. Working around the clock to help a community in need is something I’ll never forget.

Last but not least, as deputy commander for JBM-HH, I can honestly say that this position has put the exclamation point on the end of my career. Not only have I had the opportunity to meet two U.S. Presidents and liaise with senior military leaders, but moreover, I’ve been surrounded and supported by some of the most dedicated and committed public servants I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.

Q: Besides Col. Bowling and Brig. Gen. Peeples, are there other leaders who had an impact on you?

A: Two of my Marine Corps bosses definitely stand out: Lt. Col. Mike Frazier and Lt. Col. Mike Grice. Lt. Col. Frazier was my battalion commander with 2nd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, and I served as one of his artillery battery commanders as a captain. I always appreciated how he issued clear guidance and set very high standards but also put a lot of trust in his Marines and was receptive to our questions. He also prioritized the physical and emotional well-being of his Marines, to the point that our former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Dunford, once commented to me how impressed he was that Lt. Col. Frazier clearly had a connection with his Marines, because we all have kept in touch for so many years after we served together. While we were in Iraq, he wrote a personal letter to the parents of all his Marines to explain the mission, thank them and say it is an honor serving with their son. After my father received this letter, he had it framed and kept it in his office until he passed away. Knowing how much this letter meant to my dad, I decided to do the same thing when I became a major and deployed to Afghanistan. Lt. Col. Frazier taught me the importance of taking those extra steps and letting the people you work with know you care about them and their families.

The other leader who had a positive impact on me is Lt. Col. Mike Grice. Lt. Col Grice was my commander when I was with 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company and is honestly one of the most intelligent and caring officers I have ever served with. It should come as no surprise that he is another Frazier-trained officer. He balances book smarts with empathy and emotional intelligence. Even in his retirement, he still cares very much about his troops, and although it’s been over a decade since I served with him, I still get text messages from him checking in to see how I am doing and how my family is doing.

Both of these gentlemen took the extra steps to look after their folks. If you have a boss who cares about you, you are going to make the extra effort because you want to - not because you have to. This has inspired me to be a caring leader, lead by example, provide good guidance and lead with empathy.

Q: As you make the transition to civilian life, what have you learned about that journey?

A: First and foremost, I want to underscore that transitioning out of the military is a journey and not a destination. All service members need to know that there are some great programs and support services available to help them along this journey, and I urge people to leverage these programs as they exit the military. No one should do this alone. Furthermore, I encourage our military leaders to support their people and allow them to take advantage of programs like SkillBridge. It’s on us to set our service members up for success in the next phase of their life, and fortunately, we have the resources available to do that.

Speaking of great resources and programs, I was fortunate to participate in one of the SkillBridge programs led by the International City/County Management Association. Through my ICMA fellowship, I had the opportunity to work for the City of Alexandria, alongside the city manager, Mr. Jim Parajon. I found that there are a lot of similarities between running a city and running a base, and this fellowship gave me an opportunity to experience local government firsthand. I am grateful that Col. Bowling was willing to give up his deputy for two months so I could have this experience. His support speaks volumes about his leadership and commitment to ensuring transitioning service members have every opportunity to be successful after they exit the military.

Q: What’s next for you and your family?

A: While nothing is set in stone at the moment, I do know I will continue to serve in some capacity, whether at the federal or local government level.

Q: Do you have any final words for your JBM-HH team?

A: I can’t stress enough how grateful and humbled I am to have served with such a dedicated and amazing team. Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall is a small base, but we are mighty with who we support. We are a joint base, and I hope we continue to strengthen our relationship between the Army, the Marine Corps and all of our tenants and mission partners. It doesn’t matter what uniform you wear or if you are a civilian; we all serve. We are one team, one family with a common purpose. If you are a part of this joint base, you are part of something special. It has been the absolute honor of my life and the highlight of my military career to serve with this team.

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