Ex-officer now commands Job Corps Center in Memphis
Gen. David Petraeus called Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill an example of initiative, energy and inspirational leadership.
Maj. Gen. James McConville called him one of the greatest senior noncommissioned officers who ever served in the 101st Airborne Division.
But, at the Benjamin Hooks Job Corps Center in Memphis, the students just call him Mr. Hill.
"I get a few students that will come up to me and say, 'I Googled you, Mr. Hill. Do you know who you are?'" laughed Hill, as he waved to herd of students passing by his office.
After 35 years in the Army, Hill hung up his uniform in August to return to his native Memphis, where he now serves as director of residential living at the facility that teaches vocational skills to at-risk youth and young adults.
The 199 students who live in the on-site dorms look to Hill for just about anything that isn't school-related, though he's happy to dole out advice to any kid, on any subject.
Hill's first student of the morning dropped by to chat but, after mentioning his desire to write to President Obama someday, they spent the rest of their time brainstorming what he might write about.
Obama is a frequent topic of conversation in Hill's office, due in large part to a framed photo of the President embracing a crisply uniformed Hill sitting on the desk.
"I started in the same neighborhoods you started in, the same elementary schools, middle schools and high schools," Hill says to as many of his students as possible, particularly those who take the time to Google his lengthy service record.
Hill joined the Army in 1978, a year after graduating from Mitchell High School, to support his wife and the baby boy who was on the way.
Within a few years of enlisting, he had fallen in love with the 101st Airborne Division and knew he would be "a lifer."
Hill was on the ground in Iraq in March 2003, when the U.S. first invaded, and returned in 2007 for the surge, which he called "the nastiest part of the war."
He also served directly under General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan during Obama's 30,000-troop surge there.
"No one has ever served as the command sergeant major for two wars. Those were huge accomplishments. Record book stuff. History book stuff," Hill said.
While his accomplishments in the Middle East are among his most standout achievements, Hill said nothing makes his heart swell more than his time leading rescue and reconstruction efforts under Gen. John Honore in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"Nothing in my training could prepare me for that," Hill said. "Restoring hope to Iraqi and Afghan civilians doesn't compare to restoring hope to your own people. I had never seen anything like that in the eyes of Americans before."
Hill has commanded more than 270,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that doesn't mean he takes the responsibility of leading his 199 students at the job corps center lightly.
"With my soldiers, it was really one team. You had various units but the ethos, the training, the discipline was all the same," Hill said. "With the 199 students in the dormitory here, there are 199 individuals with 199 different problems, concerns, and goals. That's a big difference."
James Harris, director of the job corps center, said Hill already has had a tremendous impact on the students since he arrived at the school in October.
"He's definitely loved by the students," Harris said. "He's established what he's called Team Hill. The students are very, very engaged with him. At least half if not more of the gym goes nuts when he walks in."
Harris is excited to see the students engage with Hill so enthusiastically, but he is also keen to see what Hill's military background will bring to dorm life.
"I'd like to see some of that discipline, consistency and friendliness that the military is known for around the dormitory area," Harris said. "There's a pride I think he can help instill, having led several regiments of men into combat."
Hill calls his position at the job corps center "a match made in Heaven," because after 35 years away from Memphis, he knew it was "time to come home" and, finally, time to pursue his dream of preparing Memphis youth for the world outside.
"Thirty years from now, these kids will be 48, 49, 50 years old," Hill said. "They'll be running the country so, ready or not, here they come. I prefer ready."