Staff Sgt. Mark Mlachak is a caricature of the Parris Island drill instructor he once was — imposing, intimidating and able to cuss out an out-of-line Marine with the best of them.
All business, all the time, the 14-year Marine Corps veteran is a motorcycle and gun enthusiast and gym addict, covered in tattoos, with his head shaved bald and a large wad of dip perpetually packed into his lower lip.
At the same time, he can be kind, warm and funny, serving as the enlisted leader of India Company 3rd Platoon and father figure to Marines who work diligently for his approval, an occasional smile or a dirty joke.
As a noncommissioned officer he’s an adviser, tactician and enforcer. But he doesn’t bark out orders and hang his hat on his experience from deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti. Instead, he listens and works with his subordinates to come up with the best solutions.
“He’s a very approachable guy,” said 3rd Platoon squad leader Sgt. Donald Horn. “He likes to work with you, versus over you. I prefer his leadership style because it gives us more freedom to throw ideas at him, instead of him just telling us what to do.”
Horn said that Mlachak has his quirks and things he is unwilling to bend on, but nothing has been unmanageable or unjustified.
During an exercise in Korea, Mlachak watched as Horn set up several Marines from his squad on a gravel road, lying on their stomachs, rifles facing a fortified bunker up a hill in front of them. They appeared to be exposed directly to the bunker’s field of fire.
“I don’t like this,” Mlachak said as he walked over.
Horn explained his reasoning, and there was logic behind it. Company elements had threaded the needle to fit everyone into the gap, and the men needed to be there so they could quickly suppress and assault their objective. They also had to stay left of machine guns and rockets that would be firing on the target.
Horn and Mlachak talked it out privately like equals and settled on a compromise. Mlachak moved the men into some cover in relatively the same area.
“That’s one of the things I’ve taken from my time as a squad leader,” Mlachak said. “I didn’t like it when plans were given to me and I didn’t have any input. My squad leaders, especially Sgt. Horn, have a lot of experience, so we talk through the plan and find a happy medium.”
He said he tries to get to know his men and understand what motivates them.
“I’m not the guy who yells all the time,” he said. “I did that for three years at Parris Island. That’s not my personality. I try to [expletive] create a work environment where guys want to be here and want to be around, and if you’re yelling 24/7, that just becomes your normal voice. … Someone who’s been yelled at their whole life isn’t going to react to that.
“If I’ve got a platoon that wants to work for me and I can get that through by shooting the [expletive] with them on occasion and cracking on them when I need to, then it works,” he said.
Cpl. Logan Hampton, a team leader in 3rd Platoon, enjoys working with Mlachak.
“He’s really authoritative,” Hampton said. “He’s a drill instructor so he’s got that still imprinted in him — nothing against that. … I’d say he’s 90 percent serious and 10 percent he’ll let loose. ... If he’s joking around with you, he either likes you or feels comfortable with you.”
Mlachak had a very structured upbringing in Painesville, Ohio. He worked, ran track and wrestled. There was little time for anything else.
He almost went to art school instead of joining the Corps, even though the military was ingrained in him.
“Up until I was probably about in high school, I had always wanted to be a Marine,” he said. “My grandfather was a Marine drill instructor, Korea, Vietnam. My dad was a Marine. ... I was always in the woods with my suitcase full of guns, playing, so it was just a natural choice.”
His career spans two of America’s longest wars, and he had a front row seat for both. Now he must transition from two wars to none. It will be challenging to keep his Marines focused on training, especially since many of them joined primarily to fight.
“It’s a challenge to keep them going, especially the guys that did join while everything was going on,” Mlachak said. “As much as training is a necessity, they get frustrated with it, so you’ve got to find a way to sell it to them.”
Marine training can be robotic at times as a result of safety concerns, and ranges can be overly restrictive — when conditions aren’t downright miserable, like trudging through mud and sleeping without a tent.
“That’s where having that connection and being able to sit down and talk to them one-on-one, man-to-man, with rank not really involved and be like, ‘Hey, I get it. I know why we’re doing it, but here is what we can still take away from it.’ ”