Name: Vincent Ciuccoli
Military Branch & Rank: US Marine Corps, Deputy Commander
Dates of Service: 1993 – present (as of date of interview)
Villanova Degree: B.A., Political Science, 1994
Date of Interview: March 12, 2023
Interviewer: Michael D. Brown
Audio Producer: Meg Piorko
Length of Interview: 1 hour, 19 minutes
Transcribed by: Nicholas Coscarelli
Edited and annotated by: Meg Piorko
MICHAEL BROWN: Good morning. It is 10:15 on this beautiful morning at Villanova University. It is the 21st of March 2023. And we are here in the Rare Book Room in Falvey Library. And today, I am interviewing Colonel Vincent Ciuccoli, who is the current Naval ROTC commanding officer, and also a Villanova alumni. So, this is our first time we’ve interviewed someone in a while since COVID, but it’s great to be back, and we’re looking forward to hearing Vinnie’s story. So welcome. Thanks for being here today and we look forward to hearing your story.
VINCENT CIUCCOLI: Yeah, I mean, this is a perfect place to start. And I don’t know where you’re going to start, but I mean, this building, Falvey, as we know, has been here for a little bit. Not the prettiest building on Villanova, but a lot of time spent here back in the ‘90s. So, never in this room, but I’m happy to be back.
BROWN: Well, good. That’s great to hear. So just start with your early life, where and when were you born?
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, I was born in a place called Danbury, Connecticut. The Ciuccoli family kind of settled around this southwestern area of Connecticut. Although, my mother was born in the UK. She met my dad just after his time in the Navy in California. So, some British roots there. My dad, Italian American, born in Italy. His parents were born abroad, settled in that part of Connecticut. That’s where, once my parents were married in California, they moved back. That’s Ridgefield, Connecticut, which is right next to Danbury, Connecticut, which is where I was born. I was the second of three. So, I have an older sister born the year before me. I was born December 18th, 1972, and then I have a younger sister as well. All born in Danbury and lived there for a couple of years before we kind of settled, which I call my hometown of Bridgewater, Connecticut.
BROWN: Bridgewater, Connecticut. And that’s where you went to school?
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, it’s small. I mean, actually Malcolm Gladwell wrote about it in Outliers. He wrote about my high school, which, and it talked a little bit about the feeder schools. I went to a place called Burnham Elementary, you know like 10 or 12 kids in my class. And that joined with two other towns in this region called Region Number 12, Washington, Roxbury, Bridgewater. I stayed in my town, took the bus over to Washington for middle school and high school. That’s the school he wrote about. It’s called Shepaug Valley. The Spartans there. Again, not much of a bigger school. I think my graduating class was about 62 or 63. Not many considered military service. And nor was I really that keen on it. Although my dad was a Navy man, it wasn’t something right at the front of my mind. But living in Bridgewater, it’s countryside. Like it’s rural America, although people like to see Connecticut as kind of like rich people and mansions and stuff like that. Where I was, it wasn’t. And I considered to be – my dad was a foreman, and my mom was an x-ray technician – like a blue-collar family. Bridgewater, Connecticut until age 17 and coming here.
BROWN: And so, what was your high school like? Do you play sports? Were you involved in those sorts of things?
CIUCCOLI: I was an aspiring athlete, but not one that I would be that proud of. Freshman year, I was a basketball player. Freshman-sophomore year, I was a swimmer. Junior year, I did nothing. Senior year, I played golf. Along the way, I tried-out for different sports. It just wasn’t that level of athlete. So, and I always considered myself, I was one of those like late bloomers, the youngest of my class, and didn’t really, I think, have some of the same levels of maturity, physically or even emotionally as some of my peers, I look back on now today. So, while I tried, I think I was more of an academic. Like that’s, I think I generally did pretty well in school.
BROWN: Sure. Yeah. And does some of your family still live up in that area?
CIUCCOLI: The Ciuccoli family is kind of split up. My parents are in North Carolina. My mom’s side of family is mostly passed away. My dad’s as well, as far as the older generation. My younger sister, homesteads in Trumbull, Connecticut, which isn’t far from there. My older sister has been around. She’s still single, so she’s kind of been around the country, and is now in North Carolina with my parents. The Ciuccoli name lives in like a baseball field and a couple of graveyards in Connecticut. And it’s still, I go back there for like Veterans Day, Memorial Day events. There’s still a lot of relatives, but the name is really kind of spread out throughout the country now.
BROWN: Sure. So, talk to me about, you know, you’re going through high school, you said you’re an academic. Were you applying to a bunch of different schools in the area? Were you trying to get away from home? And what led you eventually to Villanova?
CIUCCOLI: Great question. I had a really good friend by the name of JP LaChance. We went to Burnham, so we were all the way from grade school on up together. And I knew he was applying to this great place called Villanova. I didn’t know a whole lot about it. I hadn’t visited it. I visited mostly local Northeast schools, places like Middlebury, even made my way up to see like Cornell, although I wasn’t Cornell caliber. Had some long shots up there. Some of the smaller schools like Marist and places like that up in the Northeast. But Villanova was my long shot school and it was my buddy JP’s safety school [laughs]. And I think I had the grades for it, but probably not like some of the recognitions that he had in high school. You know, he was top of the class, that kind of stuff. So, I just kind of followed his lead as I did a lot in high school and put it on there and I made it in. And it was really like a surprise. And then I came down to see the school after that.
BROWN: And what was your first impression of Villanova now that you get to visit the school, but being accepted?
CIUCCOLI: It’s hard for me to remember exactly, though. I think the best memory I have is being dropped off, not for the visit, but for freshman orientation in front of Corr Hall, which is where I lived. And I just remember feeling like I was in this small community, which reminded me a lot of Bridgewater. I never did, in my four years really opened my eyes to the outer world. I mean, beyond the main line. I probably made it down as far. We always said, if you go to Paoli, you go too far. So, like, and I didn’t, I mean, I didn’t know anything about Philly other than getting a cheesesteak and watching a game there. I did not take advantage of places other people were going to… wasn’t as big of a deal, but I mean, in terms of the surrounding area, it didn’t matter to me. I felt like Villanova was all I needed, just like Bridgewater was all I needed. It had the friends, the activities, the schooling that I needed. So, from the minute I stepped foot on it, it felt small. And today coming back, it feels, I guess even smaller, like it, you know? I have more awareness now, so I realized how small it is. But I liked that it was a comfortable place for me to be. And when I pulled up to Corr Hall, and met my roommate for the first time, it just all felt so right.
BROWN: Well, that’s good. Nice to have some fond memories. So, you’re pulling up to Corr Hall, and you have your first roommates. What are some of your first activities that you did? Your first memories of Villanova? And what were you studying here?
CIUCCOLI: Yeah. So it wasn’t, I knew I wanted to study biology, not from like a pre-med standpoint. I just knew I excelled in science. And I thought I could do the same here. So, I had that down and I rolled right into my freshman year as a bio major. But I knew the main activity I wanted to do. Somewhere in that summer before I came to Villanova, I did decide I wanted to show up on the front door of NROTC. So, I was there at the same time while the other scholarship students were there to do what was known as college program. It still is today. And it was a large unit. So, members just showing up out there on Mendel Field while my roommate was, you know, getting over the first freshman party he’s ever been to. And I, you know, rolled out there to Mendel Field. And it was a little different, NROTC then, but it was tough. And it was what I needed. I felt like I needed something to keep me in check. And that was my main thing. I cared a little bit about what was going on outside of those two things, but go to class, study biology, and be a good midshipman, try and pick up a scholarship. I was on all kinds of, you know, loans and grants. So, I was like trying to figure that part out too.
BROWN: Sure. And did that work out for you? Did you end up getting that Naval ROTC scholarship?
CIUCCOLI: I guess it didn’t. So, the work paid off in terms of like being able to benefit from the, you know, being on the team, the NROTC team. I think I learned a lot about military discipline and what it takes to excel there. But I didn’t really achieve what I needed to, which was a certain GPA, physical fitness score, and all that. So, kind of like I told you about sports in high school, I tried out for the team and didn’t make it. It was really halfway through sophomore year where I realized that I wasn’t going to get a scholarship and then you politely get asked to leave if you don’t, which is what happened to me. So, somewhere kind of like December, January, sophomore year, I ended up leaving the unit and just going back to my studies. And one of the reasons why I think I needed to do that was I needed to focus more on my studies. And it wasn’t going to be biology anymore because I just wasn’t really making the cut there. So, I switched to political science later in my sophomore year.
BROWN: And so how are you dealing with that adversity? Like what’s going through your mind as like, “I’m not cut out,” but is military still in the back of your mind as far as a goal?
CIUCCOLI: It was really far in the back at this point. I started to get the message. Maybe like I would have gotten from like the soccer coach, like “you’re not good enough at this particular thing. You might put in all the effort in the world, but it just may not be your calling.” So, I would admit that I put it, it was in the back of my brain, and I was a Navy option I should have admitted. And I always kind of thought that if I was to try again, it would be to be a Marine, but I put it way in the back of my mind. I joined a fraternity. I was a Sigma Phi Epsilon. I was fraternity through and through. It was maybe not my calling for my life, but at Villanova, it’s where I was able to finally, I think, mature a little bit and use some of my, what I think was, my budding leadership aptitude to lead. I was like the pledge master and then went on to do some of the governance of the organization. At the time, I was under the wing of guys like Mike Zubi and people that are still around here quite a bit from my fraternity. So, I think that’s where I found my home for that junior-slash-senior year. But because I had that Marine option thing in mind, I stayed very much in touch with all the Marines from the unit and tried to still make that part of my identity. Like, what does this mean? Like, why do I still feel this draw to the Marine Corps? And just to go on to the next thing real quick, I was probably on Christmas break my junior year when I realized that like, fraternity is great. It’s going well, but that’s not going to be like anything doesn’t mean anything for my future life. I don’t even know what political science means for my future life. So, I went down to the officer recruiter in Philadelphia and explored going to Marine officer candidate school.
BROWN: And what does that what does that process look like for the person who’s like, you know, not having never served in the military? What is, you know, going to a military officer recruiter like versus going to an enlisted recruiter?
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, that’s a great point. I mean, they want they wanted me. I felt like more than I wanted them, which is a good position to be in. If ever somebody who’s aspiring to enlist feels the opposite, you should probably be questioning figuring out what’s going on. But I felt like I was in a great kind of negotiation position. I was offered different options, including aviation. So, they asked me a lot of questions that would allow me to take that test to check my aptitude for, in this case, for aero and that worked out. So, the conversation went quickly from they need me to what can I kind of get out of the Marine Corps that may be different than the other candidates. And although I’d never flown before, it seemed like an elite thing to pursue that seemed pretty neat. I knew I could be a good Marine leader and also try this other thing out. So, the conversation for me went quickly into that type of contract. But for anybody going into those places, you could have a normal college life, which I did, and still have this back of the mind kind of approach to service and bring it to the foreground as you matured, which is really what happened to me kind of junior-senior year after officer candidate school, when you kind of learn what it really means to be an officer.
BROWN: Right. And so that’s it sounds like you’re picking aviation. You’re thinking OCS and is OCS similar to enlisting where they give you a date and say this is where you’re going to be? And at this point, I’m assuming it’s Quantico, Virginia.
CIUCCOLI: That’s right. The shipping location has to do with your home of records. So, since I’m a Connecticut guy, I was shipping from Connecticut, and I didn’t know the officer recruiter up there. I didn’t know anybody. So, you’re thrown out, you’re told to show up at the airport at a certain time and date. There’s a drill instructor there that gets you kind of going in the right direction. And it’s really when you land in DC that they pick you up. And then it’s a little administrative at first before the kind of more shock-and-awe piece that happens on the drill field. But yeah, I would say it’s similar. You meet some of your first friends. To this day, Tony Frasco from Chicopee, MA, he was on the plane with me. We went to OCS together, grew up in the Marine Corps. Though he’s out now and is somebody much like the guy JP I told you about that that helped me kind of navigate. He was prior enlisted. He knew everything. I knew nothing. And I can be a quick learner, a good listener. And that’s just what I did to kind of, you know, not screw it up. That’s really the approach I had.
BROWN: Sure, and what is what are some of the shock and awe tactics that you see when you step foot in Quantico?
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, now I’ve been back to OCS as a as a major, as a company commander. So, some of my memories, I kind of blend them where I’ve watched it happen to people and I’m imagining again myself in that position. But the way I remember it is when you’re in the classroom and the company commander comes up and says “Welcome to OCS,” “It’s going to be great,” “It’s going to be a life changing moment for you.” Then he gives some signal to the dogs in the back and they come out tossing desks, you know, it felt like bodies were flying around, but definitely your stuff is flying around. And that continues on for the better part of 48 hours as you’re just trying to gather your stuff that’s been yard sailed all over the drill field. And it’s just, I was discombobulated for I’d say the best part better part of two weeks where I’d even know who I was or what my purpose was in life. I just was trying to get to the next thing where they made it so much about, you know, the taking meticulous care of your rack, your foot locker, the person next to you, getting onto the place. You know, the shower wasn’t a shower; it was a wagon wheel with soap getting onto the hairy parts. It was just it was very – I had no exposure to it. That little bit that I did at any company at Villanova wasn’t even close. I thought that was kind of like a little bit of a haze, but this experience at OCS, maybe a little bit of the old school OCS, probably compares a little bit to the old school boot camp. I wasn’t belittled, but I felt like I have to start from zero. Otherwise, I’m not going to make it.
BROWN: And what is it that you’re you know, what is it you’re learning? What’s the day to day like at OCS? That’s, you know, again, when the people listening to this may have no experience at all in the military. So, what is it that OCS is taking you from and then to?
CIUCCOLI: The mission of OCS is to screen and evaluate, or evaluate and screen, and to educate too. There’s an education piece to it. That wouldn’t have been known to me, that I just know it now after going back as a company commander. What it felt like was everything I’ve seen on Full Metal Jacket or somebody that where you’re being broken down and restarted. What’s actually happening is they’re getting you into a place where they can get – between the prior enlisted and those that know something to those that don’t kind of – on the same plane so they can screen you from the same start point. But that said, they expect you to have leadership aptitude when you get there. So, you’re thrown into leadership positions right away. And if you are somebody that thought you could hide in the shadows, it’s not there because they’re trying to elevate you into a position where you’re forced to make tough decisions, still make it to class on time, do well on the test, while you’re still sweating from the physical fitness test, while you are perhaps undernourished because you got sped through the chow hall, or your body’s breaking down because you’re drilling all the time and just listening to orders and kind of that immediate obedience part. So, I would say it’s some of the elements of boot camp mixed in with a screening like evaluation where they’re not trying to break you down because they think that you have what it takes to just try to kind of supervise and double check it. And in doing so, there’s a lot of heat put on you to make decisions that you can’t just, again, you can’t just be following in the ranks. You actually have to step out and make a difference in your platoon. And again, that’s probably where I was kind of, much like the fraternity experience, kind of tested and evaluated and in some cases excelled.
BROWN: You’re about to graduate OCS and a question, is OCS for every job description? So, if I’m going to be an infantry, or artillery, or an aviation. Everyone’s coming there and then going off to a different specialty school, is that sort of the gist of it?
CIUCCOLI: Almost. Yes, everybody goes to OCS. So, NROTC midshipmen go there for shorter period of time. Those who need more, because we’re just officer candidate school, we don’t have all the time at school or at the academy. So, we go for 10 weeks or in some cases 12 weeks. They’re there for usually about six weeks. But everybody goes and it’s figured out later what you’re going to do, and actually happens after senior year. So, I went back, finished my senior year, and then you go to the basic school. So everybody kind of ships off back to Quantico to do that kind of every Marines a rifleman thing. The same as you would see in a kind of Marine Corps combat training environment where it doesn’t matter if you’re going to be administration, logistics, aviation. We all go there for, it was really about 10 months at the time, nine-10 months to make sure that we can be we can do infantry tasks before in lead before we go into our specialty field. So that was the basic school after I graduated here in May of ‘94.
BROWN: So that’s that summer. So, you’re graduating you’re heading down to –
CIUCCOLI: Actually, I had to wait. I mean, it’s a long story, but OCS people go later than midshipman from the academy or from ROTCs. So, I didn’t go until January of ‘95. But that the time between, you are back into the general population, you’re commissioned as a second attempt but you’re not getting a paycheck. So, I did some other random tasks around Villanova, cleaning houses, bartending, you name it, running a flower shop, random stuff just to stay alive.
BROWN: Sure. Pay some bills and stay alive. Is the basic school same places enlisted folks are going for? Are you going down to South Carolina?
CIUCCOLI: No, so the basic schools in Quantico are kind of the other side of the base from OCS. And it’s this huge training area where we can do everything from, this the first time that you are become a marksman. The first time that you really lead patrols, go on long hikes, everything is about combat everything’s about making sure you have the endurance for it, mentally and physically, as well as some of the skill sets, you’ll need to actually take again an infantry platoon out. In the old days guys would roll straight from there and to say, Vietnam, before they do anything else. So, it’s still designed to be able to do that although we go from there into our specialties and I already had an aviation contract. So, I knew. Some guys, they’re working hard to get a certain bill it to get a certain occupation. And in the case of the aviators were again we’re you’re trying to do well but also stay healthy to go back down to flight school.
BROWN: Right. And is this, because you’ve already gone through OCS, is the basic school seen as is it tough? Is it harder?
CIUCCOLI: It’s harder. It’s longer. It’s what I thought was tough with the OCS and including some of the physical fitness stuff is nothing like it. That was more about just making us tired and screening us to see if we could be an officer. This is actually about pushing us to the limit. Maybe not so much as infantry officer course kind of like the army that they go into more specialized. But again, the first time I’m shooting on a range with pressure on me, pistol and rifle, the first time you’re leading a convoy. So, it is way deeper in terms of knowledge and it extends you further physically too.
BROWN: Sure. So you’re it sounds like you’re probably excited to be done with those things and wanting to be on the aviation track.
CIUCCOLI: I would say, at that point I was definitely happy to have an aviation contractor though again TBS is important to all of us, and we’ll remember all of our friends there and we stay in touch. Yes, everybody’s looking forward to getting on to what they’re going to do. So that’s a long road. So, you just want to get – in my case – get down to Pensacola.
BROWN: Right. So, Pensacola, Florida is next and is it happening right away? Are you waiting again?
CIUCCOLI: This time, right away but when you get down there, much like today, there are backlogs. So, you start into some introductory kind of almost like flight simulator type classes, a lot of book knowledge at first. You’re not touching an aircraft for the probably the first six months. So, there was a little delay but not long. I mean it’s stressful because you’re physically, again, they’re running you on the beach. They’re trying to screen out the people who really don’t – that just barely made it there. You know like there is some of that going on it from, this is naval aviation. This is navy and marine side by side, no longer this marine screening, and now it’s like, “Is this guy really the person that we want you know commanding an aircraft and all the people?” So, they’re pretty tough on you down there in the initial phase just to see if you should be in a cockpit at all. And then there’s a lot of people that are DOR-ing that are figuring out they don’t want to be in a cockpit. Everything from, what I call the spit and puke, which is checking to see if you can maintain you know some kind of semblance of order in your body when you’re in the chief forces. The pressure chamber, you know, when you do things like getting dropped behind a boat. You know, you’ve seen parasailing before, but they’ll actually release you and you’ll parachute down, like the final phase of going into the water. You got to get yourself out of that. The swim calls are very tough. The mile swim. All that stuff happens before you even get to touch an aircraft. So, it’s challenging.
BROWN: Sure. What year is this, 1996?
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, it’s 1996.
BROWN: In Pensacola Florida. How long is flight school?
CIUCCOLI: It’s supposed to be about a year and a half to get you through primary and intermediate. That’s when everybody flies fixed wing first. So, you fly what used to be called the T-34, now it’s changed. It’s a single engine prop but fully aerobatic airplane. You know, two in the cockpit, the instructor sits behind you and hits you with his clipboard all the time. That’s where everybody starts out and that part’s supposed to take about six months and then when you get into intermediates, which is when you find out if you’re going rotor wing or fixed wing that takes about another year just to get your wings. In my case it was a little bit backlogged I would say was closer to two years. A little over a year now.
BROWN: Sure. So, you’re going into flight school, was there, you know, where you wanted to be a top gun pilot where you wanted to be a helicopter? Like, what were you up –
CIUCCOLI: Top gun was definitely in, you know, like mid-80s, right? If I’m not mistaken. Although I had nothing to do with me joining the Marine Corps, I remember when I was signing the aviation contract, I was like oh, I wonder if I’ll be able to fly jets and that kind of thing. So, you’re wondering. I think you quickly find out in flight school who are those that are like going to be top in your class and not. Either they’ve got prior flight experience or they went to Embry-Riddle and they’ve always been focused on their whole life. Not that people like me couldn’t achieve that level and get their first pick, but I probably knew that I wasn’t going to be top in the class and from there it’s quality spread. So, you would likely get your second or third pick and it’s really just transports, which for Marines of C-130s fast movers so this case would have been F-18s at the time or rotary wing which could be everything from Cobras and Huey’s to 53s and 46. So I had rotary wing, that was my second community and I that’s what I got. It was more important to me that I go to California. I remember being very keen on not just picking rotary wing but the platform I picked was important to me. I didn’t care which helicopter it was as long as I got to go to Cali, which is what ended up happening. I got winged in December of ‘97.
BROWN: Wings, and your second choice was still a pretty good choice and where’s your first duty station?
CIUCCOLI: First duty. So, you go to learn how to fly your helicopter. My first official duty station was New River, North Carolina. That’s where I met my mighty battle frog for the first time, and for those who don’t know, it’s a smaller Chinook so it’s a tandem rotor, transport helicopter medium lift. It’s a heavy lift for the army because they have the bigger ones. These are smaller so the CH-53 does the heavy lift ours is the medium and it’s a Vietnam-era, started in the ‘60s, now we’re talking, you know, late ‘90s and I look at it on the flight line and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, does that thing fly like how does that thing gonna fly?” It’s all opened up for like an inspection and I think to myself, there is no way that thing should be flying, maybe for another five years and I’ll transition to something else. Turns out it is the rest of my career, but it’s an old helicopter. You know, the venerable frog as we called it. That’s where I learned how to fly it, that’s where I learned how to love it and my mission, which was assault support bringing Marines to and from the ship to shore. Of course, some of that is supply not just Marines, but I love that idea of being connected to the warfighter in the ground, seeing them, living in the dirt, having an air crew, usually know a co-pilot and a crew chief at least, maybe a gunner. All that stuff became known to me. So, when I showed up to my first squadron in California, which is my first operational squadron, it was a Tustin in El Toro, California and that was late 1998.
BROWN: So, what are some of the things that – you mentioned briefly – what are some of the things this helicopter is transporting? Is it typically people? Is it typically supplies? Is a little bit of both?
CIUCCOLI: Because of its lift restrictions at the time, meaning some of the limits on it in terms of power and in transmissions included, we didn’t carry as much equipment as say the 53 could. So, we would do external loads and pick up things that had to get moved from ship to ship. We’ve probably seen those pictures of you know mail or food being delivered from a supply ship too. We do stuff like that, and we also carry— that’s external cargo – and an internal cargo. I’d say nine times out of ten, it was Marines and sailors to and from the ship, or from one spot on land to another, depending on which area of operations we’re talking about. So, yes, I mean, it’s all about troop transport. It’s, most of the time, into a relatively – not like Vietnam – but a more secured LZ.
BROWN: Sure, and so when you’re in California, it’s a time of peace, right? It’s the late ‘90s, life’s good in the Marine Corps, you’re training and such. What’s the tempo like during that?
CIUCCOLI: It’s really chill. I mean, it was an interwar period. Of course, there were still some – when I was at Villanova, it was the Persian Gulf War and some of those guys were still around and we learned a lot from them, but there wasn’t a whole lot of guys walking around with combat action ribbons. You know, we heard about the old Vietnam guys. We were very proud that the frog was part of that. My squadron was a particularly young one, it was called HMM 166 …, because there were some of the first 46 squadrons on the flight line next to us. And with those traditions, we knew that there was pressure on us to do something really big one day, but we didn’t really know what it was going to be. I mean, I don’t even think anybody really would have imagined us back in the same place as some of these Persian Gulf guys. I think it was more likely we knew we were going to go out in the ship, be ready kind of like the Marine Corps wants us to be in first, be expeditionary, be trained up how to do humanitarian assistance all the way to the more specialized you know Seal insert on a on a fast rope onto a ship for something like a takedown. We just practiced it all. I felt like that training, as a lieutenant and as a captain, for my first deployments in between the deployments, was some of the toughest and probably the most challenging flying that I’ve ever done, even though it wasn’t being shot at.
BROWN: Sure, and then a few years later 9/11 happens. So, what’s going on in your mind at that point as a young Marine Corps officer?
CIUCCOLI: I mean everybody was excited. I mean, sad and pissed off, but excited because now there was a lot of pent-up training and energy that was going to be unleashed in what we saw as a just war, you know across the board. I mean we weren’t really thinking about the details of Iraq or, in the future, Afghanistan. We’re just thinking about now we get to put in place all the training we’ve been doing and we’d already lost friends at this point in training so we’re like okay we got to make that more worth it. Like what have we really been doing here? Are we ready? Can I do this? So, I would say from the moment I was in my car on 9/11 driving into Miramar when I heard it on the radio, I was going in like any other day work. Remember, it was a little bit earlier in the day out there, so it was like you know, six-ish in the morning for me. From the moment I showed up the squadron that day to the multitude of deployments since then, you just kind of keep reflecting back on wanting to do it right. So, it was all about this like very, I guess, grandiose kind of mission set in my mind, and we didn’t think about, you know, all the politics behind it, and all that stuff. So, it was exciting.
BROWN: So, you’re still in California. Is that where you go? Your first deployment is out of that?
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, I did a marine expeditionary unit before 9/11. It was right around like USS Cole time. A tough deployment, but nothing that dynamic. We did a lot of stuff like around Asia, Middle East slash Horn of Africa. Came back and then there was my second deployment post 9/11. It was 2002 that we didn’t really get into the fight, but at least we were there. We were in Kuwait, kind of doing border stuff down in and around Iraq. So, that was 2002. 2002 were my first two deployments.
BROWN: You come back and you’re still in California, or you’re going to a different –
CIUCCOLI: No, I stayed. I mean, I stayed for I think a better part of a year there, kind of thinking I was going to go get back into the fight and really, our squadron wasn’t kind of next up. So, I applied to HMX-1, the presidential helicopter squadron and got in there. So, I was like okay well if I can’t deploy, I think this is the next best thing. So, me and one of my good buddies got approved for HMX-1. I had a cross-country, show up there, I think that would have been the summer of 2003, if I’m not mistaken, and get to go to work there. I was part of what’s called operational test and evaluation. I’m still flying my helicopter and about to learn how to fly the other white tops that you see out in the news and stuff like that. Another turn for that, I’ll just roll right into the turn there. Normally, you’re there for four years, you get what’s called the Yankee White, top secret clearance. I got the top-secret clearance; I didn’t get the Yankee White. So, I was only able to stay at the squadron for one year as opposed to four years. I never flew the president. Kind of an incomplete mission in my mind. Did some great flying, I flew all the support, you know secret service and all this stuff, but I never got to fly the man himself. And from there, I had some options and the best option for me was to go and do this company commander job at officer candidate school. So, as a major, that was my first my first job just for the summer.
BROWN: Sure. So, you go from – so you’re an east coast marina this point – from a west coast marine now you’re an east coast marine. What’s the culture like inside the HMX when you’re in the presidential? Like, what’s that like?
CIUCCOLI: I mean, there’s no better way to say it than just professional. And it’s not that I wasn’t part of a great squadron and professional – but you finally have all the resources you need. Everybody is almost like single-mindedly thinking about what’s got to get done. They know on that lift day, this is what’s got to happen and everything else supports it, whether that’s a military police, a maintainer, the pilots, the security, the intel. It’s all so focused on that. I just felt like you know it really brings people together. It’s a huge squadron, it’s two or three times the size of regular squadron, they have everything they need, but it was the place to be to kind of understand what right looks like in a squadron. I had a great team that was around me too, so it was really cool.
BROWN: And what’s the difference between the helicopters that you’re flying?
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, I mean they’re cleaner [laughs]. They have all the parts they need, you’re always fully mission capable, so your readiness rates are through the roof, which it kind of made me concerned at the time, that the same helicopters would be flown in the fleet in some cases had less readiness and they were over in Iraq and, at this point, kind of going into Afghanistan. So, the helicopters that I flew were shinier and nicer, but they were not as they were not tested, right? They were always out from runway to runway and they, therefore, had all the parts they needed and all the capability they needed.
BROWN: Sure, yeah. What’s the date of your arrival at Quantico to be now leading future officers?
CIUCCOLI: Let’s see. So, I showed up there, would have been the summer of 2004, and it was just a summer job. It was just a “you’re going to be a major, you’re going to do this company commander job and then we have something good on the back side,” because this this was known as a hardship tour to – I loved it – to get back in shape and train the next officers. And they were going off to war of course. So, that was a pretty serious moment in my life. But then I was able to go to Germany. I was still single, go to Germany and work on the staff out there. So, after maybe three or four months at OCS, I was off to Stuttgart.
BROWN: And what’s your mission in Stuttgart?
CIUCCOLI: Let’s see, so I was the exercise planner for Africa and, in this case, Scandinavia. So, I did a lot of trips to set up the kind like you’re seeing today, while conflicts are going on and then there wasn’t, but we were always preparing in Norway or in Poland. Again, the Horn of Africa, places like that. I would go there and set up the exercise and then the team would roll in and then go back. It’s supposed to be a three-year job; it was the kind of the height of now Iraq kicking off, Afghanistan being as busy as ever. My former department head was going to be a CO of a squadron, and brought me back from, again, a short tour supposed to be three years. I left Germany after a year to get back to the fleet out in San Diego.
BROWN: So, you’re back. You’ve been a European Marine, an east coast marine, a west coast Marine, and now you’re back to being a west coast Marine in the fleet.
BROWN: Were you excited about getting back to the fleet?
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, I mean I felt guilty for not being there in the first place. So, going back and now being in a position of leadership, I would be you know one of the more senior guys in the squadron. I was a major, go back get all my qualifications, be a proficient helicopter pilot, and actually trying to get into the fight. At this point was right, it’s what I wanted to do.
BROWN: And so, is that is that what happened? Did you get there and did you –
CIUCCOLI: Yes and no. I got all the calls I needed. I was prepared. I think the squadron was in a pretty good position. Timing maybe a little bit off. That’s usually what happens. We, again, went to the Middle East. In this case, Kuwait. Again, and sat in like a reserve kind of position in Kuwait. We did some stuff in the Basrah, and things like that. Now we’re talking, this is by the time I deployed it was 2006. So, we weren’t – it was busy in Iraq in at that point. You know, Afghanistan was starting to get busy again too, but we spent all of our time I think of the eight months we were deployed, six months of it was there either in the Persian Gulf or in Kuwait, but we didn’t get to do a whole lot so, yeah.
BROWN: And then you’re coming back home again to California?
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, came back, that’s about the time I met, now my wife, Savannah. That was 2007-ish. We met there in San Diego. I still had to do another deployment. So, I did another one, again it was back to OIF. In this case, back to Kuwait, again border stuff, but nothing straight up in the Baghdad. So, I would say it was on the lower end of the conflict for sure. Busy, great deployment, but I had some different things in my mind, Now I was starting to be like a little more serious about the future. At this point, you know, I’m in however many years that is. I guess we’re probably approaching the 15 year mark at that point. So, I mean I’m starting to think like, hey you know, I got to do some other things to set myself up for a more senior position. So, the deployment was great, everything went well, but when I got back, I had to make a decision. You know, “Savannah where do we go?” That kind of thing.
BROWN: And was that ever an option to – were you ever thinking, you know, from when you got into where you’re at, here at 15-year mark, were you ever like, “Should I pull the rip cord?” “Do I get out of the Marine Corps?” Were you always –
CIUCCOLI: It would have been right there. I think that would have been the spot. Maybe I was closer like 13 or 14 – I don’t want to do the math in public here. But it was right about that time that I would have had, you’re getting offered school. So, I was getting offered command and general staff college in the army, and if you accept that then you’ve got another two years, and that kind of put you in that “I’m going to stay till 20” mindset.
CIUCCOLI: So, I was I was trying to make like a good, strong decision without it being like where my arm is being twisted. And even with meeting Savannah, I knew that going to school was the right thing. I felt like really a call to go do that. So, to go, in this case, to Fort Leavenworth, and I was willing to go without Savannah. She ended up deciding to go with me. I had to get her dad’s permission, the whole thing, but quite a bit younger than me. It was a traumatic point in my – when I went to go meet her dad, that is. But yeah, we ended up going together to Kansas City. So, that was like my I’m committing myself to the Marine Corps, and likely to this, now woman to be my, you know that. Not quite to that level, but this was like my first major commitment.
BROWN: Yeah, it was serious. So, at this point, you’ve been a world traveling marine. You’re now, you’re a Midwest marine. There aren’t too many Midwest marines. What’s Fort Leavenworth like though? It’s an army installation. How different is that from – just again the lay person listening to this – a Marine Corps base versus an army base?
CIUCCOLI: Again, shocking. Now, I lived in Kansas City, so a lot of the married guys lived in and around Fort Leavenworth on the Kansas side. I’m in Missouri, kind of living a little bit of like this couple’s life with Savannah. But when I was on the army base, and in the school in particular, I felt like I was part of big army. Like it felt so – for the first time, I didn’t see like this little family of marines kind of running around. Like, it felt like, from the general on down. I mean, our class was huge, right? We were like 800 people and there was marine or army majors from everywhere. Every specialty and, you know, they were putting their doctors through command and general stuff. Marines just we don’t do that. We’re like, we’re kind of selective of who’s going to it, and all these guys were there, and I felt, you know, we were part of like the international group. The marines were like, we were in the same category as that guy from Ghana [laughs] like that’s how we were seen, as like these foreign but helpful people in the classroom. Kind of like, who’s the guy from, you know, my best friend, there was a guy from New Zealand. So, it was pretty great. I mean, a command general staff college for the army is a big deal and I found out it was a big deal for me too, how to become a good – in my case – a good staff officer.
BROWN: Sure. How long is that?
CIUCCOLI: About a year, yeah, about a year.
BROWN: And what’s next for you, is it a promotion?
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, I found out I was selected for lieutenant colonel while I was there. So, I was a little bit on the senior side of my classmates, some of which – I just went up to the West Point game, you know – Villanova played them recently, and I keep in touch with my Army brothers pretty well. So, a couple of them were up at the game, it was awesome. I knew that with that promotion came a chance at something, a joint tour. So, I put in to go overseas and again, I was a little bit, I should have calculated a little more how that would affect my relationship with Savannah. I think I said to her that’s what I want to do, maybe she assumed that that we’d be married and go. I didn’t do that, I took the position first which was in Belgium working for NATO. So, I knew that when I graduated — this is about six months in advance of that – that I’d be going. I didn’t really plan that out very well, so ended up going by myself. She’s a nurse, she’d gone to school to be a nurse. So, she was nursing there. She’s like, “Okay I guess I’m staying here in nursing. You’re leaving me.” But I went up to Belgium to join NATO for a three-year tour, and I found out after about, I don’t know, three-four months that I needed Savannah out there. And she flew out there so I could ask her to marry me. We end up flying back to get married in Vegas. When I say flew back [laughs], we flew back for 48 hours and that included the flying. Just to get married in Vegas so that I could make it legal to bring her over as a dependent back over to Belgium.
BROWN: So, it sounds like the wedding wasn’t, you know, thoroughly planned and you know it just sort of a shotgun wedding.
CIUCCOLI: [laughs] Yeah maybe I could have, thanks Michael. Maybe I could have, in some of my professional setting, I could have planned some things out better too. But certainly, in this one I failed. Like, I knew that we’d have to do something else, and we went into planning mode and we ended up doing a destination wedding. We flew out all of our closest friends and families to Italy, which is where I asked her to marry me in Tuscany. So, we got married there, I guess this would have been 2010. May 13th of 2010 is when we got married in Tuscany, Italy.
BROWN: Sure, and so this is still the first part of your Belgium tour?
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, I was still another two years about left, and so we just lived it up. We ended up having our first child out there, Amelia. She’s now 11, but yeah that was, I think for the first time, I traveled for work and for pleasure more extensively than I had, even though some of these other deployment locations were grand and all, but nothing like out there. We went everywhere.
BROWN: And what’s the what’s the job like for NATO?
CIUCCOLI: It’s very different. I worked half of my time on an ops team that was focused on Iraq in Africa again. So, places I was familiar with. I was usually in charge of whenever an ambassador from NATO wanted to go to Iraq. I would lead the trip there, I would fly with them, I would be like their little security guy, and also connect them with the U.S. network because, again, these were ambassadors from other NATO countries. So, that they could kind of ride on our logistics backbone down there and we do this mission called NATO Training Mission Iraq, which is when the very beginning of when we were teaching Iraqis how to take care of themselves. You know, as the story goes, really hasn’t worked out that well, kind of like Afghanistan, but that was the idea. And in addition to that, I worked in what’s called the – I forget the bunker was called – but there was this old, World War II bunker, without me saying things I’m not supposed to do, in Belgium where we operate out of for operations such as Afghanistan. And when there was some kind of threat, we would move down there, but permanently when we did the Libya mission, Operation Unified Protector, I was on the generals, kind of like staff for the execution of that event, which in the at the time it was I say general, but it was Admiral Stavridis, great U.S. Navy Admiral that was the Supreme Allied Commander at that point.
BROWN: Sure, yeah, very illustrious career from the Admiral. Are you still lieutenant colonel at this point?
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, lieutenant colonel the whole time. I got promoted while I out there, and that was my first real staff job where expectations were, you know, write a paper or prepare and set the conditions for the strategic leaders to make good decisions. Sometimes that was the ambassadors up in Brussels. I was down at SHAPE, which is in Mons. But it was really about setting up the political leadership of NATO to make good decisions on Afghanistan or whatever mission we’re in, Libya.
BROWN: So, it took you a long time, but you’re actually using your political science degree from Villanova.
CIUCCOLI: Thank you, that’s right. Thank you for reminding me you’re right! I mean, I would say so. I mean, you had to understand the political dynamics of different countries not just your own. Actually I was probably less attentive to what was going on the U.S. I felt like my eyes were open to different cultures and ways of doing things. The idea of consensus-building was new to me and I felt like that was really – I sat at tables where, you know, I came back to go to the United Nations when we were doing counter-piracy off of Somalia. I was just there over the weekend, and I was sitting back in my seat where I was sitting behind, you know ambassador so-and-so from a different country talking to a Chinese representative in the room, and I was essentially giving him the operational situation so that he could make that really good, you know make a vote at the time of the UN General Assembly. It was pretty neat.
BROWN: Yeah, absolutely, it’s again, you never know when that Villanova education is going to come in handy, but it’s, you know, a way to like to think about using the degree in your future and in your career. So, you’re there for three years, sounds like it’s at the end of the day it’s a pretty good mission.
CIUCCOLI: Amazing mission, a little bit underappreciated at times in terms of what our allies and partners give. It’s not always money, it’s not always troops, but from a legitimacy standpoint, you’ve really felt like you were contributing to something bigger than just, you know the typical things I’ve been doing, which is kind of the U.S. at the front and just leading all the way.
BROWN: Sure, and you know, you’re getting promoted and so, what’s next? Is this, you’re done in like 2016?
CIUCCOLI: 2015 would be my last year there. I’m sorry, that’s wrong, 2013 would be my last year. 2013 would be my last year there and I have to make a decision of whether I want to stay competitive for command. As a lieutenant colonel, especially as an aviator, if you don’t command as a lieutenant colonel, you’re probably going to be out as a lieutenant colonel. So, right about the 20-year mark, you’d be out. So, in my case, I’m like, I do. So, instead of trying to kind of parlay some of the great times I was having out in NATO, I was like I need to get back to the fleet. I need to do some things that are right. You know, if not deploying, very close to it. So, I went to our marine air group out back to California. San Diego, this was the guys that it’s the marine air group in charge of our attack helicopters, not the helicopter I flew.
CIUCCOLI: And I was the executive officer of that unit to stay competitive for command, and it’s called MAG-39 and … And did enough there where I got command of an airfield in Quantico, where the president flies out of. So, that the mission that I got to know so well now was in support of it. It’s called Marine Corps Airfield, Marine Corps Air Facility-Quantico, and that was my command position for two years from, now at this point, it’s ‘13 to ’15.
BROWN: And so, you’re overseeing the president? What is –
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, you run the air traffic control, the fueling, the crash fire rescue, the military police. Everything from the weather and the maintenance of all of that equipment I just mentioned is, I mean, it’s the installation network, including housing. So, we have the chow hall and the barracks and all that on the base. So, you’re supporting the president’s mission in a very different way than actually flying, but you also run the airfield for when the C-17s are coming in and out, which is delivering the helicopters all across the world.
CIUCCOLI: Very busy, you know weekends and nights for nothing, that was every day. A lot of pressure, but it was a great job. Less flying, more commanding.
BROWN: Okay, at this point, is it similar to what you talked about earlier? When you’re with the presidential helicopter, actual squadron, everything was bright and shiny, and nice and new?
CIUCCOLI: It was similar as much on the facility side, much like you’ll see this comes up in the news once in a while from a logistics standpoint. We don’t always give it as much attention as we need to. There were times when we were stretched pretty thin. You know, the pilot may have everything they need to take off. It might all look good, but if we don’t have the right person in their traffic control tower or behind the scope when they’re coming in for a landing in bad weather, if they weren’t well-trained, I felt like we would of course be doing a disservice to the pilot, So, and you don’t always get the same attention as the actual squadron, so you had to work really well with HMX-1. I had a great partner, he was an O-6, I was an O-5, by name of Colonel Wild Doogie. He flew the same platform as me growing up, as a 46 guy, now he was flying president and all that stuff. But he understood that, and he invited me over to the ready room all the time. It felt like a small – I’ll go back to Villanova here – it felt like a small community there, that we were all kind of, we all had the same values, we all knew it was important, and he helped shed light on our mission so that the pilots understood, “Hey, if you need weather, you’re going to need to be able to get these guys better trained to brief you, which means invite them over to brief you more often rather than going online and getting it yourself” kind of stuff.
CIUCCOLI: So, he was really good at that, and it made that made that connection a lot more meaningful.
BROWN: And are you, at this point, flying a lot less? You’re more leading folks, less flight. How often are you flying, if at all?
CIUCCOLI: Probably flew once every couple weeks, I flew the CH-46. I didn’t, again, didn’t have the time to get the calls to fly something different, but for that last year in command, 2015, I had the opportunity to bring some. The last 46 is my platform were at HMX, again, because they’re so well-kept. So, to put them to rest, we either fly them to Davis-Monthan, which is I did one of my last flights there, but my final flight was to Orlando because we were the DoD was giving over some of the helicopters to the Department of State for the counter-drug mission, and we brought them down there to be repainted refurbished. So, those were my last two flights in the CH-46 as an aircraft commander, lots of cool stories but probably not the time to tell it. It all kind of culminated there, when you’re writing your name on the helicopter for the last time I remember writing my name on the ceiling when I got winged, and then the only other time I’ve written my name on something kind of government with a signature in a date was when I flew my last flight in those helicopters, that are now out in Davis-Monthan.
BROWN: Sure, and you know with Savannah and at least one child, do you have another?
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, we have our second one there. She’s born in in Stafford, Virginia, so now two girls at this point, yeah.
BROWN: And what’s, you know, what’s family life like as you know a military service member?
CIUCCOLI: I think this is the first time I actually understood how challenging that can be for the spouse, for the kids, for the member. And I had a network of families that I was now responsible for and understood what they go through day to day. Now, we weren’t even deploying, but we were busy, like we were at work a lot. And the things that go on to make sure a family keeps running, this was mostly on base, I lived on base most of the time. But whether you’re on base or off, you know, whenever I had somebody in my office and I was talking, I felt like for the first time, I could talk, I could relate to them. I was a little more relatable to probably 80 percent of the squadron that I couldn’t relate to before as a single guy. I was always about, you know, trying to get off to the next thing, and it made a lot of sense to me. In terms of what my wife would say, she kind of saw it as like a Pleasantville situation, as a commander, and being a commander’s wife, it might be a little different than, say you know, Lance Corporal’s wife. So, I think she’s always been a humble person and she figured out quickly that we’re not going to be living up on the hill and, you know, and making other people you know. She wanted to get to know them, and she did that pretty well, so it was fun.
BROWN: And what do you think your kids would look back on and say like, life on the base as opposed to being here at Villanova? It’s probably a lot different.
CIUCOLLI: I think at least the older one has a couple. She got to meet John Glenn there and General Dunford, and she has like picture memories of it, but I think it started to be like, “Oh, my daddy is a marine,” like “What does that mean?” A military kid, like “What does that mean?” Like, she wasn’t going to school yet, but now that I’ve heard her talk about it now and she has some memories. So, I think not my second daughter, but the first daughter would say she started to figure out like that she was different than you know other kids out there, that was probably when we got to our next duty station, but that was noticeable to her now.
BROWN: Sure, yeah, and so what’s next after know being out, back to the west coast?
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, so 2015’s over and, again to stay kind of in the, I guess in the fight, or be competitive for colonel at some point, even with command, you got to go to school. So, I put in for top-level school and there’s some kind of mainstream ones, like the war colleges at the different services, and then there’s some of the fellowships all over the world, or all over the country, and then there’s international school. So, I put in for Israel, somehow, we got our first pick, so we moved, picked up and moved to Israel for about 15 months, where we had my third child. My son, Oliver. And I studied at the Israeli National Defense college out there. And I kind of parlayed my political science a little bit, went to more like international relations, got another master’s out there. So, it was enlightening to be in a, what the Israelis would call, like a crack house neighborhood, like living in a small country surrounded by essentially adversaries or people that don’t really think that highly of you, as opposed to, say, living in America or living in a NATO country. It just felt so much different from a culture standpoint. I think my kids and my wife got a lot out of it. There was a lot of downtime, I traveled with the Israeli students, which were everything from their intelligence experts and police officers to the military. There was live operations going on every day. Fellow students would get up out of class and go do a mission in Gaza Strip, you know, while we were in class. So, it was just a crazy time, but really fulfilling.
BROWN: And what are some of the key takeaways from your time in Israel?
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, nothing’s as simple as it seems, or nothing’s as – I probably saw the conflict, specifically like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, different afterwards. And I don’t mean that in a way like I understood one or the other side better. I just knew it was more complex. So, as I’ve heard my whole life at that point, you know, about peace talks and “We can straighten it all out.” When I got to know people in the class, and I realized how different they were. I’m talking about just the Israelis. Everything from the very extreme right to the left, which would have them probably more concerned with taking care of, say, the Arab minority. Nobody ever agreed; it was like the most heated debate every time we brought up something from the news. And at the time, you know, when I graduated, I shook the hand of Netanyahu, and I remember shaking his hand thinking like, “This is a great man. He’s got a lot of hard work to do over here, and I don’t see any future that brings peace to this country anytime soon.” And I hate to make it sound pessimistic, but I learned quickly that things that I thought were like, “Hey, why don’t we just give some?” You know, make some, “Why can’t there be an understanding met?” Like, whether it was about water and resources or about land or about religion, I just never saw a clear path while I was there. It got murkier when I was there. So, I guess my takeaway is that, when you look at it from out here, and you’re whether you’re an American Christian or American Jew, it’s just not as easy as we want it to be.
CIUCCOLI: And I don’t think they – they don’t want it to be easy either. Like, they kind of thrive in this. I mean, Israelis thrive in that very kind of murky area of just of challenge. I mean they were really, they thrived; the people were thriving there. Everybody’s like, “Why would you go there?” Like, “How can I have my family come?” And I had family come visit like, it’s totally safe. Like, everything you see in the news, like it’s totally safe here. As much as I make this sound like this conflict is heated, and I mean we went, and we were on the beach on vacation half the time. It’s just crazy. So you can’t believe what you see in the news either.
BROWN: Right, interesting. So, you’re finished with that. And how long is that school?
CIUCCOLI: Fifteen months, in and out of there pretty much and then shoot back over to the west coast again, again trying to stay competitive. My wife is from Cali, so she was always like “Let’s get back there.” She’s from Bakersfield, but we’re back in San Diego, close to her family so that I could do what I knew would end up being probably my last deployment, or one of my last. So, now I’m pinning on – I’m not colonel. I’m selected for colonel as soon as we get out there, and I go to work at the marine aircraft wing in Miramar to be the operations officer out there. So, you’re sending a lot of people off to deployment, but it’s a staff job. I worked for a really good general there, set me up for success to volunteer for deployment as an O-6 as the special purpose marine air-ground task force executive officer for the seventh Marines, which is our … to deploy to Iraq. So, my last deployment, finally although it was a lot calmer period of time now, we’re talking 2016, we’re more involved with the Syria mission. Now more in and out of Iraq, kind of living in a place that, you know, we were kind of second tier response. We were more on like the search and rescue, make sure that the aviation assets can support the Iraqis if we need to, or support the fight in Syria. That was our headquarters, and it was dynamic, and it was mostly from afar, but I felt like we were doing something meaningful. This is the whole counter-ISIS fight.
BROWN: Sure. How big is the unit you’re with when you’re in Iraq?
CIUCCOLI: This one’s huge, this is the biggest unit I’ve been in. So, I guess conservatively somewhere around 2,500 to 3,000. So, like a regimental size unit, in terms of Marine Corps, with all the capabilities from ground and air that you need, some of the specialized intel guys, and we were very capable but big armies on deck kind of running the show. So, we were more giving up capabilities instead of trying to operate as a … like the Marine Corps likes to do. We were giving up like, if somebody needed somebody to do a communications node that they call up the Marine Corps and you know we’d go up there and do it. Or artillery and that kind of stuff. So, it wasn’t, we didn’t get to fight as a unit like we trained but at least we were, Marines were, you know, getting to do what they’re what they trained to do.
BROWN: Do feel like you’re finally doing what you wanted to do? You’re in country, you’re in a deployment, you’re helping others.
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, I think, I mean, although again, because it’s not like I was face-to-face with the enemy, and I wasn’t flying my primary warfighting platform, which was my helicopter, from the operation center. I was in, and the kind of scope of responsibility I had especially when the CO was traveling, and he entrusted me with quite a bit as a selected colonel. Yeah, nothing beat being what I would call on the tip of the spear, in a fight that felt right at the time. I mean, I know that there’s probably always better things you can do when it came to, especially, to the Syria conflict but we were definitely doing what we needed to do, and I felt like I was the one kind of pulling the levers and right up there in the middle of it. Sometimes it was behind a screen, you know launching a mission, or dealing with drones. You felt like you were – it’s almost like I wanted to be in harm’s way, and I was about as close as I would be, at least at that rank. So, that felt right.
BROWN: Sure, yeah, and just these past couple days, we had the 20-year anniversary of going into Iraq. What is your reflection? You know, you’ve been in that whole time, and what are your thoughts?
CIUCCOLI: I spent the days looking at my peers, who in 2003 were some of the first up in march up. So, you know my early experiences, 2002 when I’m kind of looking across the border and especially 2002 knowing that there’s things going on. It was those guys in 2003, now the 20-year mark, that ended up getting launched right into the kind of teeth of the enemy. I mean, I know that depending on the way you look at it, there was some initial teeth and maybe it changed quite a bit, but they gave their hearts and soul and, in a lot of cases, their lives. And when I see all the kind of death and destruction on both sides of it, I think it’s the first time I’ve like been face-to-face with a conflict, and was it right? Did we do it right? Were they just a pawn in the game, or did it not just feel right? Not just the time, does it feel right to them? So, I usually call each other. I’d write about you know these anniversaries, these weird ones or one of a guy who might have died, or in this case, a 20-year mark, to check and see. Like, I know they’re all right because I keep in touch with them pretty good, but I ask them like, “Hey do you still feel the same as you did when you stayed in your Cobra for 48 hours straight, essentially pissing on yourself while you’re flying the mission, you know trying to do as much destruction as you can, or you know helping as many people as you can?” And, to the man, I would say, they don’t have regrets about that. Like they really are glad they were there for their fellow marine, for their country, of course they, with more facts on the table, it looks a little different today. But to the man or woman, I wouldn’t say that it was worth losing, you know, their best friend’s life over, or in fact in some families that I’ve talked to, like their actual husband or father, but they do feel like it was it was right. I mean, again their actions in it were right, doesn’t mean that I’m tying it back to the policies and all that kind of stuff, the strategy. But yeah, that’s the kind of stuff we spend time on. I mean, I’m sure you do too to some extent like, trying to get in touch with people and just making sure everybody’s okay.
BROWN: Yeah, no, I think it’s a common theme in the military. You’re always, you know, buddy checks are a thing, and that’s a good thing I feel like. So, you’re done with that deployment, you get pinned, I’m assuming?
CIUCCOLI: Yes, out there, the colonel I’m talking a lot about, his name is Colonel Vivian. “Ripper 6” was his call sign, my mine was Ripper X-ray, as an XO. He pins my colonel rank on me; he gave me his rank, these aren’t them. I got them somewhere else, but yeah it was a big day for me I knew that I kind of just knew this would be my last rank, and my last go at it, and I was glad I was doing it with him over there in the dirt. You know, we finished out that deployment, I got back and let’s see, I guess it would have been like, maybe it was August of 2017, so I could finish out that time as that G-3 for the third. So, and I didn’t know it, but going there made me competitive for command again. So, I was selected this point for O-6 command, and I was selected to go, and my command would be in Japan. So, I’m asking as I’m returning back from Iraq, I’m the essentially asking Savannah, “Are you cool moving to Japan?” And she was; she was excited so that’s good.
BROWN: That is good, and how long are you off into Japan?
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, so Okinawa is my last duty station before here. We roll out in May of 2018. We had bought our first house in California, even though we weren’t there that long. So, it was like our first family home so that was a little bit tough. I mean we decided to sell it and all that kind of stuff, but we left San Marcos, California for Okinawa Japan in June of 2018. That’s a three-year billet, so I could be the base commander at a place called Camp Foster, and a battalion commander for what’s called Marine Corps installation specific, which is the general that’s in charge of that is in charge of all the installations from Guam to Korea, Marine Corps installations, actually including Hawaii too. So, kind of like you saw in the news last night for part of that whole Indo-Pacific thing, it was like that was my final responsibility to be part of that.
BROWN: And, you know, that’s on the news a lot, but what was going on? You know, what was going on when you were there?
CIUCCOLI: It was there, kind of Korea at first, it was really like focused very much like whether you’re talking like where installations should be ready if it, when it comes to a certain war plan. It was all, but was more about North Korea than it was China, and I know that’s kind of because like, when did we start paying attention more to China? Well, it’s kind of right about that time, 2018, people are like wait a second, what should we really be worried about here? So, everything from the families that lived over there, and there are a lot on the on the pen, you know army families in particular and then Marine and Navy at Okinawa Air Force II, Army. The families started to be more concerned about, what like we are in what’s known as the rapid engagements zone, the REZ, like we are living when you show me this first island chain, I’m on it and we can be reached by weapons, like this it felt like, as opposed to an American living United States that probably never felt a threat maybe a little bit today, outside a nuclear war we felt like there was a risk there for the first time in Okinawa. And we started to like turn our focus to how do we go and you react to that, I’m talking from an installation perspective. Would we move families? Would we not? From a non-combatant evacuation scenario, but we started thinking a little bit more about Korea and China kind of together. And then since then, of course, it’s been more about China it seems like.
BROWN: Sure, and now you’re getting to your last duty station, at least potentially.
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, that last one just finished wrong for me. Like, it was three years, a year and a half of it was COVID, you experienced that here. Overseas, from a alliance perspective, we had to be very careful of the things we did and didn’t do. So, we were super conservative there. I was watching Villanova once I got this this post thing, and my predecessor … was keeping me up to date on what I’ve experienced here, and I was refreshed to hear that Villanova had a very kind of prudent approach to it. It seemed like people were starting to come back to school when, at the time, I started thinking about it, but we were still living and like, I was lucky if I could leave the house for my last year and a half. It’s pretty tough. So, it was tough on the family; we loved it over there, but we wanted to get back to the states where we saw it being a little more open, and certainly that’s what I experienced when I got to Villanova. We bought a house from abroad in Blue Bell, which is where we live now. We did have our fourth child over there, by the way. So, we had Alicia, she was born over there in the Okinawa Hospital, but we came back. Yeah, you know ready to go, for like what I believe to be the beginning of my transition, and a final job as a colonel, and be able to homestead as a family for a little bit rather than kind of be upended every two, three years. So, yeah, we ended up here and that was I guess spring of ’21.
BROWN: Spring of ’21, sort of coming out of covid, and what is it – you’re an alumni, for the folks who are listening – you are a graduate of Villanova, and now you’re coming back, as you know, and you made the team this time. Right? You made the NROTC Team.
CIUCCOLI: [laughs] yeah, that’s a great way to put it.
BROWN: You made the team, and you’re, you’re the captain of the team, if you will.
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, you have to be accepted by the Marine Corps to come do this job, just nationwide and then the university has to accept you. So, I would say to some extent, although it wasn’t you know in the same way in which you’d be like being approved for a scholarship, there’s a different – I still had to get Father Peter to sign, and as he would have looked at my transcripts, I was pretty impressed that he was willing to take a shot at me. Here’s what was strange about coming back. It’s a consortium job, I’m the CO of two units, and there’s four schools, and I thought that I would just show up at Villanova, roll in, and everybody, it would be the same as it was. And I would just kind of go about my business and prepare midshipman, develop them to be naval leaders. And at Penn, I thought I knew that I’d have to learn a lot more, because I don’t know the setting and that’s kind of held true for Penn. Like, I have to spend a lot of time there doing that. What I didn’t realize at Villanova is that this small place, which I although I do see it still a small, is bigger than I met is bigger than I thought. And what I what I mean by that like, there’s a lot going on here. Like, where you know, I would have been heads down studying, fraternity. being an officer, whatever. It was, I’ve quickly realized, that the student of today, the faculty, like there’s so much kind of cross-disciplinary things going on here, and everybody’s – and this is probably not as much applicable to Penn; they’re a little more stovepipe. But the Villanova community only works when it is cross-disciplinary. When, you know, somebody like Mike Brown is talking to Vincent Ciuccoli, or when student X, midshipman senior, is a student-athlete and a midshipman, and it’s kind of cross-pollinating to all these different – and, depending on what major they’re in, maybe two or three different colleges are getting affected by this person too. So, big in the sense of like, there’s all these different people doing great work, and behind the scenes in many cases, but that when you connect it all together, like I think Villanova does pretty well, that the relationships matter just like they did in the Marine Corps. So, although I thought it would be like this, almost like foreigner in a higher education situation, all I’ve done is do what I do in the Marine Corps, which is just collaborate and hang out and lead where I’m supposed to lead, and follow where I’m supposed to follow, and that’s been pretty cool here at Villanova, just to kind of let all that play out. Maybe that’s why I’m well-situated for this job I guess. I call myself pretty well-rounded, and if not worldly at least, I’ve seen some different approaches to things. So, I just kind of take that approach around here.
BROWN: And you know, when you look at historically, Villanova has such a great track record of putting out young men and the young women to be you know Naval and Marine Corps leaders, and now you’re in charge of that. And so, you know, what are you seeing from the future leaders of the Navy and the Marine Corps?
CIUCCOLI: We should be proud that we have gentlemen like Admiral Paparo and other great leaders from O-6 level on up. You know, Kim Shaughnessy, I think of, and that’s great that we make people into career leaders, and they go on and they do strategic things. But I think what I’m most proud of is the quality of the student that shows up on our doorstep, and what we and what Villanova can do for them over the period of four years. Now I’m only part of it here for three years, so I don’t get to see every one of them grow up. But from the cases that I now have at my fingertips, and understanding that a little better, we being NROTC are sort of just one very small piece of the pie. I guess I thought the ROTC needed to develop them like either from scratch or in a way that nobody else was doing it. So, I got to do it. No, it’s actually the whole institution that develops them – as the way I see it, or they develop under the supervision of the whole institution or facilitate the whole institution. We’re just this one piece of it, and that’s maybe the military kind of leadership aptitude piece of it that we kind of doubled down on a little bit. Physical fitness and some other things, but so what’s my role? Not screw them up. Like, they came here with a lot of potential. Villanova saw it; that’s one screening in and of itself, which is beyond probably what the Navy does. So, we know their quality, we know that they have a propensity to serve, so I’m trying to allow that to flourish a little more. Show them what that means. What does service mean? In particular military service, which is different than say going into the Peace Corps, and set the conditions for them to thrive at Villanova. Like this, Villanova will do it for us. We’re not at the Naval Academy, so all we’re trying to do is give them the time to become a great student, great Villanovan, great citizen at some point, and by the way while you’re here, you are on scholarship in your first career. Your first job, maybe not career, your first job will be as a serviceman or woman, and this is what it means. And I try, by setting the example standing in the classroom with them, and talking to them— this is not just me, this is the staff in general them. Them PTing with the gun mate to understand, this so that they know what the standard is, in terms of physical fitness and drill. We’re just kind of refining, we’re kind of fine-tuning that one piece of them, which may in fact be the primary piece when they hit the fleet but is a very small piece. A little bit further down the road and when I say, “I don’t screw it up,” meaning I think that a lot of them would graduate from Villanova with or without NROTC, but we’re trying to set them up for this first vocation, and it has to mean something to them. So, we’re trying to show them what that right looks like all the time.
BROWN: Sure, well it sounds like it’s a fulfilling and rewarding last duty station for you.
CIUCCOLI: It’s the best. I mean, people say that. I’ve got buddies – I was just on LinkedIn the other day –that graduate same time as me, and they’re making tons of money, right? Like I’m sure you got these friends too. They’re in finance or they’re lawyers, or whatever, and they were in my NROTC; the ones that stayed in the unit. Classmates, or some like me that got out, and they’re like, “Vinny, you have the best job ever.” And I’m like, “I know.” Like, I don’t know how this happened. It means a lot to me because of where I am. It would be a great job no matter if you’re doing our NROTC in terms of developing the next generation but, here to do it at Villanova is incredible.
BROWN: Absolutely, but this is it, right, this is your last duty station. You’re really pulling the rip cord this time?
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, summer ’24, I’ll turn over command to somebody else, there are not that many that I know that are applying that are Villanovans, and so I think it’ll likely be somebody from – it’d be a great quality officer from the Marine Corps, but I’ll have to kind of inculcate them into like what it’s like to be here –
BROWN: The Villanova way.
CIUCCOLI: Yeah, and they’ll figure it out and then I’ll go off into the sunset somewhere, summer ’24.
BROWN: And what is next for Vinny? Just the broad strokes. Like, are you gonna stick around this area? Are you moving somewhere?
CIUCCOLI: Stay here initially, so that we don’t have to again upend ourselves again. The kids are happy in school. It’s a great city to be around for veterans. You know, I would love to think that I have it completely figured out, but my plan is to continue to take a couple classes here at Nova, learn some things about entrepreneurship, and I’m trying to start my own business.
BROWN: Well, great I think it’s a good sort of, you know, final vision and it’s been great hearing your story. I think you know when you, to sum it up, I think you really did well with dealing with adversity, sort of a late bloomer like you talked about. But turning that adversity into a rewarding career where you were able to travel all over the world, impact a lot of fellow Marines, naval officers, be a part of something bigger than yourself, and now to finish out your career by leading these young men and women as they go off into the fleet. And so, that’s it’s got to be a, like you were told, it’s got to be just a great final gig.
BROWN: But I really appreciate you coming out and telling your story, and your words. And hopefully you got something out of it as well.
CIUCCOLI: Thanks Mike, I did. I had to rack my brain there for years and positions, but yeah, we covered it all. I appreciate it, that was actually pretty refreshing.
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 OCS: Officer candidate school.
 TBS: The basic school. TBS is where all newly-commissioned and appointed United States Marine Corps officers are taught the basics of being an officer of Marines.
 DOR: Drop on request.
 Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University is a private university focused on aviation and aerospace programs.
 LZ: Landing zone.
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 The USS Cole bombing was a suicide attack by the terrorist group al-Qaeda against USS Cole, a guided missile destroyer of the United States Navy, on 12 October 2000, while being refueled in Yemen’s Aden harbor.
 CO: Commanding officer
 A city in Iraq.
 OIF: Operation Iraqi Freedom.
 James George Stavridis is a retired United States Navy admiral, currently vice chair, global affairs and managing director of the global investment firm the Carlyle Group, and Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Rockefeller Foundation.
 SHAPE: Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe.
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 O-6: the modern rank of captain is a senior officer rank. It ranks above commander and below rear admiral (lower half). It is equivalent to the rank of colonel in the other uniformed services.
 O-5: Lieutenant colonel.
 DoD: Department of Defense.
 John Herschel Glenn Jr. was an American Marine Corps aviator, engineer, astronaut, businessman, and politician. He was the third American in space, and the first American to orbit the Earth, circling it three times in 1962.
 Joseph Francis Dunford Jr. is a retired United States Marine Corps four-star general who served as the nineteenth chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from October 1, 2015, to September 30, 2019. He was the thirty-sixth commandant of the Marine Corps.
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