Marine Corps Base Quantico -- When Sgt. Joshnino Supapo visits students at Thornburg Middle School, he tells them to stand up and look down at the floor. Then he asks them what they see.
“Do you see your shoes?” he asks. “Some of my neighbors growing up didn’t have shoes, or they only had them to wear to school.”
Supapo, who is from the village of Pago Pago in American Samoa, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific, said that some of these same kids wanted to join the military as he did, but were not accepted because they had developed flat feet.
“I want the kids here to realize that they have different opportunities, to wake them up a little!” Supapo said.
Supapo, who is a community services Marine currently assigned to the position of retail manager at the exchange at The Basic School, volunteers regularly for Lunch Buddies at Thornburg Middle School in Spotsylvania, Va., the school Marine Corps Base Quantico has adopted through the Adopt-a-School program.
Growing up, Supapo knew many kids with troubled family lives who came to school without having slept, eaten, or showered. He recalls teachers who would spend their own personal money to care for these kids.
“Those teachers inspire me,” he said. “Kids need someone to believe in.”
Supapo enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduating from high school. He was his class valedictorian and says his family and friends expected him to become a mechanical engineer. But he felt that he was done with school and chose the Marine Corps instead.
“It sounds corny, but after the 9/11 attacks, I wanted to do something to serve the country. And when the Iraq War started, I decided I needed to get there,” he said.
When he arrived at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego at age 18, it was the first time he had ever set foot on the mainland United States.
“It was September, but it was not the September back home,” Supapo remembers. “I got off the bus in basketball shorts and a t-shirt, and I was freezing.”
Timing was not in his favor for being deployed into combat, however. After completing Marine Combat Training, he spent a further two years at Camp Pendelton, and was then transferred to Marine Corps Base Hawaii.
“I just hit my five-year mark, and I haven’t deployed,” Supapo said. “I’m not going to lie. I’m disappointed that I didn’t go to Afghanistan. I’ve volunteered for operations and been denied. So I made a promise to myself that while in garrison I’ll be active and serve the community until I get the call. I’ll volunteer until it’s my time.”
“For me, the uniform isn’t enough,” he added. “It’s upon me to make it mean something.”
In addition to volunteering for Lunch Buddies, he also gives his time to the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, the American Red Cross Pillowcase Project, and One Brick—an organization that provides support to local non-profits by facilitating volunteer opportunities.
Supapo’s mother was a police officer and his father was a fisherman who would be at sea for weeks or months at a time, and he says he felt the lack of a mentor figure in his life.
He tries to be that figure for his three younger brothers, his Marines, and the middle school kids he volunteers with.
Supapo has forged a special bond with one eighth-grader, Gabe McGhee. Gabe’s older brother Ryan, an army corporal, was killed by small arms fire in Central Iraq in 2009. Ryan was a graduate of Spotsylvania’s Massaponax High School, a football player who passed on a partial athletic scholarship to enlist in the Army.
“Being an NCO now—your relationship with your Marines is everything. I choose to inspire rather than coerce by fear,” Supapo said. He quoted his staff sergeant, who told him, “You bring more bees with honey than vinegar.” He also recognizes that building a good rapport with people is crucial to his success in his current job as a retail manager.
This isn’t something he always knew. He has scars on his knuckles from fights he got into back on the island. He describes himself then as having a “Jekyll and Hyde” nature, with a dark side that he kept hidden. He played sports growing up and played roughly, with injuries to prove it. And he joined the Marine Corps because he wanted to fight on the front lines.
Now, he tells the middle school students to take care of themselves and not try to grow up too fast.
“I tell them to prepare for their future, but at the same time, enjoy their youth,” he said.
He feels this is an important message for Gabe to hear. When Supapo visited Thornburg Middle School for the first time, the school principal took him aside and told him Gabe’s story. Then she introduced them and asked them to have lunch together.
“I asked him if he wanted to talk to me,” Supapo said. “I told him he didn’t have to. I think me being real with him opened him up. I ended up staying after the program and talking to him for 30 or 40 minutes.
The younger brother of a serviceman killed in action, Gabe wants to join the Marine Corps and become a scout sniper. He told Supapo that he wants to serve his country the way his brother did.
“He reminds me of myself,” Supapo said.
Gabe asked Supapo to go with him to Massaponax High School to view his brother Ryan’s retired no. 33 football jersey, now displayed along with a memorial to the fallen soldier.
Six days after he met Gabe, Supapo said he still couldn’t believe the boy invited him to make that journey.
“His brother died a hero, and I feel honored that Gabe considered me for that,” Supapo said. “His brother died in the war I wanted to go to.”
Supapo is now studying for a bachelor’s degree in general studies, taking online courses through Hawaii Pacific University, Avery University, and the University of Southern New Hampshire. He hopes to eventually obtain an advanced degree in business and go into retail or hospitality management.
Supapo said he will continue to re-enlist in the Marine Corps with the aim of staying in for the full 20 years. He said he’d like to be a recruiter one day.
“I want to give back to the Marine Corps, too, because it saved me,” he said.
— Writer: firstname.lastname@example.org