Sgt. Maj. Maurice Thompson remembers the first time he felt afraid while in military training. During jungle training in Okinawa, Japan, his commanding officer chose him to lead their group of Marines in an exercise, even though Thompson had been in the Marines for only a year and a half.
“’Guess what? All of your NCOs (non-commissioned officers) are dead. You’re in charge,’” Thompson remembered him saying. “I’m like, ‘Oh wow. I’m in charge.’
“All of a sudden I had this patrol of 26 Marines, and I’m the one that’s responsible, I’m the one that has to read the map, I’m the one who has to get them from point A to point B and get them back … and I’ve got a time limit.”
Although uncertain of his ability to command the group, Thompson, who retired in March after 26 years as a Marine reservist, took charge and put his training skills to the test. All was fine until he realized halfway through the night patrol that he had lost half of his men in the lush jungle behind him.
“So, I had to leave them in place and me and one other Marine went back to backtrack to find the other half of my patrol, to find those Marines and bring them back to where I had set the other Marines down, and then continue on. It was the most frightening thing of my life I think at the time,” he admitted.
“I ended up finding them, and we ended up finishing the exercise, but it was a very scary situation for a while, really feeling like you’re out there. That’s when I realized that I had to pay attention,” he said. “You never know when you may end up being in charge.”
That training he received in the military came in handy many times throughout his 26-year military career. Thompson retired from Marine Mobilization Command soon after gaining the title sergeant major – the highest rank for enlistees. Among the countries in which he served are South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Iraq.
Catholic education also molded him
While the 54-year-old attributes much of what he accomplished to the Marines, he also knows his Catholic education made a great impact on his life, too. His dual careers as a military officer and the full-time office manager of the Milwaukee Archdiocesan Tribunal for 23 years, where the mission is to provide justice for all persons who approach the Catholic Church’s court system, incorporated both aspects of his background.
Thompson fell into his leadership roles naturally, he said.
“I was the oldest child, so I was always given responsibility,” he said about his childhood. A Milwaukee native, Thompson attended St. Boniface and St. Elizabeth Catholic grade schools, as well as Dominican High School, Milwaukee. During his grade school years he was an altar server and involved in everything from athletics to Scouting.
“I think I learned the sense of responsibility and leadership, and the sense of faith, from all those aspects, and I think that carried me over,” he said of his extracurricular activities. “We really distinguish how they get me through. I think you always fall back, asking God to give you the strength to meet the challenges that you have in life. I think I said those things when I was going through boot camp.”
Marines were path to education
Thompson enlisted in the Marines when he was in his mid-20s. He had been working as an assistant manager at a Walgreens in Milwaukee, but in order to be promoted to manager, he would have had to transfer to a store away from home.
Not wanting to relocate, he enlisted in the Marines to pursue a degree in electrical engineering.
In an effort to get a head start on his military contract, Thompson attended boot camp early. Soon after, in 1982, however, Israel invaded Lebanon and President Ronald Reagan sent 1,800 marines to Beirut to act as peacekeepers.
Thompson found himself with an open military contract and Marine officials telling him to pack his belongings and report to infantry training school, rather than school. While disappointed in having to put college plans on hold, Thompson knew he had to follow orders.
He was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in California, and completed training there. Soon after, he was assigned to Okinawa and later to South Korea.
Thompson, a member of All Saints Parish in Milwaukee, looked back on the many highlights of his military career.
“For me, becoming a company (gunnery), becoming a company first sergeant, becoming a sergeant major, all these things were great highlights for me because of the responsibilities that were connected with all those types of priorities,” he explained.
The first time Thompson was called to fight for his country was during the Persian Gulf War. On Aug. 2, 1990 the automated infantry, armor, and tank units of the Iraqi Republican Guard invaded Kuwait and seized control of that country. The invasion triggered a United States response, more commonly known as Operation Desert Storm, for which Thompson was present.
Absence was hard on family
While he came home physically unscathed, his absence took a toll on his high school-aged daughter.
“The first time I even went off to war, my daughter was very upset with me,” he said. “She didn’t want to talk to me; while I was over there she began acting out in school, being disruptive in this and everything, because I was gone overseas. So, she was upset, the fact that I went.”
Thompson’s wife – they divorced in 1995 – was also worried for his safety, and stressed about the amount of time they spent apart.
“So when you’re on active duty, there’s a lot of time away from the family,” he explained. “This caused a lot of difficulties between family members and between you and the children, between you and the wife. It’s a stress, a strain. I don’t think a lot of people realize that military people go through a lot of stress in being apart from one another, because of the service they have to be in.”
Through it all, Thompson said he’s stayed true to his Catholic faith.
“I don’t know if you ever really think about your faith until you’re faced with various obstacles or challenges,” he explained. “I think they sort of overlapped for me.
“Going to a Catholic grade school, a Catholic high school, those things have never really left me. I think they were always a part of my life; I don’t know how I can separate them. They are, like, interwoven in the fabric of my life. There’s no way I can say, well, the light came on and here’s my faith.”
Family influenced faith life
Thompson’s parents, who were both involved in the church, greatly influenced his faith life, and always told him and his four siblings to “give of yourself when you can.”
“Again, as I went through life, with my father reinforcing it and the church reinforcing it, that they always talk about give a helping hand, help out here, help the needy,” he counted off. “I think that in itself pushed me to do it. I come to the Marine Corps and the first thing they tell me is, ‘It’s about team work; it’s not always about you.’”
As a team leader in the Marines Corps, Thompson couldn’t directly spread his Catholic faith to fellow soldiers, however, he found a common ground with those with whom he served.
“When you’re in the Marine Corps you deal with a lot of different religions,” he explained. “So, you can’t emphasize your Catholicism or anything else. The only thing you can emphasize is your belief in God, and your moral fiber aspects and the ethical aspects that you’ve learned. In my experience in the Marines, that travels a long way. It can cross the boundaries of the different faiths.”
Four years on active duty
Thompson spent four years on active duty, including two six-month tours overseas in 1983-84 and 1985-86.
He knows his absence while on military duty was difficult on the staff, but he said his coworkers were supportive, especially when he was sent overseas to serve in Iraq for six months.
“When I was away they sent me care packages, food, everything. Cards, humorous things that let me know they’ll always keep me a part of the office. Some of the stuff came that was funny,” he laughed. “They knew that I had a sweet tooth, so they would sometimes send me things (like) chocolates or cookies. By the time it would find me in Iraq somewhere, it was melted and there were ants or something that had gotten into it.
“But like I said, they were very supportive in that way, sending me whatever, and even to my unit. Sending things that I could share with them.”
‘Excellent coworker, friend’
Zabrina Decker, tribunal chancellor, has worked with Thompson since she began work in the tribunal 12 years ago. She called Thompson an excellent co-worker and friend.
“He’s got a marvelous work ethic, and he’s got a way of really working with people and getting things done, and yet doing it in a way that adds a good sense of humor to it,” she said. “The tribunal really is like a family, and we have been for many, many years.
“We watch out for each other, and so whenever Maurice has had to go off for his military service, we’re happy to help him, and yet when he’s here, he always steps up. When there’s something to be done he’s always ready to volunteer to do it. His attitude is, whatever needs to be done, I’ll do it … he’s a great worker and a good guy, and he’s a good friend. You can really depend on him.”
Being deployed to Iraq taught Thompson more than just how to be a leader.
“It’s been a good experience, it’s been a bad experience,” Thompson said. “Like I said, you really see the horrors, I guess you could say, of war. I remember how I thought about and appreciated our hospital. I see the hospital there and I say, oh man, everything is so bad. The power’s off, sanitary; everything is gone … so you see a lot of things that make you appreciate life back home.”