Marine officers & vets: how old is a gunnery sergeant likely to be?

As I’ve mentioned in some other threads, I’m working on a novel in which the main character is the son of a Marine noncom. I have a few questions about the relationships between age & grade in the Marines.

The character in question dies in 1983 at the age of 55; thus he was obviously born in 1928. When he died he was a Marine reservist and had been for four years; he left active duty not because he was discontented with the Corps but because he wanted time with his family. His friends from the Corps refer to him as Gunny Taliaferro, and it’s my intent that he was a Gunnery Sergeant when he went into the reserves. He served in Vietnam, and his ten-year-old son relates a story about the Gunny’s earning a medal during the battle of Khe Sanh, during which battle he saved the life of the lieutenant commanding his platoon.

My questions are these:

  1. Is it realistic for a 51-year-old man, very competent, to have been only a Gunnery Sergeant?

  2. What grade would Taliaferro have been in 1968 when he was the number-two man in the platoon?


Not to hijack, but was in Memphis this weekend for BBQ competition thing, took in a Redbirds game, ate at Rendezvous, was hotter than a sack the whole time. :cool:

Plausible but depends a lot on time in service (as opposed to age), unit, and specific military occupation. But see the next question.

Likely a Staff Sgt., again, depending on time since enlistment (IIRC, you could be platoon sergeant at “buck” Sergeant rank, depending on the unit, but he’d have to have enlisted kind of late to be still an E5 at age 40).

You will want to research what were Marine senior-enlisted promotion opportunities like during the 1960s/70s.

You were right down the street from my apartment, in that case.


Sorry for the ALL CAPS font, it’s what the original document supports:


On average, at least in recent years, it takes about 10 years to get to Staff Sergeant(E-6), and then another 4-5 years to get to Gunnery Sergeant(E-7).

Advancement may well be faster in war-time, and in certain career specialisations. Promotion boards have a certain degree of flexibility in deciding promotions past E-4/E-5.

The basic culture is “Up or Out”: you stay in as long as you are promotable, then you’re out. The purpose of this is to ensure a high quality workforce in service, and to avoid stagnation at the higher paygrades.

So, if someone enlists at 18, they’ll be pushing S/SGT at around 28, and Gy/SGT at around 35.

You might look into age/years of service figures for Sergeant First Class(Army), Master Sergeant(USAF) and Chief Petty Officer(USN) … these are the titles for the E-7 paygrade in the other services.

At any rate, my best guess for a just-promoted GySgt is “thirty-something”. It is possible that an outstanding person might get there faster, especially in combat conditions, but even so, the E-7 grade is the basic enlisted career USMC rank, with lots of NCOs leaving at E-6, and very few getting to E-8/E-9.

You could have the character be a higher-level NCO, but have the Gunny nickname, perhaps because he spent a long time at that rank, or because many people met him while he was.

The proposed Marine in the OP is in the Reserves. It seems your cites are for active duty. In fact if I am reading it correct those that are passed over can transfer to the reserves. I am in the Army not the Marine Corps so I don’t don’t know all the ins a outs of the Corps. In the Army it is not unusual for there to be an old E7 in the Guard or Reserves. I have know plenty of E7s (and E5s, E6s) who retire at 60 in the Guard. In the active duty army there are service limits as well so I don’t think it’s much different in other branches. In the Guard unit I just left there was a former Marine E6 who had been at Khe Sahn. I wouldn’t find it unusual to read about an old E7 in the Reserves. If you are making him out to be some sort of SuperMarine you may have to explain why he couldn’t get promoted.

How in the world do you make it to 60 years old and still only be an E5?

My dad was an E5 in the Air Force (1969-1973) inside of 4 years, and had taken the test for Tech Sgt., when he decided not to re-enlist, and he was only 28-29 at that point.

Reservist/NatGuard – promo above E4 is upon vacancy in your specific local command.
Loach, if I understand correctly, the Marine NCO in the OP goes into the Reserve in 1979, 11 years after his VN tour, where he was a platoon sergeant at age 40.

In the Guard specifically (I have never been in the Reserve so I won’t speak to that even though I believe it is similar) there is no promote or perish. Some don’t want to get promoted. They want to stay in for whatever reason (comraderie, partriotism etc) but don’t want the added responsibility. As you get up in rank you are expected to do more and more, many times without any compensation. There are multiple training meetings and staff meetings that you are supposed to attend for the flag. The life of an E4 or E5 is much easier. In the Guard you don’t receive any retirement money until age 60 even if you are eligible for retirement 20 years earlier. Some stay in that long because of that.

You’re right the OP needs to work on his numbers a bit but I was answering his question about if an old E7 would be possible. Maybe in the story he goes into the reserves earlier or he has a break in service. I’m not writing the story so Skald has to do the hard work.

Yep, the research is up to me; I just wasn’t sure where to begin. I’ve got a ton of books on Vietnam and Khe Sanh (where “ton” = three), but I’m having a little trouble figuring out where to go to find out about promotion rates during vietnam.

I like the break-in-service alternative. Maybe he has a considerable break-in-service even before VN but decides that in a war, the Corps needs him, so he’s older than comparable grades even then. The timeouts set him back in the promotions ladder (you may even lose actual rank if you are discharged and enlist after X time has passed), but he manages to spend a long time in the 70s as an exemplary E-7, going into Reserve for family reasons rather than take a promotion.

Well, he’s dead throughout the story, so it may not be THAT important. From what I’ve read in Cerberus’ links and everybody’s posts, it seems that I could solve all issues of credibility just by subtracting 10 years off his age. That way he’d have been a thirty-year-old staff sergeant at Khe Sanh–sufficient rank be the ranking noncom for his platoon, no?–and a 41-year-old Gunny when he retired.

That doesn’t seem credible to me. The main character calling him “Gunny Taliaferro” is his former CO, now a friend of the family, who left the Marines long after he did and who certainly would know the appropriate term. Don’t the higher-ranking sergeants also have nicknames–“Top” and so forth?

Well, if he made it to E-9, he could be a Master Gunny.

If your charactor has to be born in '28, and you want knowledgeable people to find the story credible, you need to account for Korea as he would have been old enough to enlist then. Between Korea and VN it was difficult to enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces, especially the Navy, Marines and Air Force. Most guys had to have previous service or join the reserves and then request active duty.
I was born in Jan. of '39 and joined the Navy Reserve in the summer of '56. I requested active duty several months later and was accepted, although a couple of my buddies were turned down. I made Chief in '68 during my second VN tour. I retired in '79, a few days before my 39th b’day.
You could have him enlisting at the beginning of Korea, maybe making E-4 or E-5, and then going to the reserves where he could have made it to E-7 and then gone active again for VN. Maybe he could have first encountered the officer friend when he was a PFC and the officer was his 2nd Lt. platoon commander. The when he went back to active duty for VN he could have run across the officer again, who would then have been a senior Major or Lt. Col.
If you want to get technical, your guy could have been retired w/ 18 years and 6 months of active duty, in which case his reserve time would count for pay purposes. This is possible in the Navy and Marine Corps., but not the Army or Air Force. For example, he could have served 4 years active during Korea and then 14 and a half from '66 to around '80/'81 and taken full retirement.

Or even Sergeant Major or Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps*.

*When I was in the Army as a Personnel Specialist, each Branch (Army, Navy, Marine Coprs, Air Force, and Coast Guard had a special paygrade for the highest
Enlisted member, of which there was only one serving in each Branch: E-10.

Now I’m confused. Everyone I know who was a young adult in the 50s was drafted. They served two years, and then got back to their lives. It was something that everyone was supposed to go through, although some people used deferments to duck it.

I knew that commissioned officers in the armed forces were subject to “up or out” rules, but I didn’t know this was also the case with NCOs.

I could see why this might be the case in some situations. For instance, the Navy wouldn’t want to have a 58-year-old ensign who never made jg, and the Marines would not want to keep around a middle-aged corporal who never managed to rise any higher. But for seasoned officers and noncoms who have reached reasonable levels–say a serjeant major in the case of noncoms, or a major in the case of officers, why would the military want to drop you if you want to stay in? Seasoned personnel don’t grow on trees.