Fifteen miles from Grand Rapids, Minn., sits the quaint community of Deer River, population 903. Its residents claim it to be a “Northwoods Paradise,” with “North” being the key word. Sitting just 70 miles south of the Canadian border, life moves a little slower than in larger cities. Take for instance this month’s special event, “Take a mom fishing weekend.”
Nearly 2,250 miles away sits Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, where a Deer River native traded annual “Wild Rice Festival” attendance for 4 a.m. wakeups and 18-hour workdays.
Gunnery Sgt. Dustin R. Kazmar, chief drill instructor, K Co., 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, is engaged and involved in molding young men into United States Marines. They show up at the Depot each month from all over the country; from locations as different as Deer River and San Diego. As critical as his job is, Kazmar concedes that without recruiters, there would be nobody to train.
During the annual Recruiting Station Phoenix Poolee Function and Field Meet, he had the unusual opportunity to meet some of the men he may have the responsibility to train while working side by side with the man who recruited him some nine years ago. His recruiter, former SNCOIC of Recruiting Substation Duluth, Minn., then Staff Sgt. David Knutson, is now Sgt. Maj. Knutson, RS Phoenix’s sergeant major.
During his junior year in high school, Kazmar told his family he was going to join the military after having a fight with his girlfriend. His father, while supportive of his son’s decision to serve his country, made an unusual demand.
“My father told me that I couldn’t join the military until I had talked to a recruiter from every service,” said Kazmar.
It didn’t take young Dustin long to cut the potential pool in half. After speaking to the Navy and Air Force recruiters on the phone, Kazmar knew neither was for him.
“The Air Force (recruiter) said they weren’t interested in my muscles – they wanted my brains. I said, ‘Okay, thanks. Bye,’ and hung up.
After a visit with the Army recruiter, Kazmar was sold and ready to join. His father stood fast on his initial decree and reminded him there was still one service with which to speak. As the representative Devil Dog arrived at the Kazmar home, it was his interaction with the family’s dogs that made a first and lasting impression.
Patrolling the front yard of the Kazmar home were two 185-pound Great Danes. Most visitors are so terrified of the horse-sized creatures, they stay in the safety of their vehicles until the animals are out of sight. The Army recruiter, in fact, stayed in the car until Kazmar’s mother went out to the yard to get them and took them into the house.
When the Marine recruiter arrived, the dogs began their normal routine of barking furiously and jumping up and down outside the vehicle. Knutson, at the time a canvassing recruiter from RSS Duluth, calmly gathered his collateral materials, put on his cover, and made his way to the front door of the house. The elder Kazmar, watching the entire episode from inside the house, grinned, knowing his son had found his man.
“My dad looked at me and said, ‘this (joker) is crazy,’” said Kazmar.
Knutson, who seemed so oblivious to the events as they were happening, says he remembers that moment as if it were yesterday.
“I looked at it as a good way to use up some of that free medical care,” he said.
Once he was safely inside, Knutson spoke to Kazmar about the Corps and what it had to offer. While the rhetoric of the conversation has long since been forgotten, Kazmar decided that day he would become a Marine.
“Do I remember exactly what he said to me that day? No. But whatever it was changed my mind. When he left, I never considered the other services again.”
Nearly a year later, on his 18th birthday, Kazmar climbed into a car bound for the airport, and ultimately recruit training.
Nine years and six promotions later, Kazmar has much to be proud of. Like the approving father who watched Knutson brave the Great Danes, Knutson now talks about Kazmar in a similarly doting fashion.
“I couldn’t be prouder of him. What he’s accomplished in such a short period of time is incredible. He is a true testament to what you can become in the Corps with a little dedication and a whole lot of heart.”
Kazmar, dealing with recruits on a daily basis, didn’t realize until just recently how much respect he had for his former recruiter.
“I hear horror stories all the time from the recruits about how their recruiters lied to them, didn’t tell them everything they needed to know, and so on. I can tell you (Knutson) was honest about everything. When I got to boot camp, everything he told me was correct. I always knew what to expect.”
Now, standing in a dusty park in Phoenix under the beating sun and Knutson’s watchful eye, Kazmar gave the onlooking recruits advice for when they leave their homes and show up in his house.
“All you need to bring with you to boot camp are drive and heart. With those two things, you can accomplish anything.”