SEMO Now Top Marine
By Rudi Keller ~ Southeast Missourian
On the Southeast Missouri State College campus 38 years ago, a young man from St. Louis led the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. Today James T. Conway leads a different kind of brotherhood -- the U.S. Marine Corps.
Conway, a 58-year-old Arkansas native, was sworn in as the 34th commandant of the corps on Monday. He has risen from leading a platoon to leading one of the most feared and respected fighting forces in history.
The qualities that would make Conway a leader were clearly evident during his days at Southeast, said David Ludwig, Cape Girardeau County auditor and "pledge father" to Conway in the fraternity.
"He was a standout, a very organized and well-disciplined young man," Ludwig said. "Obviously, the Marines and he were a perfect fit. He would have been a success in business, in the private sector, successful in whatever he decided to pursue."
Conway will return to the campus, now Southeast Missouri State University, to deliver the winter commencement address Dec. 16, university president Ken Dobbins said Friday.
Pressures of military leadership could change that, Dobbins cautioned -- Conway has been invited back twice and has accepted both times but has been unable to make the date.
The serious side Conway displayed at Southeast doesn't mean he didn't take part in the frivolous side of campus life, Ludwig said. On the Sigma Phi Epsilon page of the 1968 "Sagaa Hell's Angels Party, a Viking Party and a Beach Party receive prominent mention. Conway was president of the fraternity in the spring and fall of 1968.
The unrest and anti-military attitude spawned by the Vietnam War wasn't strong at Southeast at that time, Ludwig said. When young men thought about the military, he said, they thought about keeping their grades up to maintain a draft deferment and, after graduating, whether to accept being drafted into the Army or signing up for another branch of the service.
"It was pretty much mainstream America," Ludwig said. "We had very traditional values, and we were supporting the government and the military at that time."
Conway's career has been marked by a steady rise through the ranks. His first assignment after receiving his commission as an officer in 1970 was as a rifle platoon commander at Camp Pendleton. As he progressed, he commanded other platoons and companies in the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions; commanded officer students and taught tactics at The Basic School in Quantico, Va.; and served as executive officer for the 31st Marine Amphibious Unit, including contingency operations off Beirut, Lebanon, in the early 1980s.
Conway commanded the 3rd Battalion of the 2nd Marine Division during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. He has served as commanding officer of The Basic School, deputy director of operations for the anti-terrorism unit of the Joint Staff in Washington, D.C., and president of the Marine Corps University in Quantico.
Most recently, he has served two combat tours as commander of the Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq and as director of operations for the Joint Staff in Washington.