When Lt. Col. Thomas Gualandi signed on to become the new instructor of the Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (MCJROTC) at Portage High School over the summer, it was clearly a case of the best meeting the best.
Already the oldest and one of the most successful MCJROTC programs in the state of Indiana, Portage was getting a top-tier Marine Corps officer, a true professional and American hero.
“I was impressed with the program,” Gualandi, originally from north central Illinois, recalls about his first trip to Portage to interview for the job. “The JROTC in Portage has always been awesome, consistently being recognized as a Naval Honor School.”
Gualandi began in his current role at the start of this school year following 24 years in the Marine Corps, where he steadily rose in rank. When he first graduated boot camp after enlisting in 1990, Gualandi was a Private. He was later selected to attend Officer Candidate School after college five years later, becoming a 2nd Lieutenant for two years before being promoted to 1st Lieutenant. Each rank he achieved from there to his current rank of Lt. Col. took 5-6 years.
“It’s not a fast process,” Gualandi said. “But leading Marines has always been my thing. That was my motivational all along.”
From his earliest memories, Gualandi knew he was going to end up in the Marines. Both his grandfather and father were members of the Marines. His grandfather, a Corporal in World War II and his father a Sergeant in the Vietnam War.
“They both really shaped my interest in this and helped me realize this is what I wanted to do,” Gualandi said.
Gualandi himself had been in service during another one of the most memorable times in United States Military history, coordinating air support on March 19, 2013 - when the United States began the invasion of Iraq.
“I didn’t sleep at all during the first three days,” he remembers. “Those days we were so busy with the airstrikes and bombing that there was no time to sleep. I don't even know if I ate anything during that time.”
He said at the moment it was “great to be a part of,” taking in the accomplishment that the United States was able to reach Baghdad by the end of April that year, while no one reached the city during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that took place in the 1980's.
A few years earlier, Gualandi credits his time in Survival School as a 1st Lieutenant as another experience that “taught me a lot about myself.”
Working in Military intelligence alongside the well-known Gen. James Mattis, whom he calls “the best Marine Corps General since World War II,” was another positive influence on Gualandi, who is now taking that educational experience and passing it along to the 247 cadets that are now a part of the Portage High School MCJROTC.
After 24 years away, Gualandi says it is nice for he and his wife, Becky (a native of Muskegon, Michigan) to be “so close to family,” noting that the location in Portage being about two hours from both his and Becky’s hometown was a plus in selecting where he would make his post-military life.
Only two months into the new gig, Gualandi calls leading to already accomplished Portage program “very enjoyable.”
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s entertaining to watch the students and the things they do, some of them being silly. But you also get to see how they learn so quickly and get things. A lot of what they figure out is surprisingly impressive.”
Among the skills he teaches are close order drill practice and military landing navigation.
“It’s pretty fun to see them learn all that,” he said.
While the MCJROTC class, which is open to all levels, already encompasses 10 percent of the student population at PHS, Gualandi says he strives to have even more members as he looks to grow the program.
“I’d like to make it a little bigger - maybe 260-270 kids,” he said, adding in his hopes of seeing more ROTC scholarships, enrollees at service academies and JROTC programs at major universities.
“We can help get service nominations to West Point or Annapolis,” he said.
Calling himself “very fortunate” to step into a situation with a strong program, Gualandi is loving life in Portage thus far.
“Since my wife and I are both from the Midwest, we see Portage as a bit of a blend of both our home towns,” he said. “I’ve lived all of the country, so it is nice to be back in the Midwest.
“We feel very comfortable in Portage. People are friendly and it feels like home.”