“To my cadets, to my young Marines, I tell them they need to be the whole package, the world needs them to be the full package.
“Be honest men … You need to be super honest because your word is everything.
“With agile minds … You may not be the smartest guy in the room, but you need to be constantly learning. You need to question everything you hear, have people prove it to you.
“Soft hearts … You need to be able to walk into a situation in the middle of Afghanistan and take care of a child who just lost a parent and at the same time turn around and meet your mission goals.
“Strong backs … You need to be physically strong, and you need to put yourself through the physical rigors and push past the pain.
“And hard feet … You need to put yourself through the immediate trials to survive in the harsh world we live in.”
Marine Master Sgt. Juan Avalos has trained thousands of young Marines these tenets, and he says it has been his life’s work.
“If you follow these steps right here, and live up to what I tell you, you’re going to do just that,” said Avalos.
Avalos was born Oct. 10, 1979, to Ramon and Irene Avalos, a cabinet maker and homemaker, respectively, in a Los Angeles-area hospital.
Avalos would be the oldest of three children, with a younger sister and brother and, as he tells it, his parents never had to worry about him.
“I spent a lot of time hanging out with the immediate and extended family,” said Avalos. “And I was concentrating on academics, and I was just naturally good at it.”
Because his parents both went on to work once all three kids had been born, Avalos was largely raised by his grandmother until she died when he was 11 years old.
“She was a hard-ass, but she was very protective over us.” Avalos said his grandmother had Mexican citizenship, and had earlier been a nanny, traveling over the border from Mexico to work during the week in the United States. She would then return to Mexico either at the end of the day or week to raise her own family.
“It was a typical immigrant first-generation family,” said Avalos.
Attending Pacoima High School, Avalos said he started getting into a little trouble with his friends, whom he described as always “being good at making fun of each other.”
However, he always had an eye on academics. That is, until he spotted the Marines for the first time.
“Here is the Marine recruiter sergeant at the time, with the guy being about 180 pounds of solid muscle in this cool uniform,” said Avalos. “He jumped out to me.”
“My only real examples of what a man should be was my father and uncles, and (this sergeant) took an interest in me,” Avalos added.
The moment he was old enough, Avalos was in the Young Marine “Poolee” program, saying he fit right in. On Aug. 8, 1997, he would sign his contract promising him a chance to be a Marine.
“I was hungry … I was looking for something out of my box, outside of my immediate environment,” said Avalos. “Why not go someplace where I want to be.”
For the Marine Corps, boot camp is a testing ground. It’s where the dedicated separate themselves from the lukewarm. It’s grueling at times, impossible in others, and challenging in all the places in between.
But for Avalos, he was more fixated on the drill instructors. He knew they would bark and yell, but they were only doing so to prepare them to join the Corps brotherhood. Avalos admired them and wanted to be like them.
“I was a fish out of water, that’s for sure,” he said, laughing. “But I wanted it in my life. I wanted to turn into that person.”
Avalos made it through boot camp, even having his 18th birthday while there. He was becoming the person he wanted to be, and his father, who Avalos describes as not being very talkative, wrote him his first letter.
“He’s a great example of a hard-working man, but he doesn’t talk to you much,” said Avalos. “It was my very first letter from him, but he said he was proud of me.”
For his military occupation specialty, Avalos was told he would be a computer programmer because of how high he tested on his armed services vocational aptitude battery.
He said he wanted to be in electronics maintenance and work with his hands, but once the Navy found out he was colorblind, that ship had sailed.
For his first assignment, he was sent to Albany, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta, to redesign old mainframes.
It was in Albany where it first all started to click for him.
“I wanted to be faster, stronger than them all. I passed all my tests. I was better than them at uniform. I could shoot better than them. There was nothing I couldn’t do better than anyone else.”
Soon after he caught the eye of the commander as one of the better Marines, he would become a Meritorious Corporal. Because of his effort, he was sent to jump school for some time.
For his first handful of years, Avalos said he “ate it all up,” and figured out he would stay in the Marines and make a career out of it.
He was soon sent out to Japan, where he spent his first New Year’s Eve abroad. Then, when 9/11 happened, everything changed.
Avalos was back at Camp Pendleton, and he said he was driving over to his sergeant course, and all he saw was an empty parking lot and a Marine telling him to head into the theater.
“The sergeant major came out, and he said, ‘Look, we don’t know what’s going to happen,’” the officer said. “‘You can expect for the next few years, we’re going to be at war.’”
Avalos was also working on his drill sergeant package, but he was prepared to drop everything so he could go overseas. “No way in hell” he was going to miss the war, he said.
The Marines, though, needed his talents elsewhere, and despite his pleas to be sent out to Afghanistan, they needed him as a drill instructor. And he was sent to DI, or drill instructor, school.
“I was a natural at building up young Marines into successful leaders,” said Avalos. “I wanted to say one day that I was a DI. It was a goal of mine.”
After leaving Southern California following DI school and working with a few hundred young recruits there, he was sent to Quantico, Virginia, to train enlisted officers. He stayed in Quantico for five years as a gunnery sergeant.
“When I was a DI, I turned to my buddy and I said, ‘I could do this for the rest of my career,’” he added.
Eventually, he was sent to Afghanistan for six months to be a data chief before he was called back to the U.S. again. At first, he was happy about the assignment to return to be a DI again, because he was doing what he loved.
But the Marines put a reluctant Avalos on another tour, leading a platoon of 40 Marines around the Pacific Ocean, working in communications. From Australia to Japan to Korea, Avalos was in charge of the 40 guys, $15 million in gear and some “secret stuff.”
“It was my best tour,” Avalos said, adding it was the actual best way to end his career as a Marine.
Following his final tour, Avalos was honorably discharged as an E-8 master sergeant on Nov. 1, 2017. He said, after leaving, he came home and decided to go to school, returning to his academic roots, as a human resources major.
But on that final tour, 20 years into his service in the Marines, Avalos met a Marine who would change his life forever: Lt. Col. Stephen Fiscus.
After he got back. Avalos settled down with his wife and kids, but Avalos knew that one day he would be called back to being a drill instructor because of what this guy said, and Avalos’ love of teaching young Marines these principles.
“I use it still to this day, I even put it on my business cards, ‘I want you all to be honest men, with agile minds, soft hearts, strong backs and hard feet,’” Avalos remembered. “This guy just took 20 years of experience and just broke it down into this simple little phrase.”
Knowing his calling was to be a drill instructor once again, while still going to school, Avalos found a JROTC program at Reseda Charter High School and a local Young Marines program that he could be in charge of.
He said his relationship with the kids there is similar to the one he had as a DI. A mentor, a boss, a big brother, a parent — anything that young man or woman needs to become a Marine.
“I love it,” Avalos said, adding that at this point over his career and with the JROTC and Young Marines he instructs, he has now assisted and lifted up thousands of young, fresh fish like he once was, into Marines.
“I tell them that it’s a sacrifice, that it’s a way of life, this is a lifestyle and not a vocation, and you need to put your team and mission ahead (of yourself). A Marine, in my mind, is what we should all strive to be in our minds, bigger than ourselves, what a citizen should be, and it’s a brotherhood and it’s a family,” said Avalos. “Leaders are made, not born.”