Tustin PD Marines gather to celebrate Corps birthday

By Jaimee Lynn Fletcher

One day a year every United States Marine — whether home or abroad, active duty or not — is doing the exact same thing.

“All Marines are celebrating,” said Tustin PD Officer and retired Marine Val Villarreal. “Right now, across the world today, we are celebrating the Marine Corps birthday.”

In Tustin’s corner of the world, more than a dozen members of the military gathered Nov. 10 at the Tustin Grille to honor the Corps’ 240th birthday.

“From the time you step on those yellow footprints on day one in the Marine Corps, you are hammered about history, tradition and honor,” Villarreal said. “And that’s what this day is about.”

For nearly 15 years, Villarreal has organized a celebration steeped in tradition with rituals that are repeated every year but never grow old.

A sheet cake is sliced with a sword as a reminder that Marines are “a band of warriors, committed to carrying the sword so that our nation may live in peace,” Villarreal said.

Tustin PD Sgt. Del Pickney, who also served in the Marines, cuts the cake with a Marine Corps sword during a gathering to honor the Marine Corps 240th birthday by current and retired Tustin police officers. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Tustin PD Sgt. Del Pickney, who also served in the Marines, cuts the cake with a Marine Corps sword during a gathering to honor the Marine Corps 240th birthday by current and retired Tustin police officers.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The first piece is handed off to the eldest Marine who then passes it to the youngest.

Villarreal was awarded the honor of passing the cake having joined the Corps in 1977

He stayed in for 30 years and left as a master sergeant in 2007 with a wealth of stories from his years of service, including a 2004 combat tour where he was on a team tasked with training Iraqi security forces.

Villarreal handed the piece to Officer Mike Carter, who joined the Marines in 2004, stayed in for nearly nine years and served three combat tours.

The cake tradition signifies “the passing of experience and knowledge from the old to the young of our Corps,” Villarreal said. Current and retired Tustin Police Officers who served in the Marines gathered at the Tustin Grille to honor the 240th birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps.

The ribbing that solidifies camaraderie among those who have served is constant when Marines get together, and each of them can recall an impressive number of facts about the Corps’ history and traditions.

“What’s something that was drilled into you so hard that you’d still remember it 30 years later?” Sgt. Del Pickney asked the group of Marines.

Everyone had answers from spouting off names of notable Marines — including the Corps’ first female, Opha Mae Johnson — to pointing out that what civilians call flashlights are known as moonbeams, to sharing how the Marine Corps got its start — in a Philadelphia bar called Tun Tavern.

While there is a lot of laughing and story swapping, there are also somber moments to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

An empty table set with a peaked cap and white gloves, a plate that will never be filled with food and a snifter of Crown Royal stands front and center in Tustin Grille’s back room.

Tustin PD Master Officer Val Villarreal gathers Tustin PD officers for a moment of silence honoring falling Marines and to talk about traditions as the former Marines celebrate the U.S. Marine Corps 240th birthday at the Tustin Grille. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Tustin PD Master Officer Val Villarreal gathers Tustin PD officers for a moment of silence honoring falling Marines and to talk about traditions as the former Marines celebrate the U.S. Marine Corps 240th birthday at the Tustin Grille.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“At every Marine Corps birthday event you will see this set up,” Villarreal said. “It is for us to remember our fallen comrades.”

All the details of the evening are designed to recognize the service and commitment of every Marine and reinforce the importance of tradition, Villarreal said.

“We always get together to do this because it’s an honor,” he said. “Once a Marine, always a Marine. You never forget.”

A cake celebrating the U.S. Marine Corps 240th birthday is on display with a table setting next to it honoring falling Marines as current and retired Tustin Police Officers who served in the Marines gathered at the Tustin Grille. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

A cake celebrating the U.S. Marine Corps 240th birthday is on display with a table setting next to it honoring falling Marines as current and retired Tustin Police Officers who served in the Marines gathered at the Tustin Grille.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC