Alumni Interview: Melvin Burch-Bynum
When people say, “Thank you for your service” in the Marine Corps, I can’t help thinking, “Don’t thank me yet. I may be ‘retired,’ but I’m just getting started.”
I grew up in a rough neighborhood—the projects of South Peoria (Ill.). My amazing parents worked so hard, they were finally able to buy us a little house. My friends in the projects thought that made us rich! We weren’t.
I played basketball at Peoria’s Manual High School, but quit the team when my girlfriend got pregnant. At 17, I was about to be a father. That was a responsibility I took seriously. I juggled three after-school jobs, working at Hardee’s, Papa John’s Pizza and the Ponderosa Steakhouse. My son would become the catalyst for every success I’ve had in my life.
There weren’t many career opportunities for teenaged single fathers in South Peoria. After graduating from high school in 1994, I joined the U.S. Marine Corps.
Early in my career, a young lieutenant pulled me aside. He saw some promise in me. “Have you thought about a commissioning program?” he asked.
To become a commissioned officer, a Marine needs a college degree. And so, in 2000, I went back to my home state and enrolled at the University of Illinois. Because of my military status, the state provided me with a Veteran’s Grant that paid my tuition. I majored in elementary education as a tribute to Laurice Joseph, my eighth-grade teacher, who inspired her students to do their best every day. Miss Joseph taught for 40 years in the poorest part of Peoria, and I believe she saved as many souls as a saint. In fact, that was my nickname for her: “Saint Joseph.” As I climbed the ranks as a USMC officer, I kept a photo of her with me. It’s still in my office today. She made me believe that my humble origins didn’t have to define me.
Laurice Joseph, my eighth-grade teacher, “made me believe that my humble origins didn’t have to define me.” —Maj. Melvin D. Burch-Bynum (USMC, Ret.), ’04 ED
Four years at the University of Illinois paved the way for a life I’m proud to be living. I proposed to my wife, Stephanie Burch-Bynum, ’96 LAS, MS ’00 ED, PHD ’02 ED, on the Quad when she was a Ph.D. student. Professor Violet Harris inspired a passion for children’s literature that I carry with me to this day. I’ll never forget Dr. Harris, Jeanne Connell, PHD ’94 ED or my classmate Richard Adkins, EDM 04, a Vietnam-era Marine veteran who became a lifelong friend.
After graduating in 2004 and being promoted to second lieutenant, I served as a platoon commander during the Iraq War. That was a dangerous deployment.
My greatest achievement was bringing my platoon home safely—with no casualties.
After being promoted to major, I retired from the Marine Corps. It was great to spend more time at home with my wife. Then came Jan. 6, 2021. Watching Americans storming our Capitol, I was embarrassed for my country. I thought, “What can I do, in my small way, to keep doing my part?”
I had thought of the national Junior ROTC program as a recruitment arm for the military, but that’s not its mission. It’s all about instilling discipline, leadership and positive values in young people, whatever they choose to do with their lives. JROTC teaches them to be better Americans.
That’s my mission now. At 48, I’m known simply as “Major” to more than a hundred members of the Marine Corps JROTC program at Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, Va. I was honored to be named Fairfax County’s “Outstanding Secondary New Teacher of 2023” for helping our program’s cadets become the fine young Americans they are.
One of them, Jasmine Green, struggled at Mount Vernon High School before joining the Marine Corps JROTC program. “A bad kid,” teachers called her. They didn’t know what she was up against. Before her senior year, Jasmine was in a car accident. She was hurt, her mother was hurt. Her six-year-old brother died. Then she returned to our program, took charge of her own life. Adversity might have taken her out. Instead, Jasmine is preparing to go to boot camp. She is going to be a Marine.
That’s one JROTC story. There are so many others—and that’s what keeps me setting my alarm at 5 a.m. I’ll go for a run or swim, then drive to school in time to run an extracurricular physical fitness program that starts at 6:30 a.m.—and find cadets waiting for me. That’s how fired up they are. That’s what keeps me optimistic about our future.