On a clear, chilly morning last winter, retired Marine Corps Commandant Carl E. Mundy Jr. stepped from a car outside the House of Representatives' Rayburn Office Building and marched up the steps for an appointment.
It was 8 a.m., a bit early for Capitol Hill. But he was calling on an old friend, Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), himself a retired Marine, wounded in Vietnam and a member of a powerful House subcommittee.
Mundy, 64, who had taken off his general's stars and commandant's laurel in 1995, used to come to the Hill attended by aides and advisers as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of 170,000 Marines.
This morning, as the head of the USO, the venerable but haphazardly funded military morale agency, he was alone, in business attire, and hat in hand. For 15 minutes, he waited at Murtha's office. Finally, the congressman's scheduler arrived. There had been a mix-up. Murtha would not be in. By the way, the scheduler politely asked: "Who are you?"
Since the time his doting father took him to see the newsreels of Marines fighting in the Pacific, and told the story about the Marines who saved him from a mugging in Philadelphia, it was preordained.
Mundy had tried to join up in high school in North Carolina, but was discouraged by his parents. He finally signed on with the reserves in college, hitchhiking home to tell his dismayed mother, who urged him, in vain, to take the paperwork back.
He'd worn his uniform to propose to his wife, served in Lebanon and the Philippines, directed battles in Vietnam, moved 32 times, reared two Marine sons, and was named commandant by a president.
He had the best job in the world, in the best outfit in the world.
And few people had to ask who he was.
Then, one beautiful June evening, in a ceremony at the Iwo Jima Memorial, he found the Marine Band playing at his retirement, and it was all at an end.
He bought a house on a cul-de-sac near Mount Vernon. He put his general's stars under glass in the living room, hung his ivory-handled sword in the den and started building shelves for the basement.
A military career can be cruel that way. You finish up, hang out the flag, slap on a bumper sticker: "Semper Fi, Mac." And head for the fishing hole.
No more uniforms. No obvious chain of command. For the first time in years, you pick a permanent place to live--Mundy picked one 10 miles from the Pentagon.
And if you were a high-ranking officer, you join the boards of corporations and foundations. Mundy joined seven.
But it doesn't replace who you were.
Carl Mundy went through what scores of high-ranking military and civilian officials go through when they leave jobs in Washington, a town where the job defines the person--stepping off the public stage and plunging into the uncertain shadows of private life.
"It's almost like jumping out of an airplane," Mundy says. "You are weightless. There's no noise, or anything like that. The weight is off of you. You're not standing on your own feet. You're not bearing your own weight. You're just suspended in the air."
"You don't know whether it's time to go home and die in a couple of years, or whether you're going to devote yourself to your grandchildren, or whatever you're going to do," he says.
So he decided to try starting over, becoming something else, someone else, agreeing to be Carl E. Mundy Jr., president and chief executive officer of the USO. Only for a while, though. After all, this was no childhood dream.
'Okay, Give Me Artillery'
Mundy was born July 16, 1935, in Atlanta, the only child of a five-and-ten "set-up" man from South Carolina. His father's job was to establish a store, get it rolling and then, after about nine months, move on to another one.
"I moved more as a dime store kid than I did as a Marine," Mundy says. After about 10 years, his father changed jobs and the family settled in Waynesville, N.C.
In 1957, after officer training and four years at Auburn University, Mundy was graduated as a Marine Corps second lieutenant--"one bar pinned on by my fourth-grade sweetheart, the other one by my mother," he says.
He shipped out in May 1958 to the Mediterranean and was one of 5,000 Marines who assaulted the beaches of Lebanon in July, an operation designed to protect the government from a threatened coup and one he recalls as not the complete cakewalk it is often said to be.
Nine years later, he was sent to Vietnam--a captain, ripe for infantry company command, and finally bound for a real war. He was jubilant.
Then, to his crushing disappointment, he was assigned to a staff job in Da Nang: "You didn't want to go home and tell your kids that you were in Da Nang the whole time," he says. Any Marine officer "worth a hoot" wanted to direct men in combat.
But Vietnam had plenty of that to go around. And in September 1967, near Con Thien, he got his wish. The Marines regularly battled it out in that area with disciplined North Vietnamese soldiers--"incredible people to fight," he notes.
"It was kind of a slug-it-out," he says. "There wasn't a heck of a lot of maneuvering. . . . You kind of waited for them to come to you and fought, and then you went out to find them and then you fought. Nobody had brilliant strategy."
But combat, he says, was thrilling.
"In those periods of engagement, when he's shooting at you and you're shooting at him, or when you can see them or when they're coming at you . . . it is the most exhilarating moment of your life," he says.
"It's a symphony: You can hear sporadic small-arms fire. That grows. When you know you're engaged is when you hear your machine guns start. And his machine guns pick up and by that time you realize, 'Okay, give me artillery.'
"And then you gotta see what's going on, and you go up on the ridge . . . and here they come," he says. "You almost think, 'Boy, I wish I had a camera.' It's beautiful."
End of the Line
The night before Mundy took the commandant's job, on July 1, 1991, he and his wife went to the Iwo Jima Memorial, the Corps' shrine in Arlington.
It was dusk and Mundy slowly walked around the 30-foot bronze Marines--frozen like gods at the moment of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi, and mounted atop a black granite base with the Corps' battles etched in gold.
Belleau Wood. Meuse-Argonne. Wake Island. Bataan. Guadalcanal. Okinawa.
"Lord," Mundy prayed. "Don't let me do anything to screw up the Marine Corps."
His petition was granted. But he stumbled often.
Nominated by President Bush, he spent the bulk of his tour under President Clinton, a period of drastic military downsizing and turbulence over military social issues.
Early in 1993, Mundy, an opponent of "open homosexuality" in the service, was criticized for circulating a conservative group's anti-gay video among the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One angry editorial writer called him "this yahoo of a Marine officer."
In August of that year, he was rebuked when the Marines sought to ban the recruitment of married individuals to cut down on domestic discord in the Corps. The president was "astonished." Mundy apologized for "blind-siding" the administration.
Two months later, he appeared on "60 Minutes" and told a national TV audience that Marine test scores showed minority officers did not shoot, swim or read compasses as well as white officers. The statement--taken out of context, he argues--drew outrage, and two days later Mundy apologized again. The lesson, he says now: "Never, ever go on '60 Minutes.' "
But his four years also coincided with 50th-anniversary commemorations of World War II. Mundy got to attend ceremonies at Iwo Jima, Tarawa and Saipan, places he had watched flicker through the newsreels years before, with exotic names his father had mispronounced.
Four months after the commemoration at Iwo Jima, Carl Mundy's tour ended.
On the evening of June 30, after he had formally handed over the commandant's reins to his successor, Mundy, his family and friends gathered again at the Iwo Jima Memorial, this time for his retirement ceremony.
As the band played, his eldest son, Carl III, read a simple order signed by the Navy secretary, which Mundy now has memorized:
"Effective midnight, 30 June, 1995, you are retired from active service in the Marine Corps. On that date you will have served 41 years, nine months and 23 days as a United States Marine."
Right Man for the Job?
It's a long way from Iwo Jima to Bob Hope and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, and the USO job was not one that Carl Mundy sought.
The legendary organization, founded 10 months before Pearl Harbor as the United Service Organizations for National Defense, has famously provided food, entertainment and moral support to service men and women during and in between all the nation's wars since 1941.
Supported only by public donations, its fortunes rose and fell, often sharply, with each conflict: Money poured in during wartime and dried up in times of peace.
After World War II, it almost shut down when the troops came home. It faced financial collapse in the mid-1980s. In the early 1990s, after a huge boost from the Persian Gulf War, it went into another nosedive, losing 50,000 donors in about a year. There were fears it might not meet its payroll.
In 1995 the USO was still struggling. Its president, Chapman B. Cox, a former assistant secretary of the Navy and a Marine Corps lawyer during the Vietnam War, was stepping down after six years in the job.
"We needed somebody with stature," says Edward J. Christie Jr., a senior vice president at the USO who helped search for a replacement. Someone "who people outside these four walls would know."
Several weeks after he retired, Mundy had dinner with Cox, an old acquaintance, who asked him if he would be interested in the USO job. "I don't think so," Mundy replied. He'd had other offers. Virginia Military Institute wondered if he'd be interested in the top job there. He wasn't sure what he was going to do.
But Cox kept after him. Mundy visited USO headquarters at the Washington Navy Yard, in a building soon to be torn down, and found it "kind of dumpy." He met with the USO search committee and asked what they were looking for.
Stability, organization, planning, they said . . . and fund-raising.
"Wrong guy," Mundy said he replied. "I can do all the front three for you . . . but I'm not a fund-raiser." He left, thinking he was out of the running. But by the time he got home, after driving through the rain, the head of the search committee was on the phone offering him the job.
Mundy groaned. He hated begging for money. Plus, USO morale was poor. Focus was bad. Stability was questionable. Many people either didn't know what the USO was or thought it had died years before.
The Marine Corps it wasn't.
Not by a long shot.
But he still said yes. They faxed him a contract before he hung up.
The Drill Is Gone
Mundy has a terrific USO spiel. He tells the story of how, as a boy, he helped his mother spread mayonnaise on dozens of sandwiches, and how the whole town would go down to the USO center in the high school gym to give the GIs food, pencils and writing paper on Saturday night.
He tells how he waited in the rain for hours in Vietnam, water dripping off his helmet, to see a Bob Hope USO show in 1967, and how even today young service men and women constantly gravitate to USO centers in far-flung spots seeking a precious sliver of home. (The nearest USO installation to the Balkans is in Tazar, a former MiG base in southwestern Hungary, just north of the Croatian border. The group plans to send the Cowboys cheerleaders to entertain U.S. troops in the Balkans over the Fourth of July holiday.)
In the three years since he took over, he has shaken things up at the organization.
He ended superfluous operations--things like the big, money-losing gift shop on Okinawa and the organization's scholarship program. He went temporarily into the red to acquire a $250,000 state-of-the-art computer system. He started an endowment, doubled the donor base and reduced staff turnover. Now he is preparing to formally ask Congress--for the first time in USO history--for a government appropriation. It would be a one-time infusion of $50 million to permanently shield the USO from the vagaries of private funding.
Mundy cheerfully tells everyone that he has the second best job in Washington--but the distance between Number one and Number two seems vast.
His spacious office at USO headquarters on the third floor of the Navy Yard's Lejeune Hall is strikingly spare--decorated with the USO and American flags and a framed Rockwellesque painting depicting a World War II-era American street scene. But the room is devoid of the personal mementos that one expects in an executive's office.
He has told the USO he will serve for another year, maybe two. And so, despite his diligence, there is a sense of temporariness, a feeling that he will set the organization on a sound course, that he will give it his intellect and experience, but that his heart was long ago taken by another.
One day recently, as he talked in his office, two solitary Marines were practicing a drill on a basketball court across from USO headquarters on Eberle Place.
They were from the Marine barracks on I Street SE, where Mundy once lived. They were practicing a drill for a morning colors ceremony, a routine done with slow, careful steps and gold-handled swords. Mundy had always relished Marine ceremony. And he had promoted the sword as the symbol of the Corps.
But this day, though his window looked out on the court below, he was busy in Suite 301--a CEO in a big, bare office, across a narrow street and an unbridgeable divide from the life he had really loved.
CAPTION: Now: Former Marine Corps commandant Carl E. Mundy Jr., in his Alexandria home, now commands the USO, which needed a morale boost itself.
CAPTION: Then: Commander of 170,000 Marines.
CAPTION: Then-Maj. Carl Mundy, right, poses in Con Thien, Vietnam, with Maj. R.D. Weed in 1968.
CAPTION: For Gen. Mundy, retirement was "almost like jumping out of an airplane."