Semper Fi


Reporting by Georgia Swing
Photo by Billy Hardiman

MCC_VeternsAs a U.S. Marine Corps sergeant, Alec Niblett’s
missions took him to Iraq, Malaysia, Hong Kong
and the Philippines. The 27-year-old Tempe
resident hopes his current mission, begun this year at
Mesa Community College, will take him beyond Earth and
into space.
Niblett’s goal is to complete a four-year robotics
engineering degree at Arizona State University, and space
exploration is a special interest. With a Dutch company
aiming to colonize the Red Planet by 2023, he said, “I’ll
go to Mars — if I can come back.”
Niblett, well into his first semester
at MCC, celebrated his first Veterans
Day there Nov. 8 with an early
morning run around campus with
other military veterans, followed
by a grand opening ceremony
for the new Veteran Center for
Student Success on the Southern
and Dobson campus.
Returning to college
would have been “substantially
more difficult” without the new
Veteran Center’s support, he said
in an interview.
Facing an October discharge
from the Marines after eight years of
service, Niblett said he walked into the
Veteran Center in August and said:
“Hey, I’m a veteran and I need to enroll
in classes, and I have no idea what I’m
Staff members responded by
helping him fill out paperwork and
apply veterans benefits to college
The brand-new, 1,200-squarefoot
office on the lower level at Kirk
Student Center offers computers,
the resources of experts and a glass-walled lounge where
veterans socialize, do homework, have meals and watch
TV. There, as part of the center’s general Veterans Day
observance, Niblett and fellow Marines shared a specially
decorated cake to celebrate the Corps’ Nov. 10 birthday.
One year earlier he was sailing the Pacific as part
of a Marine Expedition Unit, providing logistical support
and stopping in the Philippines to help train Marines from
both countries. He had risen from E-1 to the E-5 rank of
sergeant through hard work, study, disciplined behavior
and leadership, including a deployment to Iraq
from 2008 to 2009.
Being in the military was “kind of
the family business,” said Niblett,
whose grandfathers, father
and uncle served and whose
younger brother, Blake, is
also a Marine veteran.
His father’s Navy
service took the
family from Florida
to North Carolina
and Connecticut
before a career
change brought them
to Chandler. At age 11,
Niblett’s parents enrolled him at Kyrene
del Sureño Elementary School.
He described himself as a “skinny,
scrawny kid” at Mesa Junior High, and
of all his friends who together vowed
to join the Marines someday, he’s the
only one who followed through with
that branch of service. To him, the
Marines represented a pride sometimes
mistaken for arrogance, a reputation as
“the biggest and baddest.”
Niblett enlisted in the Marines in March 2005
during his senior year at Mesa High and began
vigorous physical training and military studies before
graduation. The avid reader took to heart the message
of Robert A. Heinlein’s military science fiction novel
“Starship Troopers” – “that you serve the country
you’re going to take benefits from.”
“I’m the kid who never had to study but always got
A’s,” he said of his high school years. A trumpet player,
he said his precision marching band experience served
him well later in boot camp drills.
In Iraq, Niblett was stationed at Al-Taqaddum
Air Base, known simply as “TQ” – a hub of logistical
support for military throughout the Anbar region. His
job involved “beans, bullets and brass,” driving a truck
to deliver food, water, fuel and ammunition to troops
on and off the base.
Coming from the East Valley of Phoenix, he
thought he knew hot weather. But disembarking from
the plane in central Iraq in July was like “stepping
into an oven,” he said. “It was probably 130 degrees.”
On his back he wore an 80-pound pack and in his
hands were a sea bag and a box of books the size of
a microwave oven. Reading, he said, “kept me sane.”
As coalition forces prepared to hand over the
region to the Iraqi government, the Marines were
tasked with “anything they could do to give the
populace the warm and fuzzies,” Niblett said. He
smiled as he recalled handing out fleece blankets,
stuffed animals and mattresses in a small fishing
community, where the village leader kept the children
in line with a walking stick while encouraging them to
gather as many gifts as they could. That was typical
of the child-rearing he observed in Iraqi villages –
communal and firm, he said.
He witnessed from afar the only large-scale
attack during his deployment: Insurgents detonated
trucks loaded with improvised explosive devices in a
crowded market, an attempt to dissuade the populace
from becoming friendly with coalition forces. Before
he could lose access to the Internet, Niblett jumped
on a computer to make sure his brother, stationed in
Ramadi, had not been injured.
Niblett said the largest personal threat at TQ
came from a small number of Iraqi nationals among
those who worked on the air base who had the secret
purpose of kidnapping coalition troops. “I just kept
my knife on me,” he said. But, he added, “most of the
Iraqi nationals were awesome people.”
He became friends with an Iraqi man who set up
a hookah stand on base each evening and served tea.
The man told Niblett: “I actually like the fact you
guys are here. It was pretty miserable before that.”
He told Niblett that insurgents had killed his brother
when he refused to help them.
Far from the scrawny kid who vowed to become
a Marine, a muscular, 5-foot, 11-inch Niblett sat in the
MCC Veteran Center dressed in a brown vintage Star
Wars T-shirt emblazoned with a Storm Trooper. He
described the “versatile” role of robotics engineering
in manufacturing, research and development,
medicine and at NASA, laughing as he remembered
the inspiration of his career choice: a You Tube video
of a modular robot. He watched a robot take itself
apart module by module, then rebuild itself, slither
along the floor like a snake and climb an obstacle.
“Robotics: Sold!” he told himself.
“I would love to be researching and developing
robots for different scenarios. Let me see what
materials I can use to make this robot, to shield it for
dealing with high-radiation areas or lighten it up so it
can easily move between heavy gravity places or light
gravity places, to be able to handle multiple kinds of
terrain…just to be able to get a problem and solve it
in some way, shape or form to make the robot work.”
He doesn’t like being underestimated by those
who aren’t familiar with the military. “They don’t
realize that some of us, being the age we are, have
been in charge of many people or have management
experience,” he said.
As a young marching band member in school, he
used to volunteer to take part in the Mesa Veterans
Day parade, he said, and he’s glad people still set aside
a day to honor those who have served their country.
Now he lives in the Kiwanis Park area of Tempe, and
he told of anonymous donors who have picked up his
tab at restaurants when he has been in uniform.
On Nov. 8, MCC President Shouan Pan and
other state and college officials took part in the
grand opening of the new Veteran Center as well as
celebrating Veterans Day.
Dressed in a red Military Student
Alliance T-shirt, Niblett and other
members of his college club stood at
attention, took photos and helped host
the event.
Antonia Adams-Clement, director
of educational & special services at
MDD, described Niblett as “committed
to his academic success. He comes in
every day and studies. His mission now
is his academic career, and he has his
eye on his goal.
And, importantly, he recognizes
that the camaraderie he has in that
student space and being part of the
military student alliance is very
Niblett said he’s grateful for the
chance to get together with other
veterans who’ve been through the
“shared turmoil. We’ve been through
that crappy deployment…not having
creature comforts. We’ve all earned
what we got; we worked for what we
Though he would advise young
people to attend college first and join
the military as an officer, he said, “the
shared suffering of being the lowest
level and hazing the nastiness out of
my body is a memory I’m going to keep
for a while.”



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