Royal P. Mortenson

By Paul Wood

Photo By Rick Danzl/The News-Gazette

CHAMPAIGN — Col. Royal P. Mortenson served around the world during a 30-year career as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps.

As commander of an infantry battalion of more than 900 Marines, he led the battalion in combat operations in Iraq in 2003.

His battalion took significant casualties during the battle of Al Naziriyah in March of 2003. He personally engaged in direct combat with Iraqi forces.

It’s a lifetime of service he treasures.

“I would have done it for free,” he said.

Mortenson, 61, retired from the Marine Corps in 2012, after 30 years, and he now serves as director of the Illinois Fire Service Institute.

The tradition of the Marine Corps runs deeply through the family. Mortenson’s father was a Marine in World War II. His two sons are serving now, one as a captain and the other as a first lieutenant, in the Marines.

The Chicago-area native was commissioned as a second lieutenant at 26, after graduate school in criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

He served as a platoon commander and company executive officer at Marine Barracks-Guam in the mid-1980s.

As a colonel, he led the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy and plan development for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2009.

Mortenson said the highest honor is to lead Marines in combat. He found his place in history.

In the march toward Baghdad in Operation Iraqi Freedom, as a lieutenant colonel battalion commander, he led Marines and coalition troops under fire.

En route to Baghdad, his battalion took 39 casualties — many devastatingly wounded. However, he is proud that none of his Marines or Navy corpsmen were killed in action.

The week of this interview, Mortenson noted that it was the 15th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s downfall, which began with an air strike on the Presidential Palace in Baghdad on March 20, 2003.

The Marines take exceptional pride in being Marines.

Mortenson jokingly said, “There are two kinds of people in the world — Marines and people who wish they were Marines.”

But he more than appreciates what the other forces did for his troops in Iraq:

“I’ve had my life saved, and situations changed for the better in combat by the USAF and U.S. Navy pilots.”

Mortenson commanded at the infantry platoon, company, battalion and regimental level. He was a rifle company commander, a weapons company commander and operations officer for an infantry battalion from 1991 to 1994 at Camp Pendleton, Calif., as well as serving in staff positions at Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. in the late 1990s.

Mortenson also earned two master’s degrees while in the service.

In 2005, he assumed command of The Basic School at Marine Corps Combat Development Command in Quantico, Va. Shortly after, he served as the Central Asia/South Asia Division Chief for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

His responsibilities included Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy development work. In his last year of service, Mortenson was the director of the United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Marine Corps University, in Quantico, which includes graduate degrees.

The previous director of the Illinois Fire Service Institute was also a Marine colonel, Richard Jaehne, a longtime friend who led him to taking the University of Illinois position in 2012.

When it was time to retire, his friends told him he could have made a high salary as a consultant in Washington, but he said, “I didn’t want a job. I hadn’t had a job for 30 years. I had a life. I wanted to do something that would be another life.”

“It was a way to keep on making a contribution,” Mortenson said.

Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact Paul Wood at