MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- As the American Flag waved in the background and a formation of Marines stood at attention, Lt. Col. Paul Kopacz passed the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 364 colors to his old friend, Lt. Col. Stephen Conley, during a change of command ceremony on the flight line aboard Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton, California, Oct. 6. With a hand shake and hug they switched places, affirming Conley as the new commanding officer of VMM-364.
These two lieutenant colonels’ relationship didn’t begin in the Marine Corps, like you see at many other change-of-commands. Their journey began in 1988 on a football field in Canyon Country, California.
Kopacz and Conley met during their sophomore year of high school where they played on the football team. While throwing the pig skin and tackling dummies, they soon became close friends.
“It seems like yesterday we were getting water out of the trough during hell week,” said Kopacz.
The two friends stayed close throughout high school, but when it came time to graduate they took different paths. In 1991, Kopacz enlisted in the Marine Corps, and Conley went off to college.
“I went to college for two years and was playing football,” said Conley. “I was thinking about dropping out of college and going to the Navy like my older brother, but Kopacz is the one who talked me into joining the Marine Corps.”
In February 1993, Conley took the first steps to joining Kopacz in the enlisted ranks but it wasn’t long after when Kopacz earned his college degree and commissioned as a CH-46E Sea Knight pilot. Once again influenced by his close friend’s career path, Conley also commissioned as a CH-46E pilot in 1999.
“Everything that we have done has been around two years apart,” said Conley. “He enlisted and two years later I enlisted. He got commissioned, and then two years later I got commissioned.”
Kopacz and Conley have stayed close throughout their Marine Corps careers. The two best friends lived ten minutes walking distance from each other when they were stationed at Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina, they’ve flown with each other’s squadrons during multiple missions and when the MV-22B Osprey replaced the CH-46E, it was Kopacz that flew with Conley during his first Osprey flight.
“Going from the CH-46E to the MV-22B is such a leap in technology and advancement,” said Conley. “It’s like going from an old car to a brand new car, and I couldn’t have asked for a better co-pilot to share that experience with.”
According to Kopacz, having a best friend who shares a similar path to his has proven to be a source of strength during his time in the Corps.
“We came together as young kids because our personalities are very similar,” said Kopacz. “On top of that, our experiences in the Marine Corps are shared so I can always turn to him with full confidence and ask, ‘How would you handle this absolutely ridiculous situation?’ That’s the beauty of having someone that you can absolutely trust in the Marine Corps, we can be completely honest with each other.”
Nearly 24 years after enlisting and then becoming a commissioned officer in the Marine Corps, Kopacz took command of VMM-364 on Oct. 9, 2014, and two years later, as is their tradition, it is Conley’s turn to command the “World Famous Purple Foxes.”
“I did not think that we would go down the same career path that we have,” said Conley. “I definitely did not think that I would be taking command from him at this capacity, but it’s comforting. I know the kind of man he is and I am more than confident that he is handing me a great squadron.”