MARINE CORPS AIR STATION MIRAMAR, Calif --
The effortless three-pointers left him in awe.
Then-midshipman Michael O’Brien watched the ball sail through the air before swishing perfectly into the net on the U.S. Naval Academy basketball court. He fell in love.
Courtney Davidson made shot after shot. The Hanover, Pennsylvania, native was earning her legacy as the highest all-time scorer on the Naval Academy women’s basketball team.
Almost 20 years later, Lt. Col. Michael O’Brien and Lt. Col. Courtney O’Brien each took command of their own squadrons within 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing on the same day, Sept. 9, 2022, with 17 years of marriage under their belts and two children by their side.
Lt. Col. Courtney “Britney” O’Brien has taken the helm as the commanding officer of Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 352, Marine Aircraft Group 11. A short jog down the flightline, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314 is now commanded by none other than her husband, Lt. Col. Michael “Snooki” O’Brien.
The two Marine leaders have celebrated many successes throughout their careers, both personal and professional.
Courtney, who relieved Lt. Col. Michael A. Blejski of a successful command, has served in multiple combat deployments including Operation Enduring Freedom. Her long list of accomplishments include her roles in doctrine development, becoming a Weapons and Tactics Instructor, serving as a liaison to NATO, and now taking over as the first female to command VMGR-352.
“I am so happy to be back in this environment,” said Courtney, during her change of command ceremony while pointing at the formation of Marines. “This is what it is all about.”
Courtney’s passion is leading Marines and flying aircraft – big aircraft. In fact, that’s why she pilots the KC-130J Super Hercules.
“At first, I chose this platform because I wanted to fly the biggest thing the Marine Corps had,” said Courtney, reflecting on her desire to pilot the KC-130J Super Hercules. “Within this platform, there are always ways to improve, and the teamwork that comes from a junior Marine, to a Master Gunnery Sergeant, and then up to me is an aspect I really enjoy being a part of.”
Down the flightline, Michael leads the Marine Corps’ first operational F-35C Lighting II squadron, which he took over from Lt. Col. Brendan M. Walsh, who successfully led the squadron on its first deployment aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. Michael’s assumption of command marks another achievement in a high-speed career.
Michael has served in two combat deployments, graduated from the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (TOPGUN), and became an F-35C Lightning II pilot before becoming an instructor. After taking command, he summed up his motivations with one word: “winning.”
”I am a jet pilot because I like to win,” said Michael, a native of Philadelphia. “I am extremely competitive. Jet pilots are aggressive and hyper-focused. When I am up there in the air, the only thing my team and I have to think about is winning. Everything else is a dynamic mental aspect of communicating with the other pilots in the most accurate way without talking.”
The O’Briens reflected on their different experiences and preferences. Michael explained that his wife is always there to remind him of the rules and regulations, while she adds that he supports her by encouraging her to be more extroverted and assertive with communication.
“While I got all my aggressiveness out of me on the basketball court, he still has plenty to give out in the air,” Courtney said before laughing.
The O’Briens differences in personality complements their relationship. The couple credits one another for their professional successes and careers as well as the strength of their 17-year marriage. Achieving a balance between two active duty careers and family can be challenging. However, Courtney says there is a way, and it starts with leadership.
“I think we, as leadership, don't do a good enough job prioritizing family,” Courtney said. “I realized while going through it all, there is always a way to get things done and to still have a flexible approach. And that includes leadership. They need to be flexible and support their Marines just as a Marine needs to be flexible to do his or her job.”
The couple admits to having ups and downs in their relationship as they worked to find balance in supporting each other and their careers. Operational commitments and long work hours added a level of stress. However, the couple learned that communication was key.
“Back before we had our communication down, one of our biggest friction points was figuring out whose job took priority,” Michael said. “When we realized the importance of communication, it wasn’t a big fight. It’s more of communicating whose mission takes precedence and what makes most sense for the family and the job.”
The two agreed that without both putting effort into “making it work,” their family would have been greatly lacking the consistency and stability it needs. They explained that programs for families across military bases, and the ability to overcome and adapt to adversity immensely helped them.
“Contrary to popular belief, the Marine Corps does not want cookie cutter,” Michael said. “If something needs to get done, go outside the box and get it done. The Marine Corps wants you to contribute your individual talents and ideas, especially if it helps you succeed.”
Courtney agreed with her husband, adding, “your success is the Marine Corps’ success.”
The O’Briens explained that being transparent with family and leadership is key to a successful marriage and career in the Marine Corps. The growing pains of starting and nurturing a family while maintaining a prestigious career is a challenging endeavor that seems unreachable at moments. With support from fellow Marines, leadership, loved ones, and the institutional support at units and installations, being a high-performing Marine and a husband, wife, mother, or father is within reach. It requires hard work, understanding and sacrifice, but the reward is being the best you, for your family and the Corps.