MASON CITY — Kirk Bruno spent all of his 28-year Marine Corps career keeping people connected.

But for retirement, the New Jersey native chose a place where Internet and cellular service sometimes is spotty.

“Our mailing address is Mason City, I guess,” Bruno said about the place between Ansley and Mason City that he and his wife, Carrie, share.

Having a pasture for a backyard is ideal, he said, and so is having a father-in-law like Howard Arehart of Mason City, who doesn’t care if one of his ranch hands is “cannon fodder” from the East Coast.

Bruno said what he lacks in riding and roping skills he makes up for as a good listener, so he and his father-in-law are a good match.

“I just truly enjoy sitting and listening to his stories,” Bruno said about his boss-in-law.

The rolling landscape of Custer County is a great place to decompress, said Bruno, whose specialty as a Marine was establishing and maintaining communications, whether it be by telephone, radio, Internet or fiber optics, and regardless if that meant spanning an ocean or communicating on the battlefield.

His work required him to coordinate the work of hundreds and often thousands of Marine communication technicians and carried him to some of the most remote and exotic places on the planet.

After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he was involved with the invasion of Afghanistan, a military exercise commanded by Gen. Jim Mattis, who nearly 20 years after Afghanistan served the Trump administration as secretary of defense.

To prepare for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Bruno was deployed to Kuwait in October 2002. He and his team set up what he called an “austere” camp in the middle of the desert. By the time hostilities ceased, he had gone from Camp Commando in the desert to set up shop at one of Saddam Hussein’s presidential palaces in Baghdad.

“We established the largest tactical communication infrastructure the Marines had ever seen,” Bruno explained. The system not only kept U.S. Marines in the loop, it ensured that all U.S. forces — Army, Air Force and Navy — along with the coalition forces of U.S. allies, were able to communicate effectively under battle conditions.

“We prepared for months, exercised the system and trained my Marines to put in the infrastructure and defend themselves. We extended that infrastructure all the way to Babylon and Baghdad,” Bruno said.

After Iraq was freed, he said the U.S. military faced an unusual situation. U.S. forces rapidly defeated Iraq’s army, but then were tasked with maintaining the peace and helping the Iraqi people establish a new government.

The beginning

Bruno’s Marine career began at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., where he was enrolled in the Marine platoon leaders course. He graduated as a second lieutenant in 1984 and was a platoon commander.

Before the start of Operation Desert Storm in January 1991, Bruno was captain of communications aboard the USS Nassau as part of the 4th Expeditionary Brigade. The USS Nassau was designed for shore landings of Marines and equipment. Counting Marines and crew, there were almost 5,000 aboard the 300-foot ship.

“Life at sea isn’t that bad,” Bruno said. “If you’re a Marine, you eat, sleep and work out.”

During Desert Storm, Bruno was the brigade communications operational planner. His complement was about 8,000 Marines.

“The toughest part in Desert Storm was interoperability.”

Different branches of the U.S. military and coalition forces were using a variety of communications equipment and couldn’t always communicate, Bruno said.

That problem was solved after Desert Storm.

Bruno served in many places in addition to Afghanistan, Kuwait and Iraq. Among those places were San Diego, Hawaii, Yugoslavia, Somalia, Croatia and Haiti.

When he was assigned to South Korea, he and his family lived in Seoul. It was an adventure and learning experience for the family, he said, adjusting to the surroundings and customs. They were issued gas masks when they arrived in case North Korea attacked.

Bruno learned enough Korean to order dinner and a beer. His wife enjoyed shopping because prices were very low.

“I went broke saving money,” Bruno said.

During a six-year stretch from 1992-1998, he was assigned to the National Security Agency in Maryland and then California, where he got to work with Gen. Mattis.

“Great guy, the best boss I ever had,” Bruno said about Mattis. “He was calm, cool and collected under fire. He’s a mentor coach. I never heard the guy yell. You never wanted to disappoint him. He was like your father.”

Mattis was known as the Warrior Monk, Bruno said, because he dedicated his life to the Marine Corps and because he traveled with 4,000 to 5,000 books.

“I was happy that President Trump had picked him to be secretary of defense. If there was ever a man who could do good for our services and the nation it would be him. I was sad to see him leave the White House and Pentagon.”

Bruno completed his career as a colonel — the highest ranking Marine at Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha. He asked Mattis to preside over his retirement ceremony, and Mattis accepted.

“I wouldn’t trade my life for $1 million. I was successful because the Marines under me were successful,” Bruno said. “Take care of your Marines and they’ll take care of the mission. That’s something Gen. Mattis imparted on me.”

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