‘Marines like Marines’: Conley Detachment has grown from 15 to 80 members in 3 years

By Chelsea Retherford | Living 50 Plus

Curtis Griffith retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 1993, but the Marine Corps League — a congressionally chartered veterans’ organization for marines — remains an integral part of his life 30 years later.

“Marines like Marines,” Griffith answered when asked about what drives him to stay so involved with his detachment in Sheffield.

“We like to talk Marine Corps. We like to be Marines, and we miss the atmosphere of the Marine Corps and the Marine Corps bases that we were in,” he said. “It’s the camaraderie. That’s the big thing.”

Griffith, who grew up in a fatherless household in southwestern Pennsylvania, said he enlisted in the Marines at age 19 in search of the structure and discipline he felt he was lacking at home.

“My father died when I was six years old. I think I was looking for a little bit of leadership — I had a lot of growing up to do when I joined the Marine Corps — and they provided it,” Griffith, now 70, said.

It was the Marine Corps that brought him to Alabama in 1984, when he was sent to recruit new enlistments that year until 1987.

From there, he spent three years in Iwakuni, Japan, a city about 30 miles south of Hiroshima. When he returned, he eventually set down some roots in the Shoals area.

When Griffith isn’t organizing a Toys for Tots fundraiser, or coordinating some other event with the Marine Corps League Conley Detachment #1477, he can usually be found feeding horses, horseback riding, or mowing and maintaining his 15-acre farm in Cloverdale.

“I grew up riding horses — not the whole time, but in and out my whole life. I can’t sit still,” he said. “My wife yells at me a lot.”

Griffith serves as the senior vice commandant for the Conley Detachment, and is a charter member of the organization that was formed in the Shoals in 2020.

After getting involved with the league, he also recruited his wife, Barbara, to help with detachment business. Now, she serves as the organization’s historian.

“She’s a big help to me, and she’s putting together a book from when we started to present day with pictures of all our happenings and everything that goes on,” he said.

Griffith, along with Tommy Oswalt, Richard Keeton and Bill Phillips, began working to establish a Marine Corps League detachment in August 2019, and by Feb. 11, 2020, their ambitions became a reality.

The detachment is named for the late Cpl. Mathew Conley of Green Hill, who died while serving in Ramadi, Iraq, in February 2006.

“Our detachments are named for fallen Marines. It makes us a little bit more part of the community,” Griffith said, adding that pride played a large part in organizing a detachment for the Shoals area.

“It was the pride of having our own, and locally taking over an area of Alabama that was not heavily involved in the Marine Corps,” he said. “Now, we’re the only Marine Corps League in the state of Alabama that has their own building.”

He said the detachment began with 15 members, and has since grown to include over 80 enlisted and retired Marines and their spouses.

“We’ve got some old, crusted Marines like me, and we’ve got some younger Marines,” Griffith said. “That includes the wives, who are a very important part of this whole thing. It’s a majority of the wives who help out with fundraisers.

“One thing about this organization, it doesn’t matter what the job is, it will get done. We all work harmoniously together to get the job done.”

When the detachment was formed, Griffith was asked specifically to help out with the Toys for Tots initiative, which is known for donating toys to local children for the holidays.

Griffith who has served as the Northwest Alabama Toys for Tots coordinator since 2020, said he works closely with other entities like the Department of Human Resources, One Place of the Shoals, or local police forces and emergency responders to provide toys for children who are victims of domestic violence, or who lost their homes in a fire or other natural disaster.

In 2022, Griffith’s job as coordinator of Lauderdale, Colbert and Franklin counties grew to also encompass children in need in Marion and Winston counties.

In his first year, he said Northwest Alabama Toys for Tots donated to 278 children, then to 472 Shoals-area children in 2021.

Last Christmas he said that the number was up to 1,249 families assisted with the addition of two more counties in the region.

“We’ve grown a lot in the Toys for Tots, and I probably have 10 to 12 people working with me within the Marine Corps League,” Griffith said.

For Toys for Tots alone, he said he helps organize four fundraisers, including an annual golf tournament, car shows and toy drives, every year. While those fundraisers specifically raise money and accept toy donations for area children, Griffith also volunteers with other fundraisers and events through the detachment.

“It’s about Marines helping Marines, and it’s Marines helping the community,” he said. “It’s a close-knit organization. We love to be around Marines, and we love to help the community. If there’s a need, if people will get in touch with us to let us know, we’ll volunteer.”

On May 13, the Conley Detachment had members working as security and road guards for runners in the Chick-fil-A Florence Race benefiting Shoals Scholar Dollars.

In addition to volunteering for community initiatives, Griffith said the Conley Detachment also hosts its own events to benefit area veterans in need. He said his detachment has assisted at least nine local marines in the Shoals area since the Conley Detachment was formed three years ago.

Assistance to local veterans can come in the form of house or rent payments, or vehicle repairs when the Marine is down on their luck or has suffered a hardship.

But it isn’t always about hard work and showing support. Griffith said the group of Marines understands the importance of fellowship, and often organizes events for the sole purpose of celebrating or remembering one of their own.

In July, he said the detachment will honor the late Dan Copeland, a former commandant of a neighboring detachment in Decatur who played a part in getting the Conley Detachment off the ground.

“He was a big kayak guy, and we’ve decided to hold a kayak trip every July in his memory,” Griffith said. “I think last year we had 60-something boats. We have a good time. Even us old folks get in the water, and at the end, down at Wildwood (Park), we’ll have our chief burger flipper, and we’ll have burgers, hot dogs, drinks and chips for everybody.”

He said kayaks and canoes will launch from the Cox Creek Bridge ramp, 802 Cox Creek Parkway in Florence, at 8 a.m. on July 15. The event is open to the public.

The Marine Corps League hosts an annual ball towards the end of the year, and, of course, holds Memorial Day and Veterans Day events with other area veterans organizations each year.

Griffith said Marine Corps League members also enjoy gathering at the Conley Detachment building for college football watch parties, or just for the sake of getting together.

Griffith attributes his good health and sense of fraternity to his decision to enlist in the Marines over 50 years ago.

“The Marine Corps taught me to stay active,” he said. “The Marine Corps taught me a lot. It’s drummed in our heads from boot camp on that we’re the number one service out there. I’m proud of being a Marine.”