By Elise Modrovich
Special to the Sun
“Semper Fidelis” signifies the dedication that individual Marines have to “Corps and country,” and to their fellow Marines. It is a way of life. Said one former Marine, “It is not negotiable. It is not relative, but absolute…Marines pride themselves on their mission and steadfast dedication to accomplish it.” This pretty much sums up the resolute character of Marine Corps Veteran and Kern Valley Resident George McNinch, who has ingrained those values pretty much since birth.
It’s not really surprising that McNinch was drawn to serve in the Corps, as both his father and uncle were also Marine Corps veterans. He was born in Long Beach, California, the eldest of four children, but when he was just two years old, McNinch’s parents moved to Bakersfield, so that his father could pursue better career opportunities to support his growing family. McNinch grew up in what is now referred to as “East Bakersfield,” and after graduating from Foothill High School in 1973, he knew immediately that he would join the military to serve, “and of course it had to be the Marines. They’re the best.”
While McNinch was still in boot camp in San Diego, the United States was finalizing troop withdrawal from Viet Nam, so McNinch never saw that kind of wartime combat. Initially he drove refueling trucks for fighter jets in Southern California before he realized he wanted to do more. McNinch transferred to Washington, D.C. to attend Marine Security Guard training, which qualified him for a very specialized duty of chauffeuring a high ranking Commandant to Foreign Embassies, Ceremonies, and other official functions in D.C. While there, McNinch promoted to Sergeant in only 2 years, a feat “practically unheard of” in the Corps.
In performing his chauffeur duties, McNinch got to see Camp David up close and personal. “It was absolutely beautiful up there. I asked if I could transfer, and I went.” So in his final year in the Corps, McNinch became one of two Sergeants of the Guard for Camp David, which entailed protecting the President, in this case Gerald Ford, whenever he was in residence. “At that time, there were 93 Marines on assigned at all times, split into two shifts,” McNinch recalls. “So as one of two Sergeants in command, I was responsible for half the staff and ultimately for the President’s safety.” McNinch was honorably discharged in January of 1977.
McNinch returned to Bakersfield and instantly joined the Kern County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) as a Deputy. After just one year with KCSO, he made the SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) Team. “It appealed to me because I wanted to make use of my military background.” And after only one year with SWAT, McNinch promoted to the role of Training Coordinator for the unit. “I was the first one to organize and implement new instruction techniques. By bringing my military skills and training to the team, it changed things a lot.” In addition to his specialized SWAT training, during his ten years with that unit, McNinch went through FBI Sniper, VIP Protection, and Hostage Negotiation training, becoming one of only three “Lead Snipers,” supervising a team of five Deputies. He laughs. “If I could put all my specialized military and police training together, I’d probably have a Master’s Degree by now.”
In 1980, McNinch met and married his first wife, a fellow Deputy Sheriff in the department, and his two sons, Travis (now an officer in the Bakersfield Police Department), and Josh (successful in the private sector), followed. “Some people can marry fellow officers and make it work. I couldn’t.” The couple divorced in 1986.
After spending 11 years riding a patrol car covering East Bakersfield, Oildale and Lamont, in 1987, KCSO bought helicopters and decided to implement a new Air Support Unit. McNinch knew it was for him and transferred in. Initially, KCSO only hired civilian pilots, most of which had military backgrounds or were Viet Nam veterans, because KCSO Deputies did not have flight experience or training. These pilots were then partnered with a KCSO Deputy, acting as “Tactical Flight Officer” (TFO) who did the police work, manned the spotlight, communicated with the Department, and was in charge of the operation. McNinch saw a void and an opportunity. He took his 2-week vacation, and at his own expense, put himself through Helicopter Pilot School in Chino. But it would be a few years before he was given the chance to pilot himself. “KCSO went through 17 civilian pilots in the first 5 years. In our Air Support Unit, you fly 4 to 5 hours a day, 5 days a week. That’s over 1,000 hours of flight time a year. That’s a lot. EMS pilots only fly a little over a hundred hours a year. It was a fatiguing workload. They were burning out.” McNinch petitioned the department to allow him to show they were better off training their own. His successful switch from TFO to Pilot proved his point, and “now all Deputy Pilots are trained in-house.”
For the next 13 years, McNinch flew “Air One” as a KCSO Deputy Sheriff Pilot acting as “basically a patrol car in the sky,” covering not only Metropolitan Bakersfield, but all of Kern County, helping substations and neighboring counties as needed with everything from shootings, stabbings, foot pursuits, car pursuits, “any crime in progress,” as well as hundreds of search and rescues. “Any air unit is a force multiplier,” says McNinch. “Its presence calms a crowd, aids the ground units, and has a cruising speed of 150 miles per hour, so we can respond really quickly and get to tough terrain areas where cars and foot patrols have a harder time getting access.” As first responder to multiple plane crash sites and an aid to search and rescue units for body recovery, McNinch saw “some really horrific things that still haunt [him],” but his stellar reputation and multiple commendations throughout his 26-year career prove the impact he was able to make within the department. He is also somewhat famous for having successfully landed his helicopter without any injury in a parking lot at Bakersfield College when it suddenly suffered complete engine failure. McNinch retired in 2004 after 27 years with the KCSO.
After his second marriage of 10 years ended in divorce in 2000 and McNinch retired in 2004 after 27 years with KCSO, he decided he needed a change of scenery, and moved to Bullhead City, Arizona. “It was at the height of the real estate market. My sister was making a killing, so I got my realtor’s license and did the same. Until the market crashed, that is.” McNinch returned to helicopter police work, this time for the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT), as well as working patrol boats on the Parker Strip portion of the Colorado River, just south of Lake Havasu.
Budget cuts forced the department to end their air patrol unit, so McNinch decided to return to California, but this time, chose the Kern River Valley as his home base. “All my life I’d been coming up here with my family, camping and fishing. During my 11 years in a patrol car, I volunteered to work every holiday weekend up here. I’d always loved it and wanted to live here. Then I saw the job available at the high school, and jumped at it.” McNinch worked as Campus Police Officer at Kern Valley High School for the next 4 years before retiring for good in 2010. “I loved most of the kids, but some of them were really, really hard. It was just more than I had bargained for, and I decided I needed a break.”
Now, 8 years into retirement, McNinch can be seen keeping his firing skills sharp on the gun range, helping out friends with various repairs, working on his and their cars, but what he most enjoys is taking his Harley Davidson motorcycle on excursions from wine tasting on the coast to Yosemite and Branson, Missouri. “I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was 12, but I discovered Harleys in 2000 and was hooked. I probably put about 10,000 miles a year on my current bike.” He laughs. “Now I’m just a professional Harley rider.” McNinch has always been and still is unwavering in his dedication, commitment, and loyalty to his friends, family and country. A Marine then, now, and always. Semper Fi.