GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — When the community gathered May 5 to honor Greeneville High School Junior ROTC students at the spring 2023 annual awards dinner, Master Sgt. Marcus Durden took his seat at the head table expecting an evening celebrating students.

“It’s going to be another awards night, and we’re going to recognize our kids,” Durden said.

The long-time leader of the program had the right to speak with authority. For the past 21 years, what he said has been law among the cadets who learned from their beloved leader in the program he helped create.

But that night, MSgt. Durden was in for a surprise.

“Tonight, we’re here to honor MSgt. Marcus Durden,” a student said into a microphone, her voice amplified to a room filled with students, families, and state and local leaders.

MSgt. Durden assists a Greeneville JROTC student with their uniform. (Photo: Williams Sams)

MSgt. Durden didn’t know it, but students had secretly been planning for weeks to honor him that night – his final awards ceremony before retirement.

“I was blown away,” Durden said. “I had no idea.”

The evening didn’t just mark the end of his time at Greeneville High School. It was the punctuation on 45 years in military uniform, including a lengthy career in the United States Air Force.

“I wanted to share my experiences in the military, teach some young kids, give them direction in life and maybe help them find a path in life – not necessarily military – and show them what service and patriotism and other things can do,” Durden said.

As program leader and the Advanced Aerospace Science Instructor at Greeneville High School, Durden taught a generation of students.

“Twenty-one years later, I kind of see the results of that, and it makes my heart feel good to see that these kids are out there achieving,” he said. “They’ve found a path in life. That’s the rewarding part of it.”

Durden was emotional as he thanked the crowds.

“I just want to say, I appreciate all of this,” he said, choking back tears. “There’s no words to describe.”

Student organizers said even though it was an awards ceremony, the night was about celebrating their leader one last time.

(Photo: William Sams)

“Sergeant has made a really positive impact on all of our lives and made such a huge difference to our country and our nation,” student cadet Jackson Lampe said.

The ceremony was planned and executed by a team including ROTC Instructor Major Tyler Stabiler and cadets Grace Lampe, Jackson Lampe, Kirston Osborn, McKenzie Hopson and Noah Helton.

“Sergeant has made an incredible impact on my life. and I consider him one of my closest mentors and friends,” said Williams Sams, former Greeneville JRTOC cadet.