Bold in Service

Ché Bolden’s Retirement Marks 60 Years of Family’s Marine Corps Commitment

Major General Charles Bolden Jr. ’68, USMC (Ret.), didn’t wear his class ring for more than a decade after graduation.

After leaving the Naval Academy, he embarked on what would be a 34-year Marine Corps career. Bolden flew more than 100 combat operations as a naval aviator. He was an astronaut who made four space shuttle trips, completed a tour as Deputy Commandant of Midshipmen and later served a 7.5-year term as NASA administrator.

His four years at the Naval Academy initially left him ambivalent about the institution. Bolden was lured to the Academy by the 1950s television program “Men of Annapolis.” Plebe year knocked the luster off his television-inspired illusions.

“When I got here, I hated it,” he said. “I knew I had made a mistake. It was tough. It was not fair. People didn’t want me here.”

Charles Bolden was one of seven black midshipmen to enter the Naval Academy in 1964. He was one of four black midshipmen in his class to complete plebe year.

He said he called his father every week during his first year, begging to come home. His dad got him through that year by giving him weekly pep talks to make it “just one more week.”

Bolden said he never intended to look or go back to the Academy following his commissioning.

But, over the past half century, Bolden’s perspective on the Naval Academy evolved. Bolden’s affection for the Academy is evident today as he champions international opportunities for midshipmen. He is a member of the Naval Academy Foundation’s Board of Directors and is proud the Academy provides opportunities for young men and women to expand their horizons.

“We make men and women who are principled, who stand for accountability,” he said. “It’s taken on a totally different meaning to me as I have matured and recognized what this institution does.”

Tears of pride rushed from Bolden’s eyes as he spoke about his son, Ché, two hours before the latter’s retirement ceremony at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on 3 July. Colonel Ché Bolden ’93, USMC (Ret.), was enamored by Marines as a child because all the men he admired were in the Corps.

Ché Bolden’s retirement day marked the conclusion of more than 60 years of combined Marine Corps service for the Bolden men. During his 26-year career, Ché Bolden flew combat operations over Iraq and Afghanistan, assisted with the Corps’ implementation of unmanned aerial vehicles and helped usher in new ways for Marine bases to operate. 

Ché’s military career began at the Naval Academy. It was a choice Charles Bolden said his son made on his own. The elder Bolden said Ché informed him as a high school senior he was applying to the Naval Academy just a few weeks before the 1 November application deadline.

Ché Bolden said he struggled at times during his years at the Academy. His father said he’d get calls from his son, crying to come home. 

The younger Bolden said he aspired to be a midshipman but wasn’t sure if he’d be able to make it to Annapolis or stay once he arrived. The recently retired Marine said the struggles and challenges he overcame at the Academy shaped him into a leader.

He said he learned accountability and responsibility in Annapolis.

“It proved to be one of the best decisions of my life,” he said. “My time at the Naval Academy and in the Marine Corps continually pushed me to improve.”

The Hard Road

The easy path never tempted Ché Bolden. His career might not have taken off if he’d taken the path of least resistance.

As a seventh-grader in Texas, Bolden became a pole vaulter after trying his hand at other track and field events. While classmates found success sprinting or throwing, Bolden learned to thrust himself over a one-inch crossbar. He distinguished himself by specializing in the unheralded event.

That trait became a hallmark of Bolden’s career. He regularly accepted less-than-glamorous assignments when confidants recommended more traditional, career-boosting options.

Choosing to blaze his own path ultimately presented Bolden with opportunities he never envisioned as a kid. His acumen as a pole vaulter caught the attention of legendary Naval Academy Track and Field Coach Stephen Cooksey. Bolden was a member of the Academy’s track and football teams before becoming a naval flight officer for the Marine Corps in 1996.

Major General Bolden said watching his son struggle while forging his own path could be agonizing. But overcoming obstacles made the younger Bolden stronger and a better equipped leader.

Charles Bolden said his son rarely took the easy path. If there was a seemingly impossible route, he would take that over a smoother one. “He made every decision based on what he was passionate about,” Major General Bolden said.

A tour as operations officer and bilateral exercise coordinator in the European Command Plans branch for the Office of Defense Cooperation, Madrid provided an invaluable experience. It set the foundation for his growth in the international affairs community. Ché Bolden would lead the Marine Corps International Affairs division and is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

He said his early embrace of the potential for unmanned aerial vehicles and installation operations paved the way for his professional development.

During his retirement ceremony, Bolden’s vision and commitment to the betterment of the Marine Corps was lauded. His recognition for the potential for innovation, particularly unmanned aerial vehicles, was praised by superiors, who often leaned on his advice when integrating new technology into the Corps.

Brigadier General Brian Cavanaugh ’89, USMC, said Ché Bolden often proposed ways to improve methods of operating. Sometimes that ran counter to ingrained practices. Bolden said he starts every operational conversation asking, “Why are we doing this?”

He said he’s sometimes seen as a “disrupter,” but his motivation is a better understanding of the problem with the goal of finding a more efficient solution.

“I’m argumentative not for sake of disagreeing but because that’s how I learn,” he said.

Ché Bolden encourages young people to make hard choices. That’s a lesson he carries from his days as a midshipman, where making hard decisions is compulsory.

“Typically, the one that is hard is the right one,” he said. “It’s not an easy task to come to the Naval Academy, to make it through the Naval Academy and, more importantly, to represent the Naval Academy.”


While Ché often took the path less traveled, his fearless nature might be hereditary. Charles Bolden recounted an incident when Ché was a small boy. He said he put Ché in front of him on his motorcycle and surveyed his path in preparation for a jump near their California home.

The elder Bolden said the motorcycle hit a ditch on the descent, which sent Ché forward. Ché “ate the handlebars,” leaving his mouth bloody, Charles Bolden said. The father’s attempt to use ice cream as a bribe so Ché wouldn’t tell his mother was futile.

It wouldn’t be the last time Ché took flight or gravitated toward an unenviable task. While some aviators viewed unmanned aerial vehicles as competition for their jobs, Bolden saw opportunity. His expertise in the field enabled him to rise to commanding officer for one of four Marines squadrons.

“I thought it had a future,” he said. “I embraced that community.”

When a chance to deploy to Australia— where Ché’s wife, Penelope, is from—arose, it seemed an easy choice. However, an assignment in Spain won out. The move proved pivotal for future assignments in the international affairs arena.

Charles Bolden is glad Ché charted his own course instead of trying to follow his footsteps. Ché’s route might’ve been bewildering at times, but his father says his choices were always correct.

“He’s always been a risk-taker,” Charles Bolden said.

Cavanaugh Connection

With his father and Cavanaugh at his side, Ché Bolden celebrated the legacy of black Marine aviators during his retirement ceremony. To have Cavanaugh help usher him into civilian life was special, he said.

“[My father and General Cavanaugh] represent major milestones not only for the Naval Academy but [for] the Marine Corps,” Ché Bolden said. “That’s an example of how individuals from varying backgrounds can be successful in the Marine Corps.”

Cavanaugh said Charles Bolden became a mentor for him during his time at the Academy. He said trailblazers like Bolden opened the Naval Academy’s doors for people of color.

That path was difficult and often unwelcoming, he said.

“The diversity across the Academy today is enriched by all the efforts [Charles Bolden] endured over the years,” Cavanaugh said. “He set an example for guys like myself who came in during the ’80s. He made a difference for others. Opportunities are there for anybody to come and do the things he’s done.”

Over the past two decades Ché and Cavanaugh worked together and discussed how to improve the Marine Corps. Cavanaugh said Ché’s passion for unmanned aerial vehicles proved valuable when the Corps was adopting the technology.

“Ché knew how to operate them, [so he] made recommendations and guidance

to senior leaders on how to use them on the battle field,” Cavanaugh said.

Bolden Legacy

Major General Bolden followed his 34-year Marine career with service as NASA’s 12th administrator under President Barack Obama.

After persevering through turbulent times, he said he learned to follow his conscience. He tells young people not to listen to anyone, not even their parents, when it comes to determining what they will do. He advises them to create their own niche and avoid trying to replicate another’s journey.

“Only you can determine [that],” he said. “Whatever decision you make will be the right one. It might not seem right at the time, but it will be the right one.

“I don’t recommend you take my path. You should blaze your own trail. You should cut your own path because I did the same thing.”

To the Class of 2023, Charles Bolden emphasized persistence. He understands the struggles and the soul-searching it takes to make it through the plebe experience.

Bolden said whatever drew a plebe to Annapolis will help him or her get through that first arduous year.

“Remember why you came,” he said. “Try to remind yourself when times get difficult. There will be days when you say, ‘I hate this place. I don’t want to be here. I want to go home.’ But, stop and think about why you came.

“If you came for the right reason, it will be help you decide to [keep going].” Despite taking different courses, the Bolden men share a common bond. Each got emotional speaking about the Marines they led. Ché said his proudest achievement was his ability to care for personnel under his command.

Charles Bolden told his son, “Take care of the Marines and they’ll take care of you.”

“They’re special,” said Ché, who is entering the private-sector technology arena. “They’re the ones I’ll miss the most. It’s all about people.

“Marines do incredible things with incredible people. All the opportunities I’ve been given have been the result of having fantastic people around me. Marines are what have made my 26 years spectacular.”

Source: September 2019 Shipmate