It takes a special woman to join the Marines, whether in 1918 when women first wore the eagle, globe and anchor, or in 2006 when women Marines serving in the war on terrorism are often in the thick of battle and constantly exposed to the indiscriminate danger of IEDs (improvised explosive devices).
| Mary D. Karcher | February 03, 2006 March On!
Since 1960, the Women Marines Association has been preserving the history of female Marines, while encouraging the spirit of camaraderie and supporting veteran and charitable causes. This year the WMA celebrates the 63 years of proud service to country and Corps provided by women Marines since the creation of the Marine Corps Women's Reserve on Feb. 13, 1943.
The same strong sense of duty and patriotic devotion that inspired them to serve remains undiminished among WMA members. “We take care of our own and then some,” said WMA President Paula Sarlls. “The women in the Corps, from those in World War I to those serving today, exemplify the motto of the Corps: ‘Semper Fidelis'!”
Today this vibrant group of women continues to support Marines on the home front and overseas, visits veterans at Veterans Administration hospitals, recognizes outstanding Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps cadets and preserves the history of women Marines. Beyond supporting military interests, WMA chapters also participate in charitable causes such as Hurricane Katrina relief, Habitat for Humanity and breast cancer fund-raisers.
Boasting a membership of 3,600, the WMA is a network of female Marines, active-duty or veterans, who have served or are serving honorably in the U.S. Marine Corps regular or Reserve components. There are 80 chapters of the WMA. Its quarterly publication, WMA ' Nouncements, informs members of the latest news about female Marines, presents charitable causes, reports on accomplishments of some of the organization's chapters, and shares stories about members. It's part family, part business and all heart.
Our History Makes Us Strong
Whether through words written in newsletter articles or in conversations with WMA members themselves, the sense that these women have never met a problem they couldn't solve or a goal they couldn't achieve is prevalent.
This is particularly evident in the stories told through oral history recordings in the Marine's own voice. WMA member Eleanor M. Wilson has conducted more than 100 interviews with female Marines who served from WW II to the present, including Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Somalia and Iraq, and representing air, ground and service support units. These recordings are stored in the oral history collection at the Marine Corps Archives in Quantico, Va., and shared with the Women In Military Service for America (WIMSA) Memorial Foundation Inc. in Arlington, Va., in partnership with the Library of Congress.
Kate Scott, the director of the Oral History Program at WIMSA, noted that Wilson is “an archivist's dream, meticulous in her paperwork, well prepared and versed in conducting the interviews and, most important, dedicated.” Scott said these oral histories are an extraordinary resource used by film and documentary producers, researchers, scholars and family members.
First suggested by Lieutenant General Carol A. Mutter, USMC (Ret) and guided by the expertise of Major Fred Allison, USMCR (Ret) from the Marine Corps History Division, the primary emphasis of the oral history program was to preserve the experiences of the WW II Marines before their record was lost forever. Recordings also are made of both active-duty and retired Marines and other veterans from WW II to the present.
WMA conventions, held biennially, provide the perfect opportunity to obtain oral histories. These interviews highlight basic chronological information with a keen focus on the Marine Corps experience and how that experience enriched the Marine's life. Listening to an oral history in the Marine's own voice brings the story to life as her acute memory of her service -- no matter how long ago it occurred -- brings forth amusing anecdotes, particular jobs and responsibilities, military customs followed at the time, and especially how her military role dovetailed into her personal life.
History is also the focus of the Colorado-1, Colorado Columbine Chapter of WMA. In August 2005, the chapter opened an exhibit titled “Women of the Corps” at the Castle Rock Museum in Castle Rock, Colo. The event was attended by many dignitaries, including Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo. The governor of Colorado, William F. Owens, designated Aug. 13, 2005, Women Marines History Day in Colorado.
Instead of working on several smaller projects, then-Chapter President Sarlls explained, the chapter decided to focus on one meaningful project and do it well. With Nancy Wilt as their vice president, who also had museum experience, they decided to create an exhibit to preserve the legacy of women Marines.
Out went the call to fellow WMA members to send women Marine items for the exhibit. As always, WMA members responded. One unique item found in a shop that sold antiques was an advertisement for Elizabeth Arden's Montezuma Red lipstick, a shade that met regulations because it matched the color of the cap cord on their hats.
Sarlls and Wilt found an article in a scrapbook, submitted by fellow WMA member Shirley Brown, that verified Arden created the color after seeing one of her employees who had joined the Marine Corps. Apparently, Arden was upset that the Marine's lipstick didn't match the uniform. Coincidentally, the chemist who created the lipstick was the father of Margaret Hagaman, who later became a Marine and inspired her father to create a perfume named “Golden Bars.”
WMA also was called upon to help the Marine Corps Museum at Quantico to locate and inventory uniform items and memorabilia. Members Pat Kelly and Mary Sue League tapped the WMA network to solicit donations. When items would come in, Kelly said, she and League would work in the historical division offices located in the old brig at Quantico, inventorying the donations and researching manuals to identify each item.
League said that in addition to uniform items, they received meticulously compiled photo albums, scrapbooks and other memorabilia valuable for research purposes. One such contribution was a green notebook from a WW II Marine that contained a diary of the work she did each day in the Marine Corps.
Both League and Kelly believe that women have saved their uniforms as a matter of pride. Both admitted to having saved their own uniforms, and League had even loaned hers to a Marine Corps detachment in Aberdeen, Md., for the uniform pageant they held during a Marine Corps Birthday celebration.
Bolstering Morale: Semper Fidelis
Caring for Marines, both veterans and active-duty, is a key mission of the Women Marines Association. WMA supports veterans in hospitals and homes: providing hand-knitted blankets and “goodie bags” filled with sundries (Chapter CA-5, Orange County); taking veterans to lunch (WI-1, Wisconsin); performing volunteer work and distributing magazines and handmade afghans (AR-1, Arkansas Diamond); organizing a Women Marine Tea for residents of a veteran's home (CA-9, Redwoods); donating paperback books (MA-1, Bay State); and participating in a three-day stand-down for homeless veterans in Knoxville (TN-1, Rocky Top).
With the current deployment of Marines around the world, WMA is especially dedicated to supporting troops and their families. The MI-2, Motor City Chapter, through the energy and leadership of Mary Ann Merritt, has been instrumental in orchestrating WMA support from many chapters through their Operation Caring Friends program. The program ships boxes of frequently requested items and comfort foods to military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, averaging 200 boxes a month.
To meet this pace, Merritt not only mobilizes women Marines but also engages the Young Marines, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts to help pack items. She also contacts the local media to get the word out for donations from local businesses and citizens. Even the post office in Romeo, Mich., is on a first-name basis with Mary Ann. (They even adopted one of “her” Marines -- a postal clerk in Iraq who delivered mail to others, but received none for himself.)
From acquiring the items to be sent, collecting donations for postage (one shipment of 412 boxes last August totaled more than $3,500), packing the boxes and arranging for postal pickup, the dynamic team of volunteers always manages to provide for Marines who ask.
When the Second Marine Division arrived in Iraq, the leathernecks asked for a coffee mess. By contacting TV2 Fox News problem solvers, the Motor City Chapter's newly named “Operation Coffee Comfort” received plenty of donations. Merritt's group shipped two 64-cup coffee urns, travel mugs, Starbucks coffee (donated monthly) and partnered with a local coffee company, Boca Java, that was willing to match coffee donations from customers and provide shipping costs to mail it to Iraq.
When Merritt heard some leathernecks rarely receive mail, she initiated the “Adopt-a-Marine” program. Chaplains and Marine contacts overseas know that if they have a Marine who needs mail from home, they can depend on the network of women Marines. “As you can see,” said Merritt, “WMA has been very active in supporting our Marines. When we have a Marine who identifies herself as from a certain state, I make sure I send that name to the home chapter so that they may support her as well.”
For Marines who have been injured and need assistance, WMA steps in to supply whatever is needed. Wounded Marines who are transported to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center near Ramstein Air Base in Germany arrive with no personal belongings at all. The WMA collects backpacks, duffle bags, clothing and basic necessities and transports them with the assistance of an airline flight attendant. Here in the States, WMA also sends donations to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, a nonprofit organization that supplies financial assistance to injured Marines and sailors during recovery.
Chapters from Texas -- TX-2, Texas Gulf Coast and TX-3, San Antonio Rose -- have been instrumental in helping the injured Marines sent to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. According to Judy Anderson, the president of TX-2, WMA raised $2,000 for those Marines. TX-3 member Trish Martin, WMA's representative at the Medical Center, said a large portion of the money provided the item the Marine Liaison Office most needed: a rental van to supply transportation to injured Marines and their families until military transportation could be obtained.
They also collected greeting cards and toiletries, which Martin delivered along with cheerful conversation to the eight wounded Marine women there at the time. She said the Marines' morale is high, but that they do enjoy getting cards. TX-2 Chapter sent each of them the WMA Historical Calendar, and they enjoyed the pictures of female Marines of yesteryear.
“Some of the uniforms, in particular, and stories of hair and make-up lessons caused much laughter,” Martin said.
When some of the patients were released for outpatient care, local WMA chapter members treated them to dinner and a tour of San Antonio's Riverwalk. Three of the female Marines have returned to full duty. Continued support is channeled to the remaining 60 Marine inpatients and outpatients -- both men and women -- being treated at the medical center.
WMA fosters a spirit of achievement through its award programs, both at the high school level and at boot camp.
WMA members award the Department of Defense “Lamp of Learning” ribbon annually to outstanding Marine Corps JROTC cadets across the United States, as selected by their Senior Marine Instructors.
Sheryl Hobdon and other members of the GA-1, Dogwood of Atlanta Chapter have maintained a close relationship with eight JROTC programs in the Atlanta area. Last year she was asked to present a teaching unit on the history of women Marines at Newton High School in Covington, Ga. The chapter continues to maintain contact with many of the women Marines after they graduate and enter the Marine Corps, including two from North Forsyth High School in Cumming, Ga., who have been stationed in Iraq.
Members of the SC-1, Phyllis Alexander Chapter present the Molly Marine Award to the outstanding female Marine in each graduating recruit platoon of 4th Battalion at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C. The recipient is determined by a vote of fellow members in her platoon.
WMA: Helping Communities Across the United States
WMA also supports many civic and charitable causes. After Hurricane Katrina, WMA called for donations to the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, which assists Marines, sailors and their families. WMA pledged to match the funds donated by its members up to $3,000. WMA donations totaled $12,000, and that was raised in just two months.
Most chapters participate in the Marine Corps Reserve's Toys for Tots program. Other chapters participate in fund-raisers for cancer research. WMA members provide a military presence at parades and patriotic celebrations. Some participate in the Habitat for Humanity program. All of these causes “promote the civic and social welfare of the community,” one of the missions of WMA.
Women Marines have an indomitable spirit and an unwavering confidence. They see a need and they fulfill it, overcoming any barriers in their way. They are model citizens, and serve as an example for Young Marines and JROTC cadets and the female Marines currently serving.
Proud of their service to our country and still possessing a strong desire to support Marines, WMA members work diligently in military and civic endeavors. They cherish the bonds they share as women Marines. As WMA President Sarlls said, “Those of us from the ‘Old Corps' are in awe of the women in today's Corps. Although our roles have changed significantly, we have always served with exemplary performance and great pride. Whenever and wherever we serve, our hearts are true, our morals strong, and our resolve determined. The camaraderie we share is strong.”
Author's note: Thank you to all WMA members who enthusiastically continue to serve. The efforts of LtGen Carol A. Mutter, USMC (Ret) and Sondra Metzger, who provided numerous contacts and helpful information, are especially appreciated.