MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
On Feb. 13, 1900, a baby girl was brought into the world during a time where equal opportunities and rights were budding for American citizens of various races and creeds. This little girl, though she far from knew it, was to be written into the history books as one of the milestones in women’s fight for equality. That little girl was named Opha Mae Johnson, and 18 years later she became the first female Marine.
Women and their fight for equal rights have come a long way over the past century after Johnson pinned on her first eagle, globe and anchor. The history of women’s progression through the following centuries has been made in leaps and bounds, breaking one gender barrier after another. This was the topic of discussion during the Women’s History Program, an event dedicated to teaching the history and importance of women in America in honor of Women’s History Month, held at the Paradise Point Officers’ Club, March 17.
“Per the Department of Defense, civilian employees are required to attend at least nine special emphasis programs a year,” said Zakiya Mabery, affirmative employment and special emphasis program manager with Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. “With March being women’s history month, it was easy to see how we should embrace the history of women who have made their mark.”
The Lejeune Room was filled with excited participants as they received their lunch and eagerly waited for the event’s special guest speaker, Col. Adele Hodges, former commanding officer of Camp Lejeune and the first female to hold that command. A multitude of historical items and displays lined the walls of one section of the room, provided by the Women Marines Association, NC-1, Tarheel Chapter, documenting the progression of the female Marine.
While waiting for the arrival of Hodges, Col. Daniel Lecce, commanding officer of Camp Lejeune, and retired Gunnery Sgt. Rosie Noel, first female Marine to receive the Purple Heart for combat-related injuries, took to the podium to stress the importance of history’s women.
“The Navy has its boats, the Air Force has its planes, but the Marine Corps’s greatest strength is its people,” said Lecce. “Marines are judged by their potential and strengths, not by whether they are female or not. The role of female Marines has grown over time. When I was last deployed to Iraq, I saw female turret gunners, and with today’s battlefield no longer a linier battlefield, their role can only grow further.”
Noel, who was wounded by shrapnel from an indirect-fire rocket during a deployment to Iraq, moved and motivated the attendants with the story of her injury, and how it helped her stand out not as a female, but as a Marine.
“Everyone wanted to get me home for convalescence (leave) to heal, but I was determined to stay with my Marines,” said Noel. “Rosie wanted to go home to her two children, but it wasn’t Rosie who was in Iraq. It was Gunnery Sgt. Noel.”
The crowd at this point was more than enlightened on the unparalleled contribution women had on the Marine Corps, but they were all anxious for the special guest speaker whose significance in this event had no equal.
“When I was starting my enlistment into the Marines, there was an atmosphere that if you wanted to be a Marine, you had to be like one of the guys,” reminisced Hodges. “However, we went on to prove that we were just as good as the male Marines and did not have to be one of the guys.”
She continued to describe how, over the past century, the perspective of the female Marine has gone from one extreme to the other. She described female Marines to be simply “decorations” to the Marine Corps when she first enlisted, whereas they are now fully-capable Marines, judged by their character and not by their gender or race.
“Women have overcome many obstacles throughout history, and there are still a few more to conquer,” said Mabery. “That’s why this year’s Women’s History Month theme is ‘Our history is our strength,’ meaning by recognizing our history will we have the strength for the future.”
With the event concluded and everyone receiving the chance to speak with Hodges, all participants, regardless of gender, walked away from the Officers’ Club with a deeper understanding of the battles and contributions females have had in Marine Corps history. From serving strictly in clerical capacities to patrolling a potential combat area as part of a female engagement team, female Marines have forged a solid link in the Corps’ chain, and by recognizing history will they hope to strengthen their future.