August 2018

A Place at the Table

Conversations with Women In the Corps
Volume 101, Issue 8
SgtMaj Laura L. Brown greets the 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen James F. Amos, at the 2013 Modern Day Marine Parade and Expo while serving as Base Sergeant Major, Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. When Brown retired in 2014, she had served 31 years in the Corps.
Sgt Mallory S. VanderSchans, USMC

Imagine this scene: In the dining room of the Home of the Commandants, the portrait of Archibald Henderson gazes down on a table set for a dozen people. A historian studies the place cards, which reveal the names of female Marines who served from 1918 to 2018. Recalling the story of how Henderson’s portrait fell off the wall in 1942 at the moment General Thomas Holcomb was asked what he thought about allowing women in the Corps, the historian smiles and says aloud, “Sir, you’ll be quite proud of these Marines!” Who are the Marines the historian has assembled from various decades to meet face to face? They are women who have made a difference in the Marine Corps over a 100-year span.

While we cannot create such a dinner party, our table is not quite so hypothetical. A voice at the table is arguably the position many women have achieved in the 21st century Marine Corps, which might surprise our dinner party guests. Undoubtedly, the women who paved the way for today’s Marines would be interested in their accomplishments, ambition and integration into many areas that previously had been designated for male Marines only. And the Marines of more recent decades would appreciate the dedication of the early female Marines, who volunteered to serve their country at a time when such an idea was foreign to the traditional roles of women.

As Leatherneck salutes female Marines, from the first women recruited for stateside clerical duty during World War I in 1918, to the leathernecks serving in aviation and infantry billets a century later in 2018, we offer conversations with a few good Marines. With respect to women’s roles, today’s Marine Corps has evolved considerably in the past hundred years. Women have moved from a purely clerical role to serving in any role for which they meet the standards, including combat arms. These women not only have a place at the table, they have earned a voice at the table by exceeding standards.

Reinvent Yourself

Laura L. Brown discovered what a “recruiter” was when a friend signed up to go into the military. That day Brown walked to the recruiter’s office after school and enlisted in the Marine Corps. She would serve 31 years in the Corps, retiring as a sergeant major in 2014.

For her first 14 years, Brown worked in financial management, what was then known as “disbursing.” It was a good match for her skills and talents. “I’ve always been a very meticulous person. I want to know why things are the way they are,” she said. To put her work in perspective, however, it’s important to recognize the challenges of disbursing in 1984 before computers existed. “It was hard work! I was in the Marine Corps when they had yellow pay cards. You used a calculator, did things manually and with your brain. You used a pencil!”

Her aspiration, even as a young private first class, however, was to be a sergeant major. Initially it was not because she emulated a particular person; it was because of a compelling image in a magazine. “There was a sergeant major sitting at a desk and the desk was humongous! I remember looking at him and saying, ‘What does he do? I’m going to be him someday.’ ” So she kept that image in her head as inspiration: “This is my path. I’m this leader and I’m this motivator and I’m going to be a sergeant major!”

When Brown attended Drill Instructor School as a young sergeant, she realized she had more to offer the Marine Corps. She had become comfortable in disbursing, but now was challenging herself to learn new skills. “You have to learn to reinvent yourself and navigate relationships and figure out where you fit in.” She learned the 14 leadership traits and how to network, how to motivate. “I learned in the Marine Corps, as long as you maintained your fitness level and can keep up with your male counterpart, that goes a long way. … When people realize what you bring to the table, not because of your gender but because someone allowed you to be in the room and they realize [you’re] a smart individual, then they give you a seat at the table.” Brown became the 4th Recruit Training Battalion Drill Master and later, in 2006, she served as the battalion’s Sergeant Major.

Her career included deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom I and II, as well as three humanitarian assistance/disaster relief deployments. She served as Sergeant Major of MAG-36 in Okinawa and Sergeant Major of Marine Corps Base Quantico. At the end of her career, SgtMaj Micheal Barrett, then-Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, asked her to retire/retain to become a project manager at the Marine Corps University to develop and implement the Lance Corporal Leadership Ethics Seminar.

Brown is currently in college pursuing a degree in public administration: “I just really want to help the underserved communities; I want to help them navigate a good life.” She belongs to the Alamo Detachment of the Marine Corps League and the Women Marines Association. As first vice president of WMA, Brown looks forward to attending the WMA Convention and Professional Development Conference in Washington, D.C., this Labor Day weekend.

The Epitome of a Motivator

Robin Fortner is the Sergeant Major, Marine Corps Systems Command, a position she earned through 28 years of duty in the Corps. She is at the stage in her career where experience and wisdom drive her to stay on active duty. That, and the importance of being visible to others as a leader. She says she still hears Marines say, “ ‘I never see a female sergeant major.’ I still get that to this day because there’s not very many of us; it’s important for them to see a woman at the table.” Besides, SgtMaj Fortner is happy where she is. The epitome of a motivator, Fortner clearly receives motivation herself by engaging with Marines.

Fortner attributes much of her accomplishments to others, primarily her mother and an NCO at her first unit. She was the daughter of a single mother, who taught her to always do her best. “I do believe a lot of strength and perseverance that I do have now comes from her,” said Fortner. Attending college placed a heavy financial burden on her mother, so after one year Fortner joined the Marine Corps, “without any real knowledge of what I was getting myself into.”

Fortunately, she is smart (she skipped eighth grade) and despite an overabundance of what she called “New York City mentality,” her NCOs inspired her to love being a Marine. One sergeant in particular taught her “strength, dignity, integrity; she instilled a work ethic … she really did lay a lasting foundation.”

Meritoriously promoted several times, Fortner was selected to fill challenging roles. She served as a Primary Marksmanship Instructor in Weapons Field Training Battalion, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., training both male and female recruits in basic marksmanship, and subsequently earning the billet of chief instructor. As the only female instructor Fortner said, “That’s when it really hit me, where my gender mattered amongst a male-dominated section.” Following her mantra of doing the best she could, Fortner said, “I stood my ground, physically and mentally. I’ve always been an academic student. I came out number one in the PMI class. Once you start doing those things, you’re breaking down barriers.”

Fortner is quick to add, “Those Marines from that PMI unit are some of my closest friends today. That has to be known.” She doesn’t dwell on others’ biases. Instead, she tries to “chisel away at bias” bit by bit until others can see the real person. She believes that the bond formed by overcoming differences can “form that union, that brotherhood; I think it’s stronger. You can accomplish more.” It’s not surprising that Fortner was hand-selected to be the sergeant major of a unit created to study gender integration into the combat arms.

In 2014 the Marine Corps stood up the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force to research and assess the integration of female Marines into combat arms units and Military Occupational Specialties (MOSs). After an intense training schedule in which the female Marines performed the same tactical tasks as their male counterparts, they participated in exercises to evaluate their physical performance in ground combat actions. Fortner said she witnessed the Marines “form a different type of bond, a brother/sisterhood type of bond” as they worked together.

In 2012 Fortner received the Megan McClung Leadership Award. Named for the dynamic public affairs officer who was killed in Iraq in 2006, the award commends “leadership skills and their contributions towards the tenets of civil and human rights, equal opportunity, human relations and public service.”

Fortner’s outlook is positive, and her enthusiasm for her Marines is strong. “Being around the Marine Corps has exposed me to so many different people. And that is a blessing. You realize we’re more alike than we are different. That’s the beauty of diversity.”

While Fortner chose the Corps some years ago, it wasn’t until the Corps chose her that she felt transformed. “Even though you join, you learn the essence of being a Marine when it really gets stamped into your everyday living, your everyday thoughts. I think that’s when they chose me … once I got into the essence of what honor, courage and commitment really meant, then I believed I was chosen.”

Perseverance, Grit, Resilience

As the Military Assistant to General Glenn M. Walters, the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, Colonel Julie Nethercot experiences a perspective of the Corps from the highest level, a view few people get to see. She describes her role as a chief-of-staff type whose “whole purpose in life is to make sure that not only is the ACMC successful, but that everybody who sees the ACMC has a successful engagement.” She ensures that the ACMC is prepared for every meeting and facilitates the successful interaction between staff, speechwriters, aides, and those meeting with the ACMC. She attends every meeting and travels worldwide as the ACMC schedule demands.

The pace is swift, but controlled. “Every day is a learning experience,” Nethercot said. “I’m eyes open, read everything I can because his portfolio is very, very large and spans every aspect of the Marine Corps … It’s a great opportunity to see how the larger Marine Corps works.”

Nethercot calls upon experiences from her 25 years of service to successfully meet her current responsibilities. With a background as a communications officer and a planner, she has commanded at the platoon, company, and battalion levels, as well as served as the CO of Recruiting Station Frederick, Md., and Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Va.

When Nethercot was the commanding officer of 9th Communications Battalion in 2010, the battalion had the opportunity to select and train Marines for Female Engagement Teams (FET) for full-time assignment to infantry units in Afghanistan. Since cultural restrictions prevented male Marines from interacting with Afghan women, these teams provided outreach to the communities, while receiving valuable information from the trust earned of the local women. Therefore, the FET’s impact was strategic in nature, according to Nethercot. They went “beyond the vehicle searches and personnel searches … learning the people, learning the population. What we would say is ‘they had all the respect given to men, but the access given to women.’ ”

Nethercot’s wide-ranging experience as a leader resulted in her selection as the executive officer for the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force, which conducted gender-neutral training and assessment to prepare for female integration into combat units.

Especially notable in Nethercot’s achievements in the Corps is her selection to be commander of the Officer Candidates School in 2015, becoming the first woman CO in the school’s 125-year history. With its purpose to screen, select and train leaders, OCS had “very little to change at its core mission, so I focused on the margins.” She focused on three areas: improving the outreach to potential candidates, enhancing the “unity of effort” among the staff to embody the school’s motto “Ductus Exemplo” (Leadership by Example), and familiarizing the candidates’ families with the Corps. Recalling her own experience at OCS, she said it was surreal to look out on the parade field from the CO’s office, but she never lost sight of the “blessing of being selected and the weight of being the caretaker of what is one of the foundational elements of our Corps.”

In addition to Marine Corps leadership principles, she attributes her success to attitude and teamwork. She believes one can accomplish so much more with a positive attitude: “Challenges become opportunities because of your ability to see options. If you infuse that into a unit of Marines, there is nothing they can’t accomplish. It all starts with the leaders, their attitude and character.”

“For me, it’s about people, and it always has been,” Nethercot said. “If you have good interpersonal skills, and you know how to build a good team, that translates regardless of whether you’re leading a fire team or you’re leading a battalion of Marines … Yes, it’s the business of warfighting, but it’s also a people business. How you treat one another and how you mentor and coach and talk to one another really makes a big difference on whether you’re successful on the field of battle and whether your Marines respect you and trust you with their lives.”

The strength of Nethercot’s character comes from her Midwestern roots. Her blue-collar working parents instilled in her the value of hard work, preparation and doing her homework, she said. “That’s really it: the Midwest work ethic. I pick things up quickly, but really it’s just perseverance, grit and resilience,” she said, adding, “Really I’m just scrappy.” Humor appears to be her strong suit, as well.

Ask Questions. Dig Deep. Dream Big.

Lieutenant Colonel Jeannette Haynie, USMCR, likes to exceed expectations. After attending the United States Naval Academy, she was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. “Being a Marine seemed like the hardest, coolest thing I could do and no one expected that I could do it. … Flying Cobras seemed like one of the coolest, perfect things I could do, so I decided to do that, too,” she explained, making it sound like a walk in the park.

Haynie served 10 years on active duty as a Marine Cobra pilot and is now at the 10-year mark of service in the Reserve. Concurrently, she earned a master’s degree in political science and recently graduated with a doctor of philosophy degree in international relations. This spring she taught a course on “Gender and Conflict” at The George Washington University.

Utilizing her aviation and academic background, Haynie serves as an analyst in the Strategic Initiatives Group for the Marine Corps. Often referred to as “The Commandant’s Think Tank,” the SIG is a small group of hand-selected field-grade officers who research, analyze and write about issues that support the Commandant’s strategic vision; in Haynie’s words, “We do idea generation and long-range strategic thought and planning.” Her expertise in the relationship between gender and warfare has supported some of the SIG projects involving gender and integration in the Marine Corps. Her current project involves critical thinking and developing a philosophy of how Marines learn as an institution.

The Commandant called upon SIG analysts to study and provide recommendations for a response following the incident known as Marines United, in which a private social media group shared inappropriate photographs of female Marines and encouraged derogatory comments. Haynie said, “I think some of the news and political pressure and drama of the past year has actually helped push the institution out into the open so leaders are now aware of things that they weren’t before.” She has seen the impact of the Commandant’s task force, stating, “Now, a year and a half later, after Marines United has settled down, the institution has started to respond to the idea that there is a structural amount of bias and discrimination that is limiting us as a Marine Corps.”

One response is the creation of the Personnel Studies and Oversight Office (PSO). By assessing cultural issues in the Corps, the PSO’s purpose is to ensure “we continue to create an organization where all Marines are fully valued based on their individual excellence and commitment to warfighting, regardless of race, sex, religion or sexual orientation,” according to the ACMC, General Glenn Walters.

Haynie, who will soon stand up the Marine Forces Reserve liaison branch of that office, sees promise in the mission of the PSO. “We’ve invested a lot of time and energy in our people and they are our biggest asset. We recognize that now as an institution.” On a personal level, Haynie is gratified: “That I can actually be a part of making those changes happen and structuring them for success down the road, that’s huge. That’s a gift. That’s a change. … We are starting to recognize that all kinds of different perspectives are out there and we need to open the door to them. It will make us more successful once we do that.”

Actionable Change

LtCol Janine Garner is a KC-130 pilot who, like LtCol Haynie, works in the SIG addressing issues through research and recommendations. She loves being a Marine pilot. She is inspired by the work she does in the SIG, and the Marines she gets to work alongside. Her disposition is positive, energized and even joyful. And yet there was a moment when she was ready to give it all up and go fly for Delta.

Her forthright revealing of this fact had less to do with her than her gratefulness to others. It was necessary to illustrate the mentorship and inspiration of fellow Marines. Pointing out that she had no women senior to her in her aviation community, she extolled the men who encouraged her to stay in the Corps. But, she explained, “It’s not enough for someone to just mentor you, they have to actively advocate for you, suggest the billet that you need to be successful to have that career trajectory.” She appreciates one mentor’s advocacy—he advocated for her to go back to the fleet and take out a deployment as a DET OIC (detachment officer in charge)—which helped her to earn a promotion to lieutenant colonel.

In addition to flying C-130s and making researched recommendations about issues critical to the Marine Corps, Garner has served at the Office of Legislative Affairs. Marines at the OLA interact with members of Congress to educate and inform them about Marine Corps issues. They also escort them to military bases and forward-deployed Marines to provide experiential background for Marine Corps requirements decided in Congress. Garner escorted several congressional delegations to Afghanistan during operations there.

Garner initially believed that a position in the SIG was not quite her calling. A former boss thought otherwise and encouraged her to do it. After a year in the SIG, she is glad she did: “I love the fact that I have an opportunity to really effect change in the Marine Corps on a holistic level, unfettered by admin and procedure. Just that I can sit, and I can think, and I can write and I can research, and I can study. … It’s all about trying to make the Marine Corps better, to improve the institution.”

It’s important to Garner that there is a healthy interaction of ideas coming from the diversity of Marines represented in the SIG. “We have two women in the SIG, we have some grunts, combat service support, four different pilots and we’re all from different platforms. No two people are the same MOS. … We all have our worldview and the time we’ve spent in the Marine Corps is very, very unique. … So we’re all able to bring different points of view.”

Garner was personally affected by the Marines United social media incident, which she said “shed a light on a very ugly thing, a very ugly fact in the Marine Corps and society and now we are able to address that, and that needed to happen.” In addition to the recommendations the SIG produced to the Commandant, she and two colleagues created a social media group called “Actionable Change” so female Marines could interact. “It’s a place where we can discuss papers that we want to write, things that we want to address within the Marine Corps, issues. It also provides leadership and mentoring,” she explained.

The site has connected women Marines from different decades and given them a forum to share their experiences and ideas. Garner was surprised to learn about barriers that existed not too long ago, such as that women generally did not deploy or that in addition to their Marine Corps commitment, many women had the sole responsibility of childrearing and running a household. “That would never be the case for me and hopefully not for the younger generation,” she said. “There is a completely different view that men and women both participate in these things.”

In the context of women in the Corps, Garner has been the recipient of a change of attitude regarding women. “I had a squadron CO who once said that he would never have me be an aircraft commander flying his planes because he said no Marines would follow me. Fast forward to two years later and he was marking me as his number two captain in the squadron. He very much changed, and he has to this day continued to mentor and advocate for me. … If I had maintained anger toward him, I would [have missed] out on a phenomenal mentor.”

Times change and people change with them. Garner said, “It is important to note that people are allowed to form new opinions based on new information. I say that because we are quick to judge people based on things they said 10 to 20 years ago… instead of saying ‘you’ve learned and you’ve grown.’ ”

The Next Century

The Corps is forming new doctrine and adapting to create the most effective team. As LtCol Haynie notes, “I think by opening up more fields to more people in general, which includes women, we open the door to getting more competent, more interesting, more diverse, more intelligent, more capable people. That means when we’re going into conflict areas and combat zones where things are very confusing and complex, we want the people with the best minds and the broadest range of perspectives … We are going to be operating in an environment where every little edge, every little advantage makes a difference.”

While neither scientific nor comprehensive, these conversations with a few Marines portray talented women with a voice at the table who have made a difference in the Marine Corps serving with honor, intelligence and dedication. Their contributions will influence the next century of women in the Corps.

Many will recognize Mary Karcher’s byline from her days as a Leatherneck staff writer and editor for various segments of the magazine. We are pleased to have her back in the magazine, if only for a freelance article, and look forward to more contributions from Mary.