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Laughter and Tears

By Lisa Stephens, United States Marine Corps

Sometime in the early 80’s, a movie called Private Benjamin made its debut. In the movie, Goldie Hahn fell off the bus at a recruit depot wearing a dress and heels. This was typical Lisa behavior, having earned the name “Slip” during spring break at Ft. Lauderdale, where I accidentally fell off the plane. Nearly two years later, I was still that girl. Like Goldie, I also fell off the bus at the Marine Corp Recruit Depot (MCRD) Parris Island while I wore a skirt and heels. I can still see me folding that cream colored skirt, given to me by my best friends for high-school graduation, and putting it away for someday after boot camp graduation.

But I digress. At a family gathering during the Christmas holiday after my high school graduation, my dad, while discussing my future, told my cousin’s new boyfriend, Don, an Army Chaplain, that he would like to see me join the Coast Guard for discipline and maybe some focus. I believed at that time he was just tossing stuff out to impress Don, but in hindsight, I see that he was concerned about my lack of focus for my future. As I took it all in, I was not at all interested in anything he had to say. I was happy to be going about the party girl routine.  I had just graduated high school and the future was, in my mind, just something that would take care of itself. I was a rebellious teen and was sure my future would bring me many parties, followed by a life of leisure and listlessness. Thankfully, this was not to be the end of my story.

Looking back, I see that my father led the way for me. He grew up in the small town of Ludlow, KY, a small independent town, directly across the river from downtown Cincinnati, OH, the same place he chose to raise a family. In his youth, he too, was a rebellious teen and had been “encouraged” by the local judge to join the Marine Corps. He spent several years serving this country and came home after I was born. Growing up, I loved sitting around with my extended family and listening to my dad tell his “war” stories. The extended family would meet on the weekends in the small town of Harrodsburg, KY, and after a story or ten about the good ole’ Corps, we children would find ways to amuse ourselves by playing on the train track, chasing chickens or climbing apple trees. The adults would cook and play Rook, or any number of other ways in which families learn to bond.  To my way of thinking, this was a wonderful place and time to grow up. Looking back at this time in my past I realized what an idol my daddy was to everyone. Now, I can see that I viewed him as the older, male version of me.

Needless to say, after about six months or so of parties and ensuing troubles, my parents had enough of my carousing and I was “politely” asked to leave. I moved in with my aunt, and it was at that point that I decided I needed to do something with my life. I told her I might like to join the Marine Corps. The very next morning she hollered for me to come down – that “someone” wanted to talk to me. I stumbled down the stairs in my full-length, pink footie pajamas to meet Sergeant Distasio, USMC recruiter. Good Lord, it wasn’t even noon! What were they thinking! This would be the first time I had to change out of my pajamas double time. Later that day, I went home to tell my daddy that I had joined the Marines. As he shook his head in disbelief, he said, “God help the Corps!”  His reaction was not exactly encouraging, but funny all the same and I did not take any offense.

Immediately upon arriving at MCRD Parris Island, I questioned my sanity. There were times when I could not wrap my head around what I had done. Where were all the laughs my daddy had spoken of? Having no other option, I stuck around to find out. After what seemed like a short 45 minute nap, at precisely 0500, we were mustered out of our racks…and low and behold stood a young woman much like myself only three weeks ago, complete with footie pajamas; the only difference was she had a toe sticking out of hers. Unfortunately, I, along with others, laughed. She was soon recycled because I believe she never overcame that embarrassing moment. I am ashamed to realize that the camaraderie that developed that day was instrumental in causing another pain and humiliation. I did take away a lesson later after I thought about the incident. I realized that the other women recruits were not very different than me, and if it had been me with the split toe pj’s, I would have laughed at myself, much like I laughed when I fell off the bus. This realization helped all of us to develop as a team.

The drill instructors (DIs) tried to instill in me the idea that there is no place for laughter in boot camp. They had a tough job, and I wasn’t making it easy. On one occasion, one DI came into the barracks and nobody gave the proper, “TEN-HUT”.  We were ushered to the front of the barracks where the DI started jumping back and forth over the threshold.  We were hollering, “TEN-HUT,” and promptly jumping to attention, and then sitting back on the floor when she hopped back out. This went on for nearly a half hour at which time I started giggling. MISTAKE! I couldn’t help it, she looked like a bunny rabbit bouncing back and forth over the door frame. Needless to say, I had to do extra physical training (PT) to learn my lesson. This made me stronger, but no less amused.

During the timeframe of my enlistment, Women Marines (WMs) were trained differently from the men. We spent a lot of time in our barracks learning to wash, starch, iron, polish, fold, and above all, learn to behave ladylike. The emphasis on physical training took a back seat. The early months of 1980 in Parris Island, SC, was not too hot and often rainy. When there was an opportunity for physical training, most grumbled.  I did not. My mission was to be in great shape upon leaving boot camp. I begged for outdoor activities, much to the grumblings of my fellow WMs, and much to the encouragement of my DIs.  They took notice of that one crazy girl who would rather do mountain climbers than polish her boots and who would rather run than make her rack bounce a nickel. However, sometime during the third month, I twisted/pulled a ligament in my knee. I was put on light duty and could not participate in the running required to be a Marine. I told my mom that I was probably going to be recycled, at which time she called the state congressman, who called my DI. MISTAKE!  Next thing I knew I had to stand tall in front of my Senior Drill Instructor  and explain to her that I did not go crying to my mommy. She offered me one last chance to run or be recycled. I decided I would show her. I befriended a Sioux Indian who taught me the best way to get through the running test, that letting my arms and wrists hang loose would take less energy. I had not been running correctly, which was why I pulled those knee tendons. I pushed through the pain to get around the track.

Later that week, I received a Valentine’s Day card from my dad telling me that he loved me and was proud of what I was trying to become. This was all the encouragement I needed. I took that physical fitness test and I passed. I DID IT!

Never have I ever been as proud as I was the day I passed the USMC physical fitness test. I cried tears of joy till I laughed. This laughter was good and earned me a smile from my DI.  She saw in me that day, a woman who would laugh in the face of difficulty. Who would take what comes at her with determination and would succeed.

That day I was so proud of myself, and I like to think I took some hard learned lessons to heart. I had set the girl inside on a course of accomplishment and I like to think that the woman who stands here today was formed out of the experiences from boot camp. As my life went, that day goes down as one of the best.

Being a United States Marine has earned me respect everywhere I go. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to be all I could be, because all I am has not even scratched the surface of all I will be.

Lisa Stephens

Lisa Stephens grew up in Northern Kentucky, and upon high school graduation, enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. After graduating from boot camp, she learned the trade of Aircraft Maintenance Accounting in Meridian, Mississippi, and used this training at Naval Air Maintenance Training Group Detachment, (NAMTRAGRUDET), Camp Pendleton, CA, where she was the first Woman Marine to be attached to this detachment. Other duty stations included 2nd MAW, Headquarters Squadron, Cherry Point, NC, which was her final duty station.

After seeing Lisa complete a degree and then marry, she went back to college and will graduate with an Associate’s Transfer Degree from Cape Fear Community College (CFCC) this May 2017. She has successfully been admitted to the University of North Carolina, Wilmington (UNCW), and will pursue a Bachelor’s Degree for Technical Writing in their English Department. Lisa ultimately aspires to be a photo-journalist for the Disabled American Veterans Magazine.

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