Catherine Ulrich, United States Marine Corps
It’s early February, I am in the third trimester of my pregnancy with my second child, and I am a lance corporal in the United States Marine Corps. I work in a small shop of three other Marines and a building that only has one other female; her name is Sergeant Ruttman. The regiment’s commanding officer and sergeant major, along with a lot of other high-ranking officers and enlisted Marines also work in this building the size of a shoe box. It’s a very intimidating building to work in for a lance corporal’s first time in the fleet. I was still getting used to how things worked and I was under a lot of pressure to get everything that I did perfect. I feel as if ammo cans were being piled on my shoulders, sinking me further and further into this quick sand from which I can’t escape. This quick sand is a secret that has been devouring me for months. I haven’t told a soul because I don’t know what they would think of me. It’s hard coming to work every day where someone has complete control over you, and you feel as if there is nothing you can do about it. Sergeant Stephens stands over me reminding me of how a drill instructor would tower over a recruit and say, “If you need help, Lance Corporal, then you need to Speak The Fuck Up!”
My shop consists of two corporals, myself, and Sergeant Stephens. My Corporals didn’t like Sergeant Stephens; they think he’s a dumbass, he doesn’t deserve the rank, and they don’t listen to him. They are just jealous because Sergeant Stephens was their lance corporal and they are still stuck at the rank of corporal while he moved up in ranks meritoriously. My Corporals were sergeants at one point, but they both were demoted because one was fat and the other had discipline issues. I like my Corporals, they try to teach me about the “real” Marine Corps and how the unit works and all of what to do and what not to do. They talk to me like I’m human, and I respect that they are higher rank, and if they ask me to do something I will do it. Sergeant Stephens finds this disrespectful, and doesn’t like that I’m so “chummy” with my NCOs.
Every morning Sergeant Stephens stomps into the shop after PT, drops into his chair, slams his gallon jug of water down on the desk, and lets out some sort of growl mixed with a sigh. He’s tall with a semi built body structure, black medium fade haircut, and black bushy eyebrows to match, the look on his face says, “I cave man, eat meat, punch baby.”
“Good morning Sergeant,” I say quickly before he has a chance to chew me out for not giving him the proper greeting of the day. That has happened too many times to count. Sergeant Stephens’s temper was something he had problems controlling sometimes. He would throw these elaborate temper tantrums if something or someone farted in his direction. If he felt he was beginning to lose control of things in the shop, he would tighten the invisible noose he has around my neck. He uses me as his prop to show the corporals that he is a good sergeant because, look what he can make the lance corporal do, she obeys me. When he tells me to do something he makes me say, “Aye Sergeant” which is something normally only used while disciplining or in ceremonies. He is the only one that I have encountered so far outside of boot camp and MCT that is that strict.
As I work, Sergeant Stephens checks on me frequently. He stands behind me while I type like a judgmental angry mountain. When I make a mistake, his arm comes flying over my shoulder falling to the computer screen like a tree falling in the forest and he screams, “MISTAKE!” before I realize that I have made a mistake. It doesn’t matter how many times he does this because every time it makes me jump; and then my baby kicks me in the ribs, adding to my misery. He has a way of getting under my skin and into my mind. His presence gives me chills and makes my blood boil all at the same time.
It was time for his before chow check-in and he stomps into the vault. His shadow looms on the wall in front of me making him look twice the size he is and he says, “What’s taking so long for you to complete this project?” I take a deep breath in and say to him, “the program that I have to use is slow and I have to put things in a certain order or it will crash and delete what I had been working on all day.” He dropped to the chair next to me and says, “Show me.” I grab the next form I’m working on and put the information in to the computer, and of course that would be the time that the program decides to work properly. Sergeant Stephens stands up over me and says, “If you need help Lance Corporal, then you need to speak the fuck up!” With that, he turns to walk out of the vault. I take a deep breath in to hold in the tears and anger. Then he says, “Go to chow.”
As I drive home, I can hear Sergeant Stephens in my head, yelling at me as if he is right in the car with me. Everything that I had been keeping to myself was playing in my head. I thought of my husband, Chas, my son, Kyle, and my soon-to-be daughter, Kendall. Chas and Kyle saw me as a badass mommy because I was a Marine. I was supposed to be rough and tough, but the fact was that at work, I was nothing. I was scared to tell Chas what was going on at work because I didn’t want my “badass mommy” persona to be ruined. I was starting to feel like Rachael in Sandra Cisneros’s short story “Eleven;” it was time to tell someone about my secret, “That’s when everything I’ve been holding in since this morning, …, finally let go, and all of a sudden I’m crying in front of everybody. I wish I was invisible but I’m not”. I walk to the couch where Chas is sitting and the mask of this hard-core Marine falls off. I am instantly in tears shaking with fear and anger. Chas is slightly confused as to what is happening, until he hears me say that I have been trying to hurt myself or my pregnancy so I didn’t have to go back to work.
“I am miserable at work, Sergeant Stephens treats me like I’m a 2-year-old, and he constantly watches me. He has too high of standards and when I don’t meet those standards he will make me repeat the task until I get it perfect and then once it’s perfect I will have to do it five more times so he can make sure I know what I’m doing.” As these words are pouring out of my mouth, Chas’s face turns red. As a civilian, he’s not sure what he can do so he tells me to call Sergeant Ruttman. I ask her if I can talk to her after chow and she says sure and we agree to meet in the vault. On the car ride back to work, my mind is tumbling over what is going to happen next.
I’m sitting in the vault waiting for Sergeant Ruttman, thinking about what to say, how to say it, and the anxiety that Sergeant Stephens has created begins to set in. My heart is pounding, I have a sharp pain in my chest, my stomach is rolling, and Kendall is doing somersaults inside me. Sergeant Ruttman sneaks into the vault like she’s a ninja because she’s not supposed to be there. She greets me with her usual greeting for me, “what up Chicka?” Tears begin to stumble down my cheeks as I repeat to her everything that I had just told Chas. Her face is beet red and her knuckles are white as she grips the arms of the chair. I stopped talking and the first thing out of her mouth is, “Stephens is a dumbass!” Her feeling towards Sergeant Stephens were like my Corporals; she didn’t like him, and he didn’t deserve the rank. She asked me, “Ulrich, do you want to report this? What he is doing is considered hazing; and it is punishable up to complete removal or rank and discharge from the Marine Corps.” I told her, “I just want it to stop! If I can take care of this in my shop then that is what I want to do.” She left the vault leaving me to my thoughts, to wonder if I had made the right decision or not.
I continue to work on the same paperwork I was working on prior to chow and the vault door opens. It was Sergeant Ruttuman. She escorts me down to my office and delivers me to my Corporals. My mind is racing and my heart is pounding again. Am I in trouble? Am I being removed from the shop? Corporal Ralph, the fat one, says that I will no longer be reporting to Sergeant Stephens. I will now report to him and Sergeant Ruttman. I am then released for the day and he escorts me to my car to go home. My Captain kicked Sergeant Stephens’s puppy hard that afternoon. I was told he was moping around and was stuck way up our Captain’s butt the rest of the day. I still get sharp pings in my chest and my heart quickens thinking about those couple months. I was trapped in a dark place, but the monster that was keeping me there was also the one who gave me direction out.
Catherine Ulrich is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps where she served for just under six years before getting medically retired. She is married and has two children. She is currently taking classes at Cape Fear Community College in hopes of becoming an Occupational Therapist Assistant.
While in the Marine Corps, she was an intelligence specialist with 10th Marines HQ BTRY. As a female, Catherine was a rarity in her ground unit. In addition, she worked in the regiment CP with the Colonel and SgtMaj and the rest of the Regimental staff, so she was even more of a rare occurrence. Therefore, Catherine stood out, and it was easy to make an example of her. This led to the incident she writes about, and while “it wasn’t 100% physical, it was more psychological, but that doesn’t change the damages that it caused.”