Celebrating Hispanic Heritage
By Sabrina Messenger
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month which is observed each year from September 15 through October 15, I will be offering several in-depth interviews from some of our members of WMA who are of Hispanic/Latina descent.
But first a bit of background information on Hispanics in the United States Marine Corps:
Hispanic or Latino is generally defined as a member of an ethnic group that traces its roots to 20 Spanish-speaking nations from Latin America and Spain itself. A person who identifies as Hispanic may come from any race. According to the US Census bureau, Hispanics are the largest ethnic group in the USA at 53 million people (approximately 16%). Hispanics are the fastest growing minority group of all of the US Armed Forces. This growth is particularly evident in the USMC. Hispanics comprise 18% of enlisted Marines today, up from 15% when the Iraq war began. Over the past few years, a concentrated effort has been made to recruit and retain Latinos/Latinas in the ranks. The most recent recruitment campaign presents “Hispanic Values as Marine Corps Values.”
However, the presence of Marines who are of Hispanic descent is not new! From the Boxer Rebellion to the present time, people of Hispanic/Latino descent have served proudly and with distinction in the Corps. Several have won the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.
The first known Latina woman Marine served during World War II. Her name was Maria Lourdes (Torres) Maes. Like many women of her era, she joined the Marines specifically to “Free a Man to Fight.” After completing boot camp at Camp LeJeune, NC, she was sent to Quartermaster School and assigned to the Marine Corps Base at Quantico, VA, and attained the terminal rank of Corporal.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, several Latinas enlisted or accepted officer commissions.
The first Puerto Rican woman Marine was a woman named Rose Franco. She enlisted during the Korean War in 1952 until her retirement in 1977, attaining the terminal rank of CWO-3.
More women answered the call the duty throughout the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and into the 21st Century. These women are found all MOS’s and ranks, some reaching the top such as Major General Angela Salinas.
A significant number of Latina Marines have seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan and some, like Corporal Ramona Valdez from the Dominican Republic (1982-2005) have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Why do Latinas enlist in the Corps? For the same reasons women hailing from a diversity of backgrounds do! For adventure, opportunity, and most importantly, to serve one’s country. These are individual who ascribe to the Marine Corps values of “Honor, courage and commitment.“
The Marine Corps values diversity and will continue to seek those persons regardless of ethnicity who have the ‘right stuff’ to be considered one of ‘the few, the proud.” I am proud to present as our first interviewee of this series, Maria Elena (Perez) Crowley. She is the Area 6 Leader of the Women Marines Association. Thank you, Maria, for your kind participation!
When did you join the Corps? What sort of reactions did you get when you told family friends you were enlisting?
I joined the USMC in 1964; I was the first female from Kleberg County to join the Marine Corps. My family accepted it (my biological father and stepfather had to sign for me) and were almost in awe that I was to join the Marine Corps. Friends – some ok and some (male friends) not so happy with it. Some of my male friends who were in the reserves (Navy and Marines) told me that I was too sweet of a girl to join, and if I did go in, I would change from the sweet girl I was into someone not considered “nice” or “decent.”
What inspired you to enlist?
I was working for the County Attorney for Kleberg County, Texas, and he was very involved with President Kennedy’s campaign. When the President was shot, we were in shock and the phrase,”it’s not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” inspired me. One day when I was wearing a dress that looked very military, the other secretary joked that I looked like a Navy Wave. I then started thinking about joining the service. All the recruiters had offices in the Courthouse and once they heard I was thinking of joining, they all tried to recruit me. HOWEVER, it was the Marine recruiter who looked the sharpest and the Marines was where I wanted to be
What was your first impression/memory of recruit training?
First Impression was “what did I get myself into?” Never being a quitter, I knew I could complete my 2 year active enlistment, but this was a total different environment for me. I was brought up in a very protected environment. My family and friends were all Mexican American and although I had interacted with other nationalities and backgrounds in High School, it was eye-opening to be and go through the same daily events/actions with everyone else. Race or color made no difference in boot camp. I remember hearing all the crying at night and our Sgt. Gruetzenmacher (sp?) saying, “good night, you clowns.” I was afraid of our head sergeant, GySgt Robbins and Sgt Jones, but Sgt Gruetzenmacher was like our “mom” during boot camp. One of the girls would start singing “Our Father” and we would all join in and more sobbing followed. Several other memories come to mind: I tried smoking for the first time in my life, but as soon as I went into the smoking room (shower area) and saw the girls smoking, I decided that most of the girls looked stupid, so I walked out and never smoked; also, some girls did horrible things to themselves, trying to get discharged; I had the experience of learning of a girl trying to kill herself by slitting her wrists; also, not knowing how to swim, I thought I was going to die in the swimming pool. Going thru the gas chamber was scary, but thank God, we survived!
What’s your first memory of your first duty station?
My first memory is arriving at Camp Lejeune in a bus after flying from Texas to Savannah, GA. I was a bit fearful as to what my job was going to be like, but I had a great first duty station. I was assigned to take over the personnel staffing that a Sgt. had had before me. I loved learning the ropes of filling quotas and staffing. Soon, the word got out that I had legal background and the Adjutant asked that I help out in his office. So, I did double duty as Personnel Staffing and Adjutant’s Stenographer.
Several of my boot camp buddies were also assigned to Camp Lejeune, and this made it a whole lot easier to live at Camp Lejeune. I loved to dance, and my friends and I ended going to the NCO club almost every night. We also went bowling and dancing and singing at the WM club next to our barracks.
What has surprised you most about the Corps?
I keep thinking that the Corps will always remain the “elite” service. The integrity and values of the Marine Corps stay the same – no compromises. You can expect to hear that other services are making it easier or lax on their troops, but not the USMC. I was surprised, yet not so much, when women had to go thru the crucible and are now afforded the opportunity to train for combat.
What do you find most challenging about the Corps?
Keeping its values and not trying to change to accommodate those that want to change our Marine Corps. It will be challenging to meet recruitment numbers, when the other services “promise” so much to their prospective recruits. We do need to keep up with that, but not at the cost of giving up our “honor, courage and commitment” values.
What’s the best/worst thing to happen during your time in?
Best thing was being sent TDY to a naval training center for Yeoman C school. I met my husband to be at Bainbridge, and that was the best thing to happen to me. The worst thing was having to resign when my time was up, due to the Vietnam War and my husband being in the Navy and me in the Marines, we were afraid of being separated, so I left when my one year of reserve duty was completed.
If you could change one thing about the Corps, what would it be?
I would have said to allow female Marines to stay in after marriage and pregnancy, but has already come to be. I think it would be to be more open to allow female Marines to participate in MOS’s that are generally given to the male Marines. If females can qualify, I would say, look at the “best qualified” person to do the job.
What do you wish other people knew about being a Marine?
We are the few, the proud. We are different from the other services in several ways, but mainly, we are proud to earn the title, Marine. Not everyone can make it through the rigorous training; not everyone has the stamina to remain through boot camp and become a Marine. Even after leaving the Marine Corps, the camaraderie that exists between Marines is unique. It is ingrained in you, that you, as a Marine, are the best at whatever you aim to do. Serving your country is the most honorable thing to do, and doing it as a Marine is exceptional.
What might (someone) be surprised to know about you?
Some people may not know that I grew up in a very poor household. My first “job” was picking cotton in the hot and humid fields of south Texas. I was a very innocent and naive young girl who thanks to the Marine Corps, grew out of her shell and the innocent Mexican girl who joined, became the “sure of herself” Marine. I have the Marine Corps to thank for so many things, but one thing that most people are not aware of, is that I became an entrepreneur and had a very successful business. I was honored and awarded several noted awards, including the Inc Magazine entrepreneur award, other national awards and was asked to do several commercials for Dallas companies.
The Marines recently launched a recruit campaign in the Hispanic community emphasis “Hispanic Values are Marine Values” would you agree or disagree?
I totally agree. The values that my family instilled in me stayed with me and are with me today, and I believe that this is partly due to the Marine Corps. The standards we have to live up to are the same as my family expected of me.
What you advise a high schooler today regarding military service?
I would encourage them that if they can attend college, by all means, go that route. However, at the same time, they can enroll in the Marine program to help them with college and come out as an officer when they graduate. Granted they will have to do their time in the Marines, but it will be a life experience that will help them in whatever career they choose. If they cannot or are not interested in college, I would highly recommend joining the Marine Corps. They will have the opportunity to grow and learn various jobs, depending on their ability and desires, and they will have the benefits that the Marine Corps offers – college being the major one.
What is the best advantage you seeing being a member of WMA?
WMA allows one to continue living the Marine spirit. WMA keeps us up-to-date on what is going on/changes in the Marine Corps. Issues that pertain to females can be addressed by our group and assistance to our female Marines is available. Friendship between women who have earned the title is like no other. This common base can only be shared by other female Marines, and WMA gives us the opportunity to continue our tradition of service to our country and fellowmen/women and remain, Semper Fidelis.