Native American Woman Marine Barbara Beltran Steele

This Marine Was One of ‘A Few Good Women’

BSteeleThe U.S. Marine Corps prides itself, and rightly so, on the “few good men” in its ranks. But let’s not overlook the “few good women” who have played, and are playing, vital roles in the realm of Leatherneckdom. I know of one such person, a Prescott lady who has been “Corps” to the “core” since her teens. She’s 81-year old Barbara Beltran Steele, who was the featured speaker last month at a luncheon meeting of the local chapter of the Korean War Veterans Association.

Barbara, who was born and raised in Santa Barbara, Calif., is a Native American “of Apache, Yaqui, Conchos and maybe Chumash blood” whose roots in the state run deep. Make that “centuries deep” because “my antecedents came to Alta California in 1781 with the expedition authorized by King Carlos II of Spain to settle the area.”

During her senior year in her Santa Barbara high school, she said she “started ‘bugging’ the Marine Corps recruiting officer at the post office and was told I was not old enough. But after several months the recruiter called to tell me that the age limit had been changed to 18 because of the Korean situation and I was now eligible to ‘sign up’.”

During the fighting in Korea, she noted that her oldest brother was a Marine who “survived the Chosin Reservoir battle, was wounded in a later contact with enemy combatants and was sent home to recuperate and was awarded the Bronze Star. When I left for boot camp he was still recovering at the Mare Island Hospital in Vallejo, Calif.,” she said, while adding that “two other brothers were in the Navy during this time, off the coast of Korea on battleships.”

Barbara, who now stands 5’1″ but was 5’3″ when she enlisted, said she “started wanting to be a Marine during World War II. During that time, Santa Barbara was surrounded by military bases, and the three best hotels were used exclusively for R&R for officers of all countries.” The city “was flooded with military at the time and I was especially fond of seeing the Marines from the Goleta Naval Air Station when they came to town. The ‘Black Sheep’ were stationed there for a short time during WWII, but not ‘Pappy’ Boyington. The women Marines were particularly impressive and I wanted to one day wear one of those gorgeous uniforms.”

In the 1950s, she noted, “there were still restrictions and segregation in some parts of the country, restrictions in my culture, and perceptions that women who joined the military were less than ladies.” And she told of an incident when racial intolerance reared its ugly head during a trip on a troop train from Los Angeles to Parris Island, S.C. Upon their arrival in Atlanta, Ga., she and four fellow female Marines “were billeted in a nice hotel and, after checking in, went to locate a restaurant. We found an Italian restaurant and everyone was allowed to order a meal except me. I was told that ‘we don’t serve coloreds here.’ If your skin wasn’t white, you were ‘colored’. That’s just the way it was at that time. So in Rome,” she said, “do as the Romans do and wait it out.”

And so it was that “the girls ordered and a short while later about 20 of our fellow troop train travelers found us, and they promptly added their orders. In the meantime, word went around the tables that I was refused service, and about the time dinner was to be served 25 military people rose and said ‘if you can’t serve her, you can’t serve us,’ and they grabbed me and everyone left.” Leave it to the Marines; they don’t give lip service to “Semper Fi”. They practice it!

Looking back, Barbara recalls that “I had low self-image on entering the Corps, but that began changing fast. The saying ‘once a Marine, always a Marine’ is true and surely makes you feel good when you know someone has your back. At the Greyhound bus station while saying goodbye to my parents, my father gave me this advice: ‘You begged us for this, now never let me hear a complaint about your choices in life.’ Nobody believes me when I say I loved boot camp and being a Marine, but it’s the truth!”

While stationed at Camp Pendleton, she would go on to marry a Marine sergeant and “pregnancy became an issue after four months of marriage.” Consequently, “I was not allowed to stay in the Corps and was accordingly discharged. My daughter brags that she is my ‘honorable discharge’.”

Now she and daughter Deborah Steele are living the good life together in their Prescott home following Deborah’s relocation from New York City, where she earned an Emmy Award in 2002-03 for outstanding achievement as a makeup artist for ABC’s “All My Children” drama series. Just for fun, Deborah gifted her mom with a bumper sticker that Barbara displays on her Chevy Tracker. It reads: “My karma ran over my dogma”.

I’m happy to report that Barb’s dogma not only survived the mishap, but is doing quite well, thank you!
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