We used to be dancers.
From the ages of 2 to 18, I took classes in ballet, tap dance, jazz dance, lyrical and a bit of tumbling. Since I’m a woman who does not hide her femininity and frankly hates doing hard labor or even the thought of being outside or sweating, I fit the stereotype that many people hold in their minds when they envision a ballerina.
However, during my time as a dancer I met one of my very best friends, Ali O. Ali did not, and still does not, fit the ballerina stereotype. She is hardworking, adventurous, outdoorsy and strong. She is a Marine.
Ali danced for 16 years, just like I did. When we graduated high school, Ali said to me, “Could you see this graceful ballerina being a Marine?”
Although I was shocked, I knew that Ali had much more grit than I. She’s a farmer’s daughter, and worked in her dad’s watermelon fields practically from the time she could walk.(Side bar: She asked me to work with her when I was in middle school and I barely made it 4 hours out there. She still makes fun of me for how much I whined, but it is NOT an easy job!!)
Being a female Marine is not the only badass thing about her. When Ali was active in the Marine Corps, she also became a single mother.
Ali was stationed in Japan, California and Virginia. After serving 7 and a half years in active duty, she is now back in Indiana with her 5-year-old son.
This summer, I got to catch up with Ali and ask her questions about her experience as a Marine and as a single mom.
Why did you decide to join the Marine Corps in the first place?
I kind of had mixed emotions about going to college. I saw my friends going places for school and I didn’t really know what I wanted to study, so, why pay for the degree? School’s not my thing. I wanted to do something different for myself.
What was the most difficult part of being a Marine for you?
I would say just overcoming the trials you face as a female Marine. There are a lot of standards that are supposed to be held equally, but they’re not. They never are.
Let’s dig deeper into that. Women are constantly portrayed as “weak” or “too emotional” in today’s society. Did you ever have an encounter where someone in the Marines made you feel “weak” for being a woman?
Oh yea. One example where you’re looked at as weak is that typically women don’t run as fast as men. Look at how the physical exams are scored: a female would have to run 3 miles in 20 minutes for a “perfect score,” where a man’s “perfect score” would require him running the same distance in 17 minutes. Even if a woman got a “perfect score” of 20 minutes, the men still saw her as “less-than” because it’s not as fast as them.
What other things happened to you as a Marine that made you feel “less-than” or that lead your male counterparts to wrongfully judge you?
I had a boss once that would make me come into his office to write on his whiteboard. He told me he thought my handwriting was better than others’, but really, he was looking at my butt as I wrote. He made me do all kinds of other tasks for him too. If I refused to work for him, he’d send me out to the field. If I went to the field, I had to leave my kid behind for months on end, so I had no choice. When I did this work for him though, the other male Marines would think I was getting some sort of special treatment for being a woman. In actuality, I was being used and not treated well at all!
(I didn’t know what “the field” meant, so I asked her to explain it. Going to the field means going out in the middle of nowhere, usually in a desert area. Out there you do a lot of driving and logistics. Still confused?? Me too.)
Now let’s talk about the stereotype of women being “too emotional.” What did you encounter in your time as a Marine that was caused by this stereotype?
I was a Marine Sergeant, and a female at that. Since I was the boss to so many men, I had to control my emotions in order to get their respect. For example, if I didn’t yell at them all the time, they wouldn’t take me seriously and try to walk all over me. On the other hand, if I did yell at them, they’d call me a crazy bitch!
What about other female Marines that you worked with? Were they treated differently because they were women?
Yes. No matter a woman’s rank, she was treated differently. If a woman was treated well, other men would say she was getting “special treatment” and didn’t deserve it. If a woman was screamed at by her higher-up, the men would say something like, “that was nothing compared to the way he screamed at me earlier!” It was like nothing we ever got was merited or just, good or bad.
What do you think about the stereotypes of women being “weak” or “ruled by emotion”?
I don’t think I’m weak or too emotional. I understand why the stereotypes exist though. Yes, women typically express emotion more than men do. Yes, I can’t run as fast as a man…Whoop-dee-doo! However, I rose in the ranks for a reason, and there are other “manly” things I can do 10 times better than my male counterparts. I think the issue is that women can usually understand both sides, but men typically don’t see from a woman’s point of view.
Let’s switch gears now. I know that you had your son while on active duty. Tell me about this! Did you feel judged? Did you feel supported?
It’s a crazy story. Well, my son happened when my mom and sister came to Japan (where I was stationed) for vacation. When they came, my son’s dad and I had to ask for leave to go on vacation too.
His dad was a corporal at the time and I was a lance corporal then. It already looked bad that two higher-ups in the Marines were dating. Well, when we asked for the time off, my commanding officer said to me, “I’ll let you two go together out of the kindness of my heart, but don’t let anything happen.” This was him telling me not to get pregnant. So, when I came back pregnant it was a huge ordeal. (Side bar: I personally think it’s hilarious that she DID get pregnant on the trip after her commanding officer told her she couldn’t. Maybe I just revel in chaos and rebellion, but it’s a great way to stick it to the man, I think!)
The Marines only see you as a number, as an asset to the Corps. They don’t even pretend to care about your mental health, your family life…nothing.
Tell me more about being treated as a number. How did this affect you where pregnant?
Well, one example is when I worked as a dispatcher. Basically, I had to stay in the shop from the time a truck left until the truck came back. One time they had me stay in the shop for weeks on end, pregnant, only eating tuna and crackers. They didn’t take my pregnancy or my baby’s health into consideration when they sent me out there.
Another example of this lack of concern for my baby’s well-being was when they had me come support securing trucks before a typhoon. Before a big storm like that, they make you come immediately, as you are, to clear out weapons and things from trucks. I came as I was, in flip-flops and shorts, to work in the pouring rain when I was pregnant. I stepped into a wet truck, slipped, and fell flat on my face. I was pregnant! That was when I started to think, “f*** all of this!”
There are other things like that I could tell you about, but being pregnant in the Marines was challenging in every aspect. You’re looked down upon for even going to a doctor’s appointment. They have me for life and I could barely take an hour to get an ultrasound!
I know that you and your son’s father did not stay together after your son was born, but we won’t go into details of that. What was it like to be a single mom while you were on active duty?
It’s difficult to have a family and be in the Marine Corps. Male bosses just don’t seem to care that you have a child to take care of. Say that they’re looking for someone to do a task…they don’t take you having a child into consideration when they choose someone for it.
A more specific example is when they sent me to the field for months. I couldn’t take my son with me, so I had to fly with him to Indiana to stay at my parents’ house. Then I’d have to fly back to where I was stationed. The money I had to spend on airline tickets was astronomical!
I also would be looked down upon if I didn’t go work out with the marines at 5:30 AM, so I’d have to get him up at 4:30 to bring him to a sitter…just to work out!
In general, it was very overwhelming to balance my duties as a mom and a Marine. Since we had to move around a lot, my son’s behavior was changed a lot and it was a lot to handle. I’d have breakdowns from the stress!
What do you do now that you’re no longer in active duty? How do you balance that with your duties of being a mother?
I’m in school now and we’re living at my parents’ house. I was working working part time, too, but I wasn’t making enough money. I decided it was better to just be a full time student. It’s god awful living with my parents again, but it’s what I need right now.
You would think that I’d feel better at balancing duties, but because of COVID-19, my son is home all the time and asking me to play when I’m trying to do school work. It’s really hard to be the mom that gets to play with her kid AND be the student that gets A’s.
What are some of the positives of being a single mother to your son?
My son and I are pretty much best buds and I know that he thinks the world of me. Even though it would be nice to have some help and someone to lean on, you also don’t have someone telling you exactly how to raise your child. It’s all up to you!
What advice or words of inspiration do you have for current or future single mamas?
Don’t stress out about the little things!
Don’t let someone tell you how to parent; you know what’s best for your child.
Most importantly, if a family member does not want to be in your child’s life, do not try to force it. If someone wants to know and love your kid, they will make an effort.
What advice do you have for women that are thinking of joining the Marine Corps?
Make sure that you are physically and emotionally in the right space. Weigh the options and decide if it’s what is best for you now. Do you want to start a family soon? Think it over before you decide to join.
Ali O. is and always has been one of the strongest people I know. Her son has been through a lot of changes in his 5 years of life, but he is kind, smart, funny and well-rounded, all thanks to his devoted mother. She is constantly breaking stereotypes and, I believe, is an inspiration for all women out there.