Marissa Leblance went from a 17-year-old John Abbott student to boot camp where she excelled despite sexist abuse and assumptions about her ability to handle stressful situations as a U.S. Marine. (Courtesy Marissa Leblanc)
Special to The Eastern Door
I was 17 years old, and a John Abbott Social Sciences student, not too happy about my situation in school, and just generally sort of lost about what path I would be taking in life.
I spoke to my cousin Olav Kjono about how I felt, after he’d strangely piqued my interest and attention by giving me a live re-enactment of a United States Marine Corps drill instructor. For those who know Olav Kjono, he is a quiet, peaceful, and just a generally gentle and kind man, and it’s a way I’ve never seen until the moment he placed his D.I. campaign cover (hat) on his head and began treating me as though we were in boot camp.
It was quite an awesome sight, and not one that would please everyone, but it sure as hell made me grin.
It was a mere two weeks later when my mother was called to sign me off as US government property for the next eight years of her daughter’s life. I found myself $2,000 richer (sign-in bonus for leaving immediately) and standing on those infamous yellow footprints in the hottest months South Carolina has to offer: June, July, and August.
Ah… the wonderful sand fleas were present in full force.
I finally had direction and a goal. I signed on as a motor vehicle operator and an intelligence linguist as a secondary military occupational specialty (MOS) due to my ability to speak and read French proficiently.
This basically meant that I got paid extra every month in case they needed me for anything French and that I’d have to be tested every six months to see if I maintained my proficiency at the required levels.
Boot camp was a riot. I loved it. It was hard, but I ended up finishing honour graduate with the best score on the rifle range for the battalion.
I marched in with the men at boot camp graduation where my parents, aunty Christine Zachary-Deom, and the late Lawrence Francis rubbed elbows with the generals of Parris Island in the VIP section to see me through graduation.
From there, I attended school in Missouri where I met the biggest a-hole of an instructor who often threatened my life and generally hated me for being the only female in an all-male platoon.
He especially adored the fact that I had my dress blues hanging in my closet during inspection (a gift received only by boot camp honour graduates during that time). We’d often go on endless runs and when we’d end up in the middle of nowhere, 15 or so miles into some back-wood road, he’d love to stop the entire platoon just to pick me out of the ranks and yell at me in front of all the guys.
This instructor was a sergeant and I was a private first class and we stood nose-to-nose in height. He hated that I smirked at him and never backed down, so the more it happened, the more the guys started rallying around me to get him to stop.
It never ended until the time I graduated, again as an honour graduate.
I was then stationed in Okinawa, Japan for a year on a base where the ratio of women to men was something like 1:1000.
My first month in Okinawa resulted in a phone bill of over $2,000. In my second month I made friends with the biggest, strongest, smartest, and kindest guys I could find to run me back to my barracks room safely, protected from the inevitable harassment young, drunk, grouped, and deprived Marines tend to bring, after I’d finish my self-initiated university classes late on Saturday nights.
While on the wonderful island of Okinawa, I was assigned to a platoon of 175 men and two or three women. All the women were placed on a remedial physical fitness program as we were deemed to be either overweight or not fit enough.
This meant I had to run 11 times a week and got put into the weight room several times a week, in addition to our regular physical training.
It wasn’t long before I had a 292/300 score on my physical fitness test and in the top 10 of the 175 men. Still, they left me on remedial.
I was then assigned to a civilian motor transport unit in North Carolina after my stint in Okinawa. I was now a sergeant, given all my scores were near perfect. I was in heaven. I was working alongside older gentlemen who were very civil, and I was located on a base where there were plenty of women.
That dream didn’t last too long.
Finally, I became a close combat instructor at the Marine Combat Training Unit to help train all marines leaving boot camp to become basic infantrymen and women.
I had to complete a four-month training course, finishing honour graduate in a course filled with infantrymen too. This meant living in the woods for the last two years and few months in the Marine Corps.
I taught how to fight, patrol, throw grenades, shoot all basic weapons, survive, and basically be on the ground during wartime.
The path that certain people are handed while they serve in any branch of the military can greatly differ from one person to another. The path that I was handed wasn’t one where I sat behind a desk and served people with a smile.
It was one that I could handle. It was one that maybe not all could have handled. It was one that made me who I am today, and it was one that propelled me as an adult in my current life.
I’d do it all over again. It is the one place in my life where I did not experience racism, although sexism was extremely prevalent. I enjoy the fact that I helped pave the way for any other women that came after me.
Even with how much more difficult it was for me as a woman, I still felt the overwhelming need, want, and confidence to go and do it; something stronger than me called me to go forward with it.
I met some of the most incredible people there and it has equipped me with so many useful tools that I use daily.
Serving in a military for any country that has had genocide in its history against our own people was not something that I even thought of, as a young 17-year-old.
Therefore, it is important to educate our children about historical facts. It is equally as important to educate them about how things have progressed and how things are rather different today (not trying to take away from how difficult things still are today).
Our community has been bringing more awareness to our history in the last couple of decades, along with increasing its language and culture, which is great. This does not mean we forget or agree with what was done historically, but with that information we can now choose to do what we want.
I’m a Mohawk of Kahnawake. Always will be. I am that strong in my heart and mind that I don’t personally feel the need to restrict my options in life and for it to somehow make me less who I am.
No one can take that away from me. It runs in my veins, just like my attraction, need, and desire to protect lands/countries. I know not everyone agrees, and that is okay.