Happy Birthday Marines!

The Marine Corps is an institution steeped in tradition. Everything about us says tradition – from the history we learn at boot camp and Officer Candidates School (OCS) to the formalities we observe in and out of uniform to the fact that only we – United States Marines – insist that there are two birthdays every year. We each have the day we were born, and we each have the day the Marine Corps was born. In my personal opinion, there is no more important day in the calendar year.

On November 10th each year, no matter where we are in the world, Marines find each other, shake hands and wish each other “Happy Birthday, Marine”. We change our FB profile pictures, post messages, eat cake and drink copious amounts of alcohol in celebration of the greatest institution the world has ever known (of course, I might be just a tad biased).

This year, I was fortunate enough to be in Santiago de Chile, to celebrate with the Marines of the Embassy Security Guard. As most of you know, I had sought out the Embassy Marines to see what kind of birthday celebration they might be having. I have been part of many – from the usual unit-level balls at Camp Pendleton, California to the Commandant of the Marine Corps ball in Washington, D.C. to a birthday celebration with 2 beers for each Marine in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. There, we had a homemade cake donated to us from one of the companies shipping logistics supplies into Afghanistan. Every celebration has been special.

So I knew the Marines would be doing something. I was delighted to discover there would be a ball. Then I thought – I need my evening dress uniform. I can’t go to the ball in a normal dress! I would have spent the entire evening explaining over and over again who I was. Being in uniform immediately told everyone I was a Marine lieutenant colonel, where I had deployed and what I had been doing with my career (medals can be so handy). Fortunately, I was headed back to D.C. for some other things, so got my uniform and medals updated for the occasion.

I had talked up the ball to just about everyone. The lady with whom I’m currently living, when she found out I would be headed to Santiago, suggested that I might stay with her daughter that night. This was so helpful, as I really did not want to spend the money to stay at the hotel itself. And it was nice to know I would be staying with someone I knew rather than a random Airbnb. Walking around in one’s formal uniform tends to attract a lot of attention. So I arrived in Santiago early, ate some lunch and got my uniform ready.

Though I would normally avoid the cocktail hour before dinner, I decided to arrive early. I had already met one Marine, a retired Sergeant Major living in Valparaíso and his wife. So I would know someone, and he had said he wanted to introduce me to several people. I also thought I would just find all the Marines and introduce myself.

The hour positively flew by. It was interesting to see how all the Marines did immediately find each other. I noticed several of us scanning the room at different moments, and upon spotting a newly arrived Marine, made our way toward each other to say hello and talk for a few moments. I also got to meet the Commandant of the Chilean Marine Corps. And the alcohol was free! Wait staff wandered the room with red and white wine and pisco sour, just giving them away. I could only attribute this great miracle to one thing – the ticket price.

When I purchased my ticket, I had wondered why it was so expensive. It was the same price that I would pay in the U.S. I wondered why with so many other things being less expensive in Chile how the birthday ball ticket could be the same price. But I shrugged my shoulders and went with it. And I have to admit, if the money went towards free alcohol, I’m completely supportive. It positively flowed. This made the ball much more fun. I was not constantly searching for money or thinking how much money I shouldn’t be spending on alcohol. It was already paid for; all I had to do was enjoy it.

This set us up for a very good evening. I sat at a table with Marines from Viña del Mar. They were incredibly friendly and welcoming. Everyone I met thought it was so cool that I was just in Chile because I could be. These Marines were stationed here, either with the Embassy or as part of the Personnel Exchange Program (PEP) with the Chilean Navy and Marine Corps. They couldn’t believe I was just living in Chile.

I was also the only woman in uniform. This made me simultaneously proud and sad. While I was happy to represent, I was disappointed to be the only female service member in the room. And you know what? Perhaps I’m more conscious of it now, after my experience with the gender integration office, but it struck me how inclusive the Marines were. Most of the (male) Marines there were 03xx (infantry). Yet, I felt no difference at all in how they viewed me. I felt simply a Marine, and a lieutenant colonel. When the Marine general (Major General Bellon) bought drinks for all the Marines, he turned around and handed me the first glass. When the all the (male) Marines got together for a photo, one of them shouted to me, “Come on, Ma’am, all EGAs!” And when the Marines got out on the dance floor and did their individual callouts, I took my turn. (Yes, I really did. Someone got pictures of it, I’m certain.) And they loved it.

This was the most fun I’d had at a ball, and the most relaxed I’d ever felt. I was so very happy to be part of the evening, to have met the Marines and shared in the celebration together. And the slight hangover the next day was totally worth it. 🙂

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