Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Mom Contest

For years, my sisters and I have bantered about who is winning the "mom contest."

Of course, the playful digs are there:

Most stubborn like Mom? Me.

Most clinical like Mom? Again, me.

Who would rather have a tooth pulled before going shopping for clothes at the mall? My mom and I would hold hands at the dentist.

All of these things play out in good-natured fun, and yes, I am probably “winning” this “race.” But my mom and I share a lot more than stubbornness. One facet of our connectedness lies in the professional paths we chose—medicine for her, military aviation for me—both at times when women in these respective fields found themselves in the rather small minority.

She graduated from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine in 1955, a class comprising 80 men and 4 women. She had to apply three times to get in, and when she did, she wasn’t exactly met with balloons and confetti.

Her biochemistry professor bragged that the women in his class would flunk. He even sat them in the front row of his lecture hall—they had to sit side by side—so he “could keep an eye on them.”

Crotchety old medical school professors aside, my mom said she felt fortunate to have had so many World War II veterans in her class. They had come home from the war older and more grounded—you can imagine—so having a woman in their class was small potatoes. 

The picture of my mom above was taken in her physiology class in October 1953. She showed it to me for the first time a few weeks ago, and I had one of those hit-me-over-the-head-with-a-brick moments. One woman, surrounded by men, in an overwhelmingly male-dominated environment. Score another point for me in the mom contest.

Fast forward 44 years to my search and rescue squadron at Naval Air Station Fallon, NV. This photo represents the typical scenario I found myself in throughout my Naval career, and I suspect most of my female Naval Academy classmates have similar photos.

My parents received quite a shock when I told them I wanted to go to the Naval Academy. But in hindsight, sprinting down the unbeaten path wasn’t anything new in my family. This move had my mom’s DNA written all over it. Fortunately, she passed down a good dose of humor and inner fortitude to go with it.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Women Who Inspire: Interview with Maria (Chapman) Long

This is the third in a series of interviews of women who inspire the strong female protagonists I favor when writing my novels. 

On meeting her, you would never guess that Maria is a Marine Corps Colonel. Sweet as sin on the outside, tough as nails on the inside, Maria is one of those people that any author would love to pluck from reality and drop straight into one of their novels.


Maria (Chapman) Long graduated with a Bachelor of Science in English from the US Naval Academy and entered the US Marine Corps, reporting to The Basic School in Quantico, VA. Her Military Occupational Specialty is Cryptologic Intelligence and she served 9 years active duty before moving to the reserves. She holds a Masters in Business Administration from Boston University and a Masters in Education from Old Dominion University. She’s now in her 13th year of reserve duty, holds the rank of Colonel (O-6), and is a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Chief with the MAGTF Staff Training Program IMA (Reserve) Detachment.Maria lives with her husband and two children in Williamsburg, VA. 

AW: You're the first woman I've interviewed from our class who entered the Marine Corps following graduation. What was it like when you entered basic training in Quantico? Were you the only woman in your training platoon or were there others?

ML: At that time, women weren't integrated into the men’s platoons as they are now. In fact, I had to wait until they had collected enough women to form an all-women’s platoon, so I could begin my training.

AW: I’m surprised they separated you. Did you feel that was a good thing or a not-so-good thing?

ML: I didn't understand why we were separated. That segregation just drives home that belief that women are different—you know, that group over there. In my mind, it fosters an “us and them” mentality, rather than an integrated team mentality. At The Basic School, men and women both were learning how to be Marine Corps officers. Women had the same requirements for that basic knowledge, and we did what the guys did, for the most part, so I don’t know why we had to be separated into a different platoon to accomplish those things.

AW: How is it done now? Do they still put women in their own platoon?

ML: No, now it’s integrated. You might have one or two women in a male platoon, for example. It’s much better this way.

AW: Sort of like the Naval Academy where women were spread across all companies.

ML: Yeah, just like that. And you remember how much better that was in terms of getting to know the guys in our companies and all working together. It fosters a far better team environment and one of mutual respect, I think.

AW: You met your husband while you were both active duty, right?

ML: Yeah, this is a really romantic story! (laughs)

AW: Ok, let me have it!

ML: I was stationed at Parris Island as a Series Commander and my main purpose in that assignment was to ensure the Recruit Training Schedule was followed safely and appropriately. I was out on the PT field, dressed green on green [a Marine working uniform], and he just walked up and started talking to me. I just remember both of standing there dressed identically—all in green.

AW: Just so you know, the other women I’ve talked to that married guys in the military have similar “romantic” stories. There seems to be trend here!

ML: (Laughs) Yeah, but that was about it. He stayed in for five years and then left to pursue a job with military headhunters. He still does that today, by the way.

AW: You have so much crammed into your resume over the last 20+ years. Was there any tour more challenging than another?

ML: Of course they all had their own challenges, but I remember my time at Amphibious Warfare School. You had over 100 captains, of which only a handful were women. Initially, I felt a little out of my element. There was an infantry focus here and most of the guys had infantry experience, but my background was in intelligence. So we’d break into discussion groups of about 15 officers where I was the only woman. The guys were totally in their element, planning battlefield tactics, where to place artillery and how to arrange their units and such. But I think the men in my group were surprised because I came at problems with a different perspective. I would choose my moments, being careful when to add my input, but oftentimes, it led to a better plan. Believe it or not, I left as an honor graduate, which I never would have anticipated.

AW: That’s awesome! It sounds like your approach—the choosing-your-moments approach—helped you in this environment. I was curious if you've ever experienced times when guys weren't open to your opinions. 

ML:  I've never really had an ongoing difficult time with anyone. Although, there have definitely been times when I've felt that the person I’m dealing with doesn't respect me. In those cases, it’s hard because I know they aren't going to change their mind about women in that moment. I could sit there and speak all I want and give my opinions, but guys like that have already shut me down.

AW: What’s your approach to handling something like that—when they've tuned you out, so to speak?

ML: Well (laughs), kill ‘em with kindness! I stay pleasant. I prove that I can handle whatever I’m doing, and oh, by the way, do it pretty darn well. It’s the same old story about having to be twice as good, but you just can’t get in people’s faces about it.