Thursday, April 30, 2015

Women Who Inspire: Interview with Julia (Smith) Meade

My Naval Academy classmates rock! Their stories are wonderfully varied and always impressive. You'll see it again here with Julia Meade, a very recently retired U. S. Marine Corps Colonel.

Colonel Julia Meade, U. S. Army War College graduation
Julia (Smith) Meade graduated with a Bachelor of Science in General Engineering and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps. Her Military Occupational Specialty was Motor Transport, and during her career, Julia deployed to Okinawa, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Korea, Turkey, Spain, Croatia, and the Philippines. She also completed two tours at The Basic School in Quantico, VA, once as an instructor, and again as a lieutenant colonel serving as the operations officer. Julia retired with the rank of colonel (O-6) after 23 years of active duty service and lives with her husband and daughter in a very tiny town in Tennessee.

AW: You have such an amazing story, Julia, but with these interviews, I always have to start with why you went to the Naval Academy.

JM: When I was in fourth grade, my family drove from Connecticut to Florida to go to Walt Disney World. We stopped in Annapolis on the way to spend the night—we needed a reprieve because it was July and we had no air conditioning in the car—and decided to tour around a bit while there. We visited the Naval Academy and I knew it immediately. I said, “Dad, I want to go here.” This was 1975 and women weren’t even allowed to attend yet. But at the time, my dad said he thought it would be great. And then, I applied in high school.

AW: What about the Marine Corps? Did you always know you wanted to be a Marine?

JM: No. But when I was a plebe in 27th company, Gunny [Gunnery Sergeant] Frank’s office was right across the hall. My upperclassmen always sent me there to do pro reports and the more I learned about the Marine Corps, the more I realized, this is it.

AW: There weren’t many of our female classmates who service selected Marine Corps, right?

JM: There were just four of us. Susan Seaman, who’s still in. She’s a colonel now. And Maria Long, who you’ve already interviewed. And Duska Pearson.

AW: And I suspect that played out a lot throughout your career—moving around with just a small number of women.

JM: Yes. I was a motor transportation officer and was primarily stationed on the east coast and in Okinawa. I served mostly in operational billets and was almost always the only female everywhere I went. My two "out of the fleet" billets were both at The Basic School in Quantico, as the only female instructor for the majority of my tour when I was a captain, and as the first non-combat arms—and female—operations officer when I was a lieutenant colonel.

AW: How were you received at your commands as the only female?

JM: For the most part, I never really had any issues. Checking in to any unit was the hardest part. There was always that moment of, “Ooh, wait, you’re a girl.” But after they worked with me, it became a non-issue.

AW: You just retired as a colonel after twenty-three years of active duty service. Did you ever think you would stay in that long?

Julia with husband, Jeff
JM: Actually, I made the decision to leave the service in 1999 to help my dad take care of my mother, who was battling lung cancer. So I moved to New Jersey and taught middle school and then high school math, ran a program for at-risk kids, and coached softball. Unfortunately, my mom didn't make it, but on the good side, I ended up getting married while I was there.

AW: So when did you go back in?

JM: After 9/11 happened, I knew I had to do something more than teach ninth grade Algebra One. Having been born in New York City, I have a lot of family who are first responders or who worked at WTC or right nearby, and the attack on the World Trade Center was very personal to me. So I called the reserves and they said they could definitely use me. By 2002, I was back in the Marine Corps and serving at Camp Lejeune.

AW: Were you in the reserves then or were you active duty?

JM: I was in the reserves for only about three drill weekends, but the unit was just horrible. I ran into a guy at Camp Lejeune, whom I knew when I was on active duty, and he said he needed a motor transport officer, so I went back on active duty.

AW: And then you had your daughter, right?

JM: Yes, I was stationed in Camp Lejeune, and she was born in 2004. She was born fifteen weeks premature, weighing only one pound, three ounces.

AW: One pound, three ounces! 

JM: Yeah. I was diagnosed with preeclampsia and had to have an emergency C-section. They medevaced me to Portsmouth Naval Hospital near Norfolk. My daughter was put on a ventilator and every day it was touch and go. We couldn’t hold her because if the ventilator moved, it might damage her throat. She was in the NICU [Neonatal Intensive Care Unit] for four and a half months. There were twenty-four isolettes in the unit and ours was the smallest baby that lived that summer. It scared the crap out of us. Shook us to the core. It was also very humbling to get emails from Marines who were preparing for Fallujah saying they were praying for us.

AW: I would say so! How did the Marine Corps handle this? You were on active duty, you were deploying . . . 

JM: The Marine Corps really took care of my family and transferred us to Norfolk, when Kelsey was in the NICU. My husband retired and took care of her, so that I could deploy and do the things the Marine Corps needed me to do. Kelsey was on oxygen and monitors until she was a year old. She was developmentally delayed in almost every way, and I had to deploy my first time to Afghanistan when she was only 18 months old. When I left, she was not walking or talking, and when I got back, she was doing both. Deploying is a whole lot harder when you have kids!

AW: Without question. And how is Kelsey doing now?

JM: Great. She’s eleven now and just ran her first 5K. Because she had so many problems with her lungs developing early on, the doctors said she would probably have cerebral palsy, her lungs would be weak, she’d tire easily, and certainly never be able to run something like a marathon. I’m happy to report that she’s training for her second 5K now!

AW: So awesome. Now, I want to go back to The Basic School in Quantico. This is where every Marine Corps officer must go to begin their training. You were there on three different occasions. Once as a student, once as an instructor, when you were a captain, and once as the operations officer, when you were a lieutenant colonel. What changes did you see with regard to women at Quantico?

JM:  Very little of the curriculum has actually changed since we were lieutenants. Everyone learns the basics—to shoot, move, and communicate, and to become a leader of Marines. When I was a student, they segregated the women into a separate platoon, which was awful. When I returned as a captain, they had just begun integrating women into every platoon, which was a huge leap forward, once we worked through some initial challenges. Now you have male lieutenants growing up with female lieutenants and it makes all the difference. And you should see the female lieutenants in the Marine Corps now. They’re Superwomen!

AW: Well, the junior officers now have some great role models like you! Speaking of that, did you ever have a female Marine Corps officer that was senior to you in a command?

JM: No, never.

AW: So you’re making your way through the Marine Corps, charting new waters, so to speak, gaining a lot of people’s respect along the way, and then you’re deploying to places like Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait. How was your time in Saudi Arabia, for example? How were you treated there?

JM: We were in Jubail for Desert Storm and I was a motor transport officer. I had Marines spread out over a 200-square-mile area, so I would drive out to them. I got pulled over a couple of times by the local police.

AW: You mean because you were a woman?

JM: Yeah. I was in a uniform. I carried a weapon. But they would pull me over because they couldn’t understand why I was driving. It was ridiculous. And what I found humorous was that the police that pulled me over had no pistols. They didn’t even wear shoes.

AW: I find it interesting, by the way, that you were a motor transport officer. I mean, through your whole career, you were so operational. Like not moving through the Marine Corps in administrative positions.

JM: Yeah, Motor T was not a glamorous MOS [Military Occupational Specialty]. I spent my whole career there and I only saw one master gunnery sergeant mechanic who was a female. Women just don’t gravitate to that specialty. And for example, I was a motor transport officer for an artillery regiment, which was completely unheard of. Division was just off-limits for females, at that time. But we went to the field all the time, and a lot of hard work earned their respect. The regimental chaplain nicknamed me the “Iron Maiden.” I think that was a compliment!

AW: What about all the women-in-combat-units debate. For example, should women be artillery officers? What do you say to that?

JM:  People are wringing their hands over this. As long as you don’t change the physical standards for the job—they should be gender neutral—then women, and the unit, will be fine. I’m glad they didn’t change the standards for the infantry officer course. If no female makes it through, fine. But eventually, there will be one who’ll make it through, and she’ll be well-qualified and will do fine.

AW: So you’re retired now—just recently, in fact. How did you decide it was time?

JM: In 2014, when my daughter turned ten, we realized I hadn’t lived under the same roof with my family for five of her ten years, so we knew it was time to retire. Since she was born, I had deployed to Afghanistan twice. I had had a one-year tour in Okinawa. And when I was stateside, I was a geo-bachelor and had to commute to see her. We had to move to the Norfolk area so she could be near the hospitals she needed. So when I was stationed in Cherry Point, for example, I wasn’t living with my husband or daughter then, either.

AW: That had to be so ridiculously challenging. I know you mentioned earlier about deploying to Afghanistan when Kelsey was only 18 months old. What did you have to do there?

Julia's second tour in Afghanistan. She was the Plans Chief in
the CJ-35 section, and the military liaison to the Presidential
Protective Service (Former President Karzai's Secret Service). 
This photo was taken on a convoy en route to Jalalabad
from Kabul to get ready for a Presidential visit.
JM: I was in Kabul as the deputy logistics officer (Deputy CJ-4) for Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan (CFC-A). Basically, we were doing the planning for turning over the logistics for the mission to NATO. To ISAF [International Security Assistance Force—the NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan]. But that was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. To leave my daughter then.

AW: Must have been a nice homecoming.

JM: It was. I was so afraid she wouldn’t know me when I got home, but my husband was fantastic. We took a family picture before I left and he gave it to her to carry with her every day. He taught her that the woman in the picture was mom, so it was pretty amazing to come back and have her walking and talking and also recognizing me.

AW: How is it now? I’m sure you spend a lot of time together now that you’re retired.

JM: Yes, I get to do all the normal things now that I’ve missed for so long. Girl Scouts, making dinner, packing lunches, homework. It’s great.

AW: Where did you retire and are you working?

JM: We moved to a tiny little town in Tennessee, not a single traffic light. I'm not working right now, as I’m trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up! I’m doing some volunteer work and deciding if I want to go back to school. We bought a small 21-acre farm, so there is plenty to keep me busy in the meantime!

1 comment:

  1. Semper Fi Ma'am. It was an awesome pleasure to serve with you. Especially knowing how small the Corps really is, and you working with my father before he retired, who knew I would be working for you. I am glad you are finally home with your family. You deserve to be home after all you have done for our country. I'm proud to say I have served under you. God bless and Semper Fi.