The two, the proud, the Iowa State female marines


Charlie Coffey/Iowa State Daily

Leah Vander Boon, senior in communication studies, accepts an award during the Navy ROTC Awards Ceremony on April 11 in the Campanile Room of the Memorial Union.

Kelly Mcgowan

When he ran up behind her on a track three years ago, the first thing Capt. Ricks Polk noticed about Leah Vander Boon was her form.

“She ran awkwardly,” he said. “I thought, ‘I gotta help her.’ She’s wasting a lot of energy running awkwardly.”

What the commanding officer of Iowa State Navy ROTC now notices about her is the determination that got her through the program, the leadership that she developed and the Marine that she became.

Vander Boon, senior in communication studies and Marine option NROTC midshipman, will commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps on May 9. She will be the second female midshipman from Iowa State to commission as a Marine.

Capt. Reinalyn Golino became the first in 2009. Golino currently serves as an officer selection officer in Bloomington, Ind.

“I’ve watched [Vander Boon] mature into a very strong Marine,” Polk said. “She’s gotten stronger, she’s gotten faster, she’s gotten better.”

They had their doubts…

It was not an easy road for Vander Boon.

She did not know what she wanted to do before college. She talked to a recruiting officer, found the ROTC scholarship online and applied. She did not come from a military background and didn’t expect to get the scholarship. Months later, she found out she did receive the scholarship.

“Freshman year was a complete wake-up call,” she said. “I thought, ‘I am getting up at 5 a.m. every morning, I am tired, people are yelling at me, what is this?’”

She planned to finish the first year and then drop the program.

“I was going to quit,” she said. “I was going to go back to Michigan and pretend it never happened.”

Midshipmen participate in Career Orientation and Training for Midshipmen — Cortramid — after their first year to learn about what they could do after commissioning. She completed submarine, ship, aviation and marine weeks.

Marine week refreshed her desire to complete the program. She said she put her heart into it after her sophomore year and began to improve and enjoy the program.

Staff Sgt. Christopher Harrison, assistant marine officer instructor, said he saw Vander Boon have a “seeing the light moment.”

“I could not be more thankful,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine myself in another position. This is where I want to be and where I’m meant to be. I’m positive.”

At first, Capt. Peter Opalacz, marine officer instructor, said he was skeptical about if she could become an officer.

“I saw her flip a switch fall 2013 semester,” he said. “She really turned it up a notch and impressed me.”

He spent that year preparing her for Officer Candidate School, a culminating event after junior year that marine options must pass to be commissioned. He said he saw her make strides in her fitness, leadership and academics.

In the OCS physical fitness test last summer, Vander Boon did 23 pull-ups. To max out this portion of the test with a score of 100, females must do three and males must do 20.

“She’s a PT stud,” Harrison said.

Vander Boon said being able to hold her own in PT builds credibility and allows her to lead by example.

“Sometimes you feel like you have to compensate for being a female, which is really unfortunate,” Vander Boon said.

She said it is frustrating when people credit her successes more because she is female and wants to foster an environment of equal standards.

“I want to be looked at in the same way as everyone else,” she said. “And that’s as a Marine.”

NROTC leadership assigned her to be the battalion commander two weeks into last semester.

She and her staff of four other midshipmen focused on increasing unit morale. She did this by being forceful, considerate and caring, Polk said.

“She took the leadership role in a time of crisis [in the battalion],” Polk said. “And I feel like she turned it around.”

Her next step is officer training at The Basic School this summer, where she will find out what her job in the corps will be.

“When she is in a leadership position, people are going to respond to her because they respect the woman that she is,” Opalacz said.

Their past, her future: women in the Marines

The Marine Corps had 305 women serve in World War I, but all of their service was discontinued by 1919, according to the Department of Defense. In February 1943, the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was established, making this the 72nd continuous year of females in the Marines.

Vander Boon said she is proud of the advancements women have made in the military, especially the Marine Corps.

“It’s hard for women because of the male-dominated atmosphere,” Vander Boon said. “It’s kind of intimidating at first to step in and be like, ‘hey, I’m different but I’m going to do this.”

There is a lot of “guy talk,” and documents are often worded for men, she said.

“It’s just things you have to get used to and not take personally,” she said. “I think the military in general is doing a really good job of their integration and trying to change that culture. But right now, it is kind of hard.”

Of the total active officer, warrant and enlisted personnel positions in the Marine Corps, 68 percent are open to women, according to a 2012 DOD report that reviewed restrictions for female members of the armed forces. Women filled 7 percent of the nearly 170,000 active component positions in the Marine Corps at the time of the report.

“The Department of Defense is committed to removing all barriers that would prevent service members from rising to the highest level of responsibility that their talents and capabilities warrant,” according to the report.

Though women do not serve directly in combat roles, Harrison said there is always a chance they could come under fire. Women do not serve in the infantry, special operations forces and various other positions for physical and privacy specifications laid out by the DOD.

The fact that she is a female doesn’t make a difference, Opalacz said.

“She’s not joining the military because she has something to prove,” he said. “She’s joining because she wants to be a Marine Corps officer and she is very good at it.”

He said she has the values and motivations to do the job.

“She’s just a really good person down to heart,” he said. “I think she’s going to be successful at whatever she puts her mind to.”

Vander Boon earned the Chief of Naval Operations Distinguished Midshipman Graduate Award, the Captain Jake Dobberke Leadership Award and Marine Option 2015 Iowa State University NROTC Distinguished Graduate Awards at the NROTC Dining Out and Awards ceremony Saturday. For the distinguished graduate award, she received a traditional U.S. Marine Corps Mameluke sword.

She will speak at Uhuru magazine’s “What Matters to Me and Why” event at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Great Hall. The free event will comprise life experiences and reflections from nine speakers.

“We are fortunate as a nation to have such dedicated students,” said Susan Radke, university secretary in the NROTC office. “I know that we are in good hands.”