First Marine Mom, 8 months pregnant, ordered to run PFT…

Today, we’re meeting Mary-Julia Hill, a retired Marine and a first Marine mom now grandmother. When I first heard the details of Mary-Julia’s account of being a first Marine mom, I was actually moved to tears. Angry tears.

Mary-Julia Hill with her son, Christopher, at Marine Barracks 8th & I in Washington, D.C.

I pleaded for permission to publish her story. Here it is:

What’s your hometown, and when did you join the Marines? Can you tell us a little about why you joined, what MOS you held, and when you left the Marines?

The granddaughter of Irish Catholic immigrants, I grew up in Baltimore, Md. For 12 years, I was educated by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, graduating from IND (Institute of Notre Dame of Maryland) in the footsteps of both my mother and her mother. By the time I was a freshman at, you guessed it, the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, there was nothing in this world I wanted more than to “Boldly go where no IND graduate had ever dreamed of going before.” When the opportunity to enlist in the Corps presented itself, I took off like JATO (jet assisted take-off) rockets on a C-130! My enlistment, aka love affair with the Unites States Marine Corps, began on Valentine’s Day, 1977.

Guaranteed a photography MOS by my recruiter, I, according to the convoluted story presented to me by my DIs (drill instructors), was ordered to electronics school in 29 Palms as a “gift” for scoring outrageously high on the ASVAB and earning a meritorious promotion out of boot camp. Although I was not exactly giddy about the loss of my combat photographer MOS, I had earned my Eagle, Globe & Anchor and was going to California. My attitude was, I’ll take it! Now my future had a few more options than either marriage or the convent after college. Halfway through BEC (Basic Electronics Course), in an odd set of circumstances that could only be characterized as extreme divine providence, I was given the opportunity to work OJT (on the job training) at the base PAO (Public Affairs Office) as a writer and photographer. Score!  A few months later, I was sent to DINFOS (Defense Information School) and spent the rest of my career accumulating each and every PAO MOS: 4311(photo journalist), 4312 (print journalist), 4313(broadcast journalist) & 4302 (Public Affairs Officer).

When were you pregnant and where were you stationed during your pregnancy? Tell us about facing that decision to remain a Marine. Did others attempt to persuade you one way or the other? Hubby? Peers? Parents?

One frostbitten morning, while standing in formation at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis during one of the worst blizzards to hit that area in recorded history, I passed out…cold. About an hour later, I was presented with the diagnosis: acute pregnancy. I was thrilled! But then, I was born with rose colored glasses and the attention span of a light switch.  So with a “thank you so much for that happy news,” I was off to class, fearing I might have missed something important… Later that afternoon, I was sent to see the senior Marine Liaison Officer. Instantly, I knew something was amiss. When the door opened I saw both the major and the Catholic Chaplain. They remained standing yet gently petitioned me to sit down. To this very day I haven’t a clue what their introductory remarks were because I thought I waiting to be told that someone in my family had died.

One talked. The other talked. They both talked. Eventually, they stopped talking and asked if I had any questions.  “Just tell me who died!” was not the response either of them had anticipated. However, what they had been trying to tell me was devastating. Pregnant Marines were immediately processed for discharge. Perhaps I watched way too much Star Trek as a child, but Captain Kirk often said, “There is always an alternative.” And I BELIEVED him. I imagined that I felt like Cinderella at the ball staring up at the clock and hoping that time would stand still. Well, by God, I was not ready to leave this party. I was going to stop the hands of time if I had to scale the clock and hold back the hands myself. Which, figuratively speaking, is exactly what I did. Although Requests for Retention were rarely approved, and as a student I was not even eligible to apply, I applied anyway. Got the form, filled it out, begged endorsements out of every instructor at the school, and topped it off with a glowing cover letter from the DINFOS Commandant. My mind was made up and if anyone did try to talk me out of it, I didn’t hear a word they were saying. By the time I graduated, the request had been approved and I was on my way to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina. Lucky me!

What was your greatest struggle while being pregnant as a Marine?

Not puking in public. Of course that may have been an issue for me in any occupation. But back then, every indoor space aboard Marine installations reeked of burnt coffee and cigarette smoke. Barf!  Not to worry, after just a few “accidents” on my way to the only ladies room in the entire Headquarters building, smoking was banned in that wing of the building. Coffee remained problematic, so the urn and I were given as much physical separation as functionally possible.

Were you given any special consideration for your condition? For example, were you dismissed from standing in formation for inspections? Were you actually treated harshly because you were pregnant?

Did I receive any special consideration for my condition? Why yes, I did! As a matter of fact, I’d have to say that once my squadron CO (Commanding Officer) discovered the fact that I was pregnant, he devoted the remainder of his tenure at Cherry Point to considering ways to make me feel special…and not in a good way. You see, when I checked into Cherry Point, no one realized that I was pregnant. It wasn’t until June (Christopher was due on August 18), that I became completely unable to wear any uniform. There were NO maternity uniforms in 1978. Our WM (Woman Marine) summer uniform had a jacket, over a skirt which I altered as much as humanly possible while keeping the integrity of the design. But alas, one day my OIC (officer in charge) had his wife pull me aside and recommend I break out my maternity wardrobe. In retrospect, had I not chosen to debut my maternity wardrobe with an outfit that later became known as my “Banana Suit,” things may have gone a tad more smoothly…or not. That day went rather well aside from being assailed with non-stop exclamations of the same two sentences:

1. “Oh my God, you are pregnant!”

2. “How on earth do you get all that hair up into that tiny bun on your head?”

“Practice,” I told them, “lots and lots of practice.”

The following day was not so good and things got worse…much, much worse. The CO called me in and told me to pack my bags because I was going home. Handing me over to the admin officer for discharge processing, he stood smugly, watching as she pulled out my record book. Immediately after opening it, she informed the CO that my request for retention had been processed and approved before I ever checked in. “That’s not possible!” he roared over and over before huffing off to call HQMC (Headquarters Marine Corps).

He then turned his attention to my attire and grooming. First, I had to wear my hair in accordance with the uniform grooming regulations. No problem. I had already started doing that as it’s damn hot in eastern North Carolina in June. Also, it was the easiest, fastest way to contain my mane anyway.  Second, I could only wear skirts. The hemline must be in keeping with uniform guidelines. Third, only uniform shoes were allowed. Fourth, I had to wear my dog tags on the outside of my clothing, then I couldn’t wear my dog tags. On and on this went until he had admin draft up “maternity attire guidance” in accordance with the uniform regulations. What a nightmare.

The crushing blow came when the CO refused to promote me as I was “out of uniform.”  When I took issue with his decision, he noticed that I hadn’t taken my semi-annual PFT (physical fitness test). He then ordered me to take the PFT at eight months pregnant. It was Black Flag conditions that day. Somehow, I managed to pass both the arm hang and the sit-ups, but failed the run. So I was assigned to remedial PT. This was on a Friday.  My son was born the following day, four weeks early. Two weeks after giving birth, I went to my scheduled check up at the naval hospital and was given a chit for an additional two weeks. When I delivered the chit to the squadron office, the CO informed me that a chit from the naval hospital was a recommendation and, as my commanding officer, he deemed me fit for duty. If I wasn’t in uniform and at work the following morning, he said, he was going to have me put in the brig for being UA (unauthorized absence).

Miraculously, I was able to squeeze myself into the uniform I had altered and did indeed show up for work the following morning. That afternoon, I was told to report to the squadron office to run a PFT. Again, I passed the sit-ups and hang, but collapsed halfway through the run. I was already in an ambulance when I awoke. While I was being rushed to the naval hospital, my husband was shipping off on a six-month deployment aboard the USS Mount Whitney. The hospital admitted me and kept me for four weeks to prevent my CO from “killing you out right,” the doctor told me.  After returning to duty this time, I First Classed the PFT and was almost twenty pounds under my maximum weight. However, because I had already failed the PFT twice, the CO still assigned remedial PT (physical training) twice. Each record book entry postponed my promotion eligibility six months. That meant no hope of promotion for at least a year. At the end of that, he awarded me Weight Control because I had been over my maximum weight when I reported for duty at the two week mark. Again, that record book entry meant no promotion for another six more months.

His next tactic, after the completion of those promotion-holders, was to accuse me of avoiding “fam firing” (familiarization firing) the service rifle. At that time, WMs were not allowed to qualify and fam firing was strictly optional. However, until that was accomplished, he said, “I cannot, in good conscience, promote you.” What a surprise. I don’t think he knew what a conscience was. He had to know that I had requested a slot, many times. Rifle range slots were hard to come by, and it was common knowledge that in my squadron, slots weren’t wasted on WMs.

So, I volunteered to cover a story about WMs fam firing the M-16 in another squadron just so I could go through the training myself. I shot high expert. Of course the actual score could not be counted, but it did authorize me to wear the marksman badge on my uniform. When he saw that badge on my chest, he ordered it removed at once while demanding that the admin officer delete the training entry from my SRB (service record book). Thankfully, the admin officer only pretended to comply, but I did remove the badge. I wanted to wear the badge. I’d earned Expert.

Infuriated, the CO pulled me out of the PAO and reassignd me as the Police Sergeant for the WM barracks. This was the billet equivalent of being banished to the castle dungeon. However, I was hoping that as the billet was over my pay-grade, he was giving me the opportunity to prove myself in a senior billet. Surprisingly, insanity does not run in my family.

When the base C/S (Chief of Staff) recommended me for Marine of the Month, a review of my SRB left the C/S and new CO horrified. Yes, I could have Requested Mast. Many, many Marines recommended doing so, but it was a “last resort” course of action. I just knew things had to get better! And at this point, things did get better…much, much better.

In 1986, I became pregnant with my second child. By this point, I was working for a different CO. Immediately, I was issued a maternity uniform and given a copy of all the pertinent orders, policies, and procedures. Shocking! Light duty from day one, half days during the 3rd trimester, SIX WEEKS convalescent leave, six MONTHS to get back in shape after the birth, plus you could wear your maternity uniform after  returning to duty so you didn’t have to go out and buy a whole new set of uniforms until you lost the weight…. Certainly a far cry from the document that Col Crazy (not his real name) had drafted.

The coup de grace for me occurred when I showed up to take my PFT a few months after my daughter was born. Arriving at the PT field, I was informed that the CO and sergeant major were there to escort me on my run. Disappointed, I asked the sergeant major, “So you don’t think I can do this?” Laughing, the CO responded, “Oh, I know you can do this! We’re proud of you! We’re here to make sure you don’t OVER do it.”

What did you think of the new maternity uniform?

Loved it!  Thank God…and the Marine Corps Uniform Board!

Did you decide to breastfeed, or did you decide not to breastfeed because of the need to return to Marine Corps duty in six weeks? If you continued to breastfeed, were there particular challenges to the process because you were a Marine?  

YES, I certainly did breastfeed all three of the children I had while on active duty. Additionally, armed with my Oster Kitchen Center, I made all their baby food, too. The Marine Corps was my career. My children are my life!

As a first Marine mom and a member of the we-can-have-it-all generation, what were your greatest challenges?

Logistics. To the best of my knowledge, the we-can-do/have-it-all generation never ascertained the secret of multi-presence. I, along with many others, remain battle scarred from the quest.

Do you feel moms today, Marines or civilians, have the same problems?

There is a MASSIVE difference between military mothers and every other mother on the planet! Nowhere else that I know of can you get jail time because you stayed home to care for a sick child.

Can you tell us why you left the Marines?

I left active duty because there was no place for me to go. PAO warrant officers were going away, completely. To stay on active duty I would have to leave the job I loved, and move to another MOS. Although there were options and alternatives, I had finally come to the foot of THE hill I was unwilling to die on. So, on my 43rd birthday, I released the hands of the tower clock. The clock struck midnight. My beloved blues faded away…

What was your last day as a Marine like?  What was your first day as a civilian like?

At first, it was just like being on leave or a PCS move. Then I felt as though I had been sucked into a parallel universe, sideways. My baby sister diagnosed it a depressive episode. Note: she’s a legal analyst not a mental health professional. One night I was stunned to witness a BFO (blinding flash of the obvious) light up the night sky over Little Rock. I heard my own voice screaming, “IMPROVISE, ADAPT AND OVERCOME YOU IDIOT!” It was time for me to follow the very advice I had been dispensing for twenty plus years.

As a former Marine, do you find certain skills you gained as a Marine helpful in your civilian life? Can you share a little about this?

Mary-Julia holds her granddaughter and poses with family on Mother's Day 2011.

The most important thing I came away with was advice from a Commandant who once told reporters that there were no women in his Marine Corps, “Only Warriors!”  General Al Gray’s advice to me, along with each and every one of his 197,000 warriors was always the same: “Take care of yourself and take care of each other.” He lived those words, and I aspire to do the same.

If the woman you are today could speak in the ear of the woman she was in the 1980s, what would you whisper to her?

For once in my life I would keep my mouth shut. Even if I had to gag myself to do it. I was often accused of believing I was “bullet proof.” The truth is they were right. And it’s a damn good thing, too! It wasn’t until the very end of my career that I even began to entertain the notion that a strategically placed amour-piercing round could, possibly, have any effect on me. No, there is nothing I could say to her. She wouldn’t listen anyway.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about being a “first Marine mom”?

Please know that I never did anything with the intention of blazing a trail for others to follow. Everything I did was only because I wanted to do it. I had no altruistic motives about helping out future generations. It makes me crazy to read that crap. How on earth could I know what other women would want to do? I have always been a present moment kind of girl. As I said, my attention span isn’t long enough to be anywhere but right here, right now.

Thank you, Mary Julia, for your service, and for sharing your story.

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About Tracy Crow

I was one of the first Marine moms. Today, I'm the nonfiction editor at Prime Number Magazine, and teach journalism and creative writing at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. My memoir, Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine, will be released in April 2012 by the University of Nebraska Press.
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13 Responses to First Marine Mom, 8 months pregnant, ordered to run PFT…

  1. Leslie Jenne says:

    Fabulous story … I’m glad more women of my time period are opening-up about the impartial treatment we received in the military … and despite huge odds, we still managed to stay in and retire. Good for you Mary Hill, good for you!

  2. John Dittmer says:

    Why no mention of her husband?

  3. Karen M. Reyes Benzi says:

    OOORAH, MAMA! It may not have hae been your intention to pave the way, but this Doc appreciates your GUTS!! Thank YOU, SISTER WARRIOR! – Semper Fi, Mama Doc Reyes (HMCS- RET)

  4. Truth says:

    She did not retire. She was court-martialed.

  5. Nancy Zaunbrecher says:

    I graduated from boot camp on Valentine’s Day 1978 and had a son in 1979 and none of this rings true for me, I remained on active duty, wore civilian clothes, was promoted and was stationed at Courthouse Bay Camp Lejeune probably one of only 6/7 woman marines stationed there at that time. Worked up until the day I delivered with no restrictions. Retired 21 years later and three children all born on active duty. Remarkable career. No regrets.

  6. Sharon Counterman says:

    I enlisted in 1976. Found myself pregnant in early 1978. Wore civilian clothing until I was discharged in July 1978. I was offered choices of staying in, an abortion or getting out. I was single at the time, and elected to be discharged. Received a general under honorable discharge. It was deemed for the good of the service.

  7. Kathy Nuzum says:

    This seems to be a bit far fetched. I came in in 1970. Had my first daughter as a SSgt in 1978, my next daughter in 1979 at Camp Lejeune. Had my son as GySgt in 1983 at Camp Pendleton. I would never say those times were easy nor do I mean to deminish a fellow Marines struggles but I seriously find this account hard to believe. Suffice it to say, none of the challenges were insurmountable and I had a wonderful career. I too am now the Grandmother of three and so proud of the adults my children have become.

  8. I had my first son in 1976 at Camp Lejeune, (he has been a Marine for 16 years), 2nd and 3rd sons were born in 1979 and 1980 at 29 Palms. No maternity uniform with my first. Retired after 21 years in 1996 and still working for the Marine Corps at Quantico. I would do it all over again!

  9. Diana says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this story, both my husband and I are active duty Marines (both of us have been in for 15 years). I will be leaving for Oki in a few days, leaving my Recon husband to become a single parent of a 11 year old and a 5 year old (also Autistic). Your story has giving me that extra little bit of strength that I will be needing… You have reminded me of “how much worse” it can be… Thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your story.

    Semper Fi,

    DJ.

  10. Christina says:

    I was the first female in my Marine Corps MOS. They made my life a living hell (1995). The last straw was when they blackmailed me. Amazing how terrible they treated me and how low my pros/cons were because I didn’t sexually “lay” it out for them. First class PFT, expert shot, honor grad….they wouldn’t even put our class picture on the wall.

  11. Clare says:

    As a mother of 2 serving in the UK Army I have much respect for the tough time you had back in 1978. A fitness test made your baby come early- but you don’t seem angry ?
    Wow. Much respect.
    I feel a ashamed to have had 6 months paid leave!
    Go you.

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