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Susannah Rose Stokes

1st Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps

Helmand province, Afghanistan

Had I not had others supporting me to tune out the naysayers who nearly always pointed out my 'bossy' nature, I may not be an officer in the United States Marine Corps today.

I was four years old when I knew that I wanted to be a U.S. Marine. Sitting on the bleachers at Parris Island, South Carolina, I watched in fascination as platoons of young enlisted men marched in perfect cadence across the parade field to graduate from Marine Corps boot camp.  My older brother was among them.  I watched with enamored curiosity as a platoon of females marched by in formation; from the lift of their chins to their fluid unified movement, it seemed to me that these were the proudest graduates that day.  I turned to my father and said with conviction, “I will do that someday.”

I spent much of my childhood like any normal American child would. But to some, I was known as that peculiar girl who kept saying she wanted to be a Marine when she grew up. I remember being told, “That’s nice, but why don’t you pick something less dangerous?” In fact, it was only when I graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 2011—and was commissioned into the Marine Corps as a Second Lieutenant—that people around me began to take my career goals seriously.

Upon graduation from The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, I was assigned to a unit already scheduled for deployment to Afghanistan. As the only female officer—and one of two females in my detachment—I dove into that first deployment with high hopes and expectations. I thought I would make lifelong friends among my fellow Marines. I could not wait to show the male Marines how females can do everything they do.

I was able to prove myself on the job, but it wasn't as easy to engage my brothers-in-arms in friendly conversation. It was challenging to bond with them. I was an assertive and outspoken female Marine. That made me something of an outcast, even overtly disliked by some of the guys.  Being a female Marine in this “men’s Marine Corps” was not as easy as I thought it would be.  I feared that I would never really be accepted as a true part of the Corps that I had idolized for so many years. I began to doubt my own abilities. I returned to the States despondent.

Then, just eight months after my return from Afghanistan, I was offered the opportunity to deploy again. This time, I would enter a different unit and hold a more challenging job. At first I wasn't convinced it was a good idea. I recalled the problems I encountered in my previous deployment, including the contempt and resentment of other Marines. I remembered the frustration of feeling excluded. Why would I choose to leave my husband and family just to put myself through all that again?

It was during this critical time that I joined a local women’s empowerment foundation, Women Give San Diego. I found myself beginning to think differently about myself and my worth.  Through the encouragement of other strong women around me, I accepted myself as capable, talented and valuable to our nation’s war effort. I realized that I didn't just need to go back to Afghanistan. I wanted to go, because I had so much to offer.

Now, as I write my story from Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, Afghanistan, I can say that I have learned what it really means to lean in. I have stopped worrying that others will dislike me when I speak up or suggest changes. I participate equally at the table when there is a staff meeting, even when I am the only female present—or the youngest person present, or the least experienced. I take chances to instruct others and have stopped worrying about being seen as “too feminine.” I have started a bi-weekly yoga class for men and women. I have proudly developed and presented a military education class on the perception of women in the Marine Corps and in the workplace. Leaning in has revolutionized the way I view myself—as a leader, as a U.S. Marine Corps officer, as a trailblazer, and, most of all, as a woman.