When Indianapolis native Col. Jennifer Shaar first considered a military career more than 25 years ago, she said she never thought of the Marine Corps. “I had no clue women could even be in the Marines. I’d never seen it advertised. They were looking for a few good men,” she said.
Now the Commanding Officer at the Headquarters Service Battalion, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Shaar spoke to an intimate gathering at the La Jolla Woman’s Club for its Women in Leadership lecture series, Oct. 12. This year’s focus is women in the military.
Fewer than 25 guests provided the appropriate platform for the personal nature of Shaar’s stories and allowed for more of a one-on-one interaction with opportunities to ask questions. So much so that half of the engagement was dedicated to such dialogue. Stories included why Shaar enlisted in the military, the division selection progress of the time, a 2004 deployment to Iraq and more. She also discussed how women’s presence in the Marine Corps has changed in the last quarter century.
“The women we have coming into our Corps today are some of the fastest, strongest, most capable and most self-confident women I have ever seen,” she said. “They are far better than anything that came before and each one of them serves selflessly. They volunteer to come in uniform and put their lives on the line each and every day, just like their male counterparts. And they do so without fanfare, without hubris and without attention.”
Shaar told the group she began her career at the U.S. Naval Academy (from which she graduated in 1992) because she was a strong swimmer. She said a military education was appealing because she could get a scholarship.
When she was actually in the Marine Corps, she underwent training at TBS (The Basic School) and chose a specialty that could translate into the civilian world, so following five year commitment, she could leave if she wanted to.
She chose financial management.
“Five years came and went, and I loved every second of it. At the nine- or 10-year mark, the point at which most people have to look at where they are going in their career and evaluate whether it makes sense to keep going or start another career … I decided to stay,” she said. “Now I stand here with 25 years of service.”
In that time, she said, the presence of women in the military has expanded into new arenas.
“We had two women graduate the Army Artillery Officers Course, one was the honor graduate; we had an honor grad at the tank school; we now have a female astronaut that came from the Marines; in a few months, we are going to have the first aviation group commander. A lot of this has happened fairly recently, but has been growing and developing for a long time,” she explained.
The Female Point of View
With the gradual acceptance of female presence in the Marines, higher-ups have begun seeing the new skillsets women provide. “The 21st century battlefield is not just air and sea; it’s space, cyber and electromagnetic. It’s everywhere,” Shaar said. “We need to be recruiting, not just the best and the brightest, but a diverse group. Women bring more to the table than we ever realized. And the Marines agree. Traditionally, if women came in to enlist, that was great. But they were not being actively recruited. Today, they are.”
She pointed out that women are team-builders and look at problem-solving differently than men. For example, the five-foot-two Shaar shared a story from a basic training exercise, a six-mile endurance course.
“The last obstacle in the course is a log you must climb over. There is no support underneath and the log is probably six feet up. … Men can bound over that thing. I had <FZ,1,0,17>to figure out another way. So, I took the sling of my rifle, hoisted it onto the log, and used it to climb up. I adapted and I overcame. I had to look at the problem differently, based on my challenges. I think women have to look at a lot of things differently,” she said.
When asked about transgender people in the military, a subject that has come to light with a recent proposed ban on transgender service, Shaar said, “I support current laws and regulations of the Department of Defense on this (which allow for transgender service people). I’m humbled by the fact that we have an all-volunteer force. Every man and woman who serves volunteered. We don’t draft. From my standpoint, it is my honor to serve with people who want to serve.”
Strength Across the Board
Of the challenges that still exist for woman in the military, Shaar concluded, “I think this situation is probably true for most women, but when we walk into a new command, especially when we are pretty junior, it’s on us to prove we deserve to be there and we can contribute to the mission. We try our best to hide the qualifier ‘woman’ in all that. If you can run as fast as everyone else and train as hard as they did … commanders recognize that.
“Even if it wasn’t at first, it’s become so over time. That’s OK. It takes time to earn respect and trust, and I would rather do that than immediately have trust and then lose it. Is it a challenge? Absolutely. But the women are out there are strong and they’re proving it across the board.”