maria maloof’s story, in honor of veterans day

During the month of November, a time when many of us reflect on feelings of gratitude and heartfelt appreciation, I look back fondly on my years spent in service in the United States Marine Corps and appreciate the values it instilled in me.  

I am a living heir culminating several generations of brave men who have served this great nation. My Grandfather served in the Army Air Corps and taught Clark Gable how to fire a rifle, my Father was a medic in the Air Force, and my Uncle was a United States Marine who served during Vietnam, earning two purple hearts. 

Upon learning that I served as a soldier during the first Gulf War, most people ask the obvious question, “Why did you decide to join the military?!”

For almost three decades, my ‘go-to’ answer has always been, “I don’t know. I had a wild hair.” Such a lame answer. It wasn’t until recently that I realized I had been apologizing my entire life – apologizing for being a ‘creative’ at heart. I longed to be taken seriously and felt I lacked a ‘traditional’ direction.

Upon meeting an impressive female recruiter, the idea of joining the Marine Corps (at 19) greatly appealed to me. I felt this type of disciplined environment would provide me with the direction I not only sought, but craved. In my mind, if I was going to join any branch of service, I was going to opt for the toughest, most elite fighting force – one that displayed incredible attention to detail, strength, and discipline.

I remember sharing my news with family and friends who felt I was more equipped for a performing arts school. Their reaction was more outraged shock than encouragement, with most replying, “You can’t do that!”

Evidently, that was just the ‘ammunition’ I needed to push myself through 13 weeks at Parris Island, South Carolina.  The training was unbearably intense, rigorous, and for a sheltered girl from a loving family, one who was considered a ‘princess’ no less, it felt barbaric.

Every impossible moment in my training, those moments where I felt like I was dying, like I couldn’t make it, those internal battles are the ones I waged, and won. I heard the skeptical voices in my mind, mocking me, taunting me, “You cannot do this,” and my inner grit propelled me forward.

For those who know me, it was not surprising to find out that I was the most ‘picked on’ female in my platoon, and company. The drill instructors referred to me as ‘Ms. Universe’- not a compliment – so I had my work cut out for me, and then some. My platoon began with 66 women, and at the end, only 33 of us graduated. At the time, the USMC was comprised of roughly 10% females – a paltry number by today’s standards. 

I remember enlisting like it was yesterday: walking into the recruiter’s office, wearing a black and white polka dot dress with a white blazer, high heels, and a hat. The officers at the recruiting station thought I was a visiting girlfriend, and certainly not a candidate for the Marine Corps. Of course, looking back on this gives me a laugh. I have a great sense of humor and can appreciate the fine picture I made that day.

It became evident why my instructors constantly picked on me once I started active duty. The nightmare boot camp, the unbearable moments stretching from mere seconds to long, drawn-out months – those moments weed out the ones who have that ‘X’ factor from the ones who don’t. These drill instructors are here for one reason alone, to tear down recruits as individuals, and build them up to operate as one unit prepared for battle and service to the Corps. These instructors had a talent to get me to do things I never thought I could do. I will be forever grateful to them as their treatment of me prepared me for the difficult realities of my four years of active duty.

For many soldiers, active duty is a pleasurable experience. For me, that was not always the case as I stuck out like a sore thumb. I had to work harder to prove myself to men who felt I did not belong.

That being said, I made lifelong friends with men and women who would provide me with a solid foundation to endure this harsh, alienating environment. These wonderful souls often looked out for me in more ways than I can count – I will cherish them forever.

Marine Corps core values like honor, courage, and commitment are a given. To implement them in your treatments of others is something I remember every day of my life. Discipline, teamwork, integrity and “esprit de corps,” are values ingrained into each Marine in the hopes that we live our best life, in the Corps and after.

While my military duty tour was not an expected path for me to take, I know now that it was my destiny. It laid a solid foundation for me where I can deal with challenges head-on, perhaps afraid of the unknown, but willing to see it through. My experience in the Corps taught me life is not easy, but that I have the strength to persevere. That fear is ok, but courage is moving past that fear and conquering it.

I feel awkward, almost shy when people thank me for my service on Veteran’s Day, almost like I don’t deserve this recognition or the respect that follows. If I could impart any wisdom, it would be to teach your kids to love this great country, and to respect those brave souls who fought and died for it.

Remember their sacrifice, and honor them by living your life with courage, integrity, and compassion.