QUANTICO, Va., Sept. 15 /PRNewswire-HISPANIC PR WIRE/ — Yes, she can. Si, ella puede. And she has.
When Sergeant Major Irene Zamora O’Neal joined the United States Marine Corps 23 years ago, she was escaping a lack of opportunities and abject poverty.
Today, she represents the achievements Latinas have made as they move up the ranks in the military into highly-decorated careers, while inspiring others into leadership roles.
O’Neal, a native of San Angelo, Texas, and a Mexican American, said she joined the Marine Corps when she was 17, in search of education and opportunities, and following her brother’s footsteps. He had already been in the Marine Corps for two years. Her father died when she was 10 years old, and her mother struggled financially as a single parent to raise nine children. The family lived in a home with no running water or electricity. College was not an option for O’Neal.
But since enlisting in military service, O’Neal has never looked back.
“You hear about the band of brothers, I also call it the band of sisters,” said O’Neal. “The Marines are a family. Unless you have been in the Marine Corps, you can’t understand the type of bond and respect and pride that we hold. There is an opportunity for growth and for family. I love it.”
O’Neal rose through the ranks of the Marine Corps, including promotions to Drill Instructor, Senior Drill Instructor and Series Gunnery Sergeant. While serving as drill instructor, she received the Marine Corps League’s “Drill Instructor of the Year” Award.
The 41-year-old O’Neal is one of two Latinas to ascend to the highest position for Marine Corps enlisted personnel. She was promoted to her present rank in January 2006, and since 2007 has served as the Sergeant Major at Marine Helicopter Training Squadron-164, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. As the senior enlisted adviser to the commanding officer at Camp Pendleton in California, O’Neal is responsible for about 900 Marines.
In March 2008, she was recognized as the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, Senior Enlisted Woman of the Year.
By contrast, the highest-ranking Latina officer in the Marine Corps is Brigadier General Angela Salinas, who oversees the training of over 18,000 recruits.
Serving her country has gone hand-in-hand with serving her community, no matter where in the world she has lived.
Throughout her career, O’Neal has emphasized community involvement whether delivering “Meals on Wheels” to the elderly and disabled or building a children’s playground in Port Royal, South Carolina.
While stationed in Okinawa, Japan, she visited orphanages in Pattaya Beach, Thailand, to play with the children there and help with maintenance of the grounds.
As the Battalion Sergeant Major for Combat Service Support Battalion-1 for Operation Iraqi Freedom, she took care of her own Marine family by organizing the receipt of care packages for more than 1,000 Marines from her unit while deployed in Iraq in 2003.
“I think a majority of us do community service because we want to,” she said. “We are not asking for anything in return. It is the way I was brought up, never to ask for anything. I know that if I help someone, somewhere, somehow that person will do it for someone else.”
O’Neal said she never considered herself a role model, despite some of her groundbreaking achievements. Her personal awards include, the Meritorious Service Medal with gold star, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with three gold stars in lieu of fourth award, Air Force Achievement Medal and Combat Action Ribbon.
Her Marine Corps career has been challenging, but not because she was a woman or Latina, she said. Difficulties arose, but she said as she developed and matured throughout her career, the mutual respect also grew. But one thing the 5’2″ O’Neal insists is that the physical aspects of being a Marine have never been tough. “I always said that I can do anything a man can do, but even better,” she added.
After serving on active duty for more than two decades, O’Neal said now she recognizes the impact she has had on other female Marines as a mentor and leader and has learned to embrace the role model label.
“I always tell women Marines, you are a direct reflection of me, and I know I represent them very well,” said O’Neal. “A lot of them say they look up to me, and it makes me feel even better that people want to grow up to be like me.”
A mother of three, O’Neal said she hopes to continue inspiring young people, especially Latinas.
Still, it’s lonely at the top, a fact she is reminded of more often when she is the only woman present at meetings of senior officials.
“The Marine Corps is a macho organization,” said Fernando Rey, the chief executive officer of Heroes and Heritage, which presented O’Neal with an award this summer. “It is 10 times more difficult to succeed in the Marine Corps than in the Army or Air Force. It is rare for a woman to get to that point where she is. I admire her.”
For her volunteer work and for the inspiration she provides to Latino youth about leadership, patriotism and education, the Heroes and Heritage organization honored O’Neal with a medal and crystal trophy at the National Council of La Raza’s 2008 annual conference held in July at San Diego, California.
She said it was an emotional moment receiving the award during a luncheon attended by her husband of 20 years, Master Gunnery Sergeant Anthony O’Neal, her peers and predecessors, and community leaders, activists and elected officials.
“It was an overwhelming honor to be recognized not only for my military service, but as a woman and a Hispanic, and to be in the presence of other people that were doing so much for their community,” O’Neal said. “It was like the Who’s Who of the Hispanic community [at the 40th anniversary conference]. I was really proud to be there.”
Since 2006, Heroes and Heritage, a non-profit, veterans and community outreach organization, has recognized the contributions of Latino service men and women to the military and their community. The group’s priority is to honor Latino World War II veterans, a group often overlooked in the history of the war and a group that is rapidly dying.
Rey said this year the organization chose to honor a female Marine who had also done outstanding work in the community.
“She exemplifies [the award for valor and patriotism] because of her service to the Marine Corps, and while there she helped poor people in every community that she was stationed at and on her off-duty hours,” Rey said.
O’Neal’s presence at the conference, as well as when she is in uniform, delivers a message loud and clear: Yes, there are women, and Latinas in the Marine Corps, and yes, in high-ranking positions. And you can do it too.
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