August 24, 2001

A Soldier's Story: Hispanic Marine Corps Col. Embraces the Code, Makes History

By Raoul Dennis

When Angela Salinas walked into her neighborhood post office in 1974, a 20 year old Hispanic woman, it's not likely that she ever imagined signing up to become a marine. It wasn't in the plan.

But then, actually, it was.

"I wanted gain a skill to go back to school with," says Col. Salinas, now a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. "There was a recruiter at the post office. We talked and I was interested in something for the summer months. I wound up in the reserves program-two days per month."

Before family, friends, and members of the Marine Infantry, Col Angela Salinas makes her first official address as Commanding Officer of the 12th Marine Corp Dist.

What began as an opportunistic moment to give herself a slight edge going back to school at Dominican College of San Rafael, CA, became a series of opportunities each better than the last, each more rewarding than the one before.

"People say they couldn't imagine me in the military, now I can't image being anywhere else," she says.

There was the foreboding mystique of the corps. They were the hardest of the hard. If there were anything more testosterone based, it lived in an underground cave somewhere eating rocks and shredding its own limbs. Added counter: Salinas had no interest in a career in the military. It never crossed her mind.

Staff Sergeant Thomas was very persuasive.

"He carried himself with incredible confidence," Salinas says of her initial encounter with the recruiter. "He stood tall, looked good and was clean. That caught me. This was 1974. I'm in Berkeley-it's post-Viet Nam. I wasn't looking at anything but the opportunity to make something happen for myself. I wasn't intimidated by the [macho] mystique. The qualities that we were projected to me were the qualities I wanted for myself. He didn't make a point of it and I didn't either. I didn't know much about the corps. I saw a guy in uniform and that's it. I didn't see this as the next 20 years of my life."

By the end of a summer in as a legal administrative clerk with the Marine Corps Reserves, Salinas had gained her skill, but the Corps had more in store for her. Those around her saw potential in the young reservist that she hadn't seen in herself and they challenged her on it.

"I always perceived myself as okay but they really saw something in me," she says. "I continued my education and they saw I had drive and that I wanted to make something of myself. Had they not opened that door, I would have left after three years. They continued to support and nurture and challenge me."

It was the structure and character-building order of the Corps that first attracted Col. Salinas. But it was the opportunity and the challenge that kept her.

"I had a couple of opportunities that opened the door-to command units that women had not had a chance to command," she explains. "That made me feel good. Like I was doing this for the corps. And for me. And as I became more and more successful, I knew I was making it easier for someone else in my gender to come through later."

Salinas was selected for the Officer Candidate School in 1977. From there she was attended the Basic School and the Naval School, she was assigned to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Cherry Point, NC as a Legal Service Officer. In 1980, she was transferred to Woman Recruit Training Command where she served as Series Commander. In 1984, Salinas found herself at Amphibious Warfare School for still more training. By 1989, she was the first woman to command a Marine Corp recruiting station.

"The Marine Corps opened the doors, but I had to walk through them," Salinas says. "People around me were always believing in my potential, but I had to do the work once they encouraged me to look into it."

The Corps. is big on encouraging recruits by finding a way to make the right fit for each candidate. There are programs for overachievers, underachievers, minorities, career seekers and part-timers. No matter what angle a candidate comes into the corp. under, there is one common denominator: pride and leadership.

Col. Salinas says her sex and ethnicity have not restrained her career development in the Marines.

"I never really noticed that there was any disparity," she says. "I was in a branch of the service that was heavily geared to combat—so by law that excludes women. But the thing about the corp. is that we were all treated exactly the same. We were recognized for our strengths. I stood side by side with my male peers. I was recognized as a leader-not as a Hispanic or a woman."

Col. Salinas' point has merit. In tandem with their ratio to white men, Hispanic women and their roles are growing in the U.S. Marine Corps. For example in 1988, there were 63 Hispanic women staff sergeants in the Marine Corps and 10,056 White men of the same rank. But by 1998, the numbers of Hispanic women staff sergeants increased to 81. Before Salinas signed up in the mid-1970s, there were few classifications because Hispanics did not always profess their ethnicity. They were there, in smaller numbers, but they were there.

Col. Salinas is not deterred by the numbers. As far as she's concerned, performance bears out over all.

"We keep track of it more today because it is a politically sensitive area," she explains as she notes that at the end of the day, the Marine Corps will allow the cream to rise to the top. "Let the organization promote on its own, which is based on the best. The best should be recognized and given command and will be. We don't promote by ethnicity or gender. We promote by performance."

For Col. Salinas, who is now stationed in San Diego, CA as the Commanding Officer of the 12th Marine Corp District, the gains of serving in the Marine Corps well outweigh the political football of race and sex numbers.

"The transformation from civilian to Marine is the 12 weeks in basic training" she attests. "I guarantee you that If you see the new marine, they would tell you that they didn't give a rat's patutti what job it was [they had]. They look at other people differently because they know they have been tested. They have ached and their feet have bled. They will tell you stories of repelling from 50 foot towers and of hitting the black from 500 yards away with an M-16 rifle. We pass the Marine Corps legacy on to them and they respond to it."

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