“The Few, The Proud” is more than just a catchy recruiting slogan for the U.S. Marines. The Marine Corps, after all, is the smallest military branch within the Department of Defense, and for good reason.
It prides itself on having grueling basic training that only the fittest can conquer, and its emphasis on physical readiness prepares Marines for the rigors of combat.
Laura Bowen, of McLean, Va., wanted in on that.
A woman who stands 4 feet, 11 inches tall, Bowen knew she didn’t fit the image of the stoic Marine with a crewcut.
That gave her all the more reason to enlist.
“Nobody really thinks of women when they think about the Marines,” she said. “But I always knew I wanted to be in the service.”
She decided on which branch to join while she was enrolled at an all-female college in Virginia. During an ROTC course, Bowen was awestruck during a presentation by a Marine.
“The way the officer presented himself was very professional,” she said. “He was more physically fit than the others and he was in his 50s. I thought, ‘There’s no way I could be anything else but the best.’ It’s got to be the Marines. They’re the most physically fit, the smallest branch and the hardest to get into. I don’t mind doing things the hard way.”
Bowen left college and enlisted.
She recalled the grinding physical and mental exercises, the obstacle courses and the martial arts training, but said, “You can’t beat getting paid to stay in shape.”
Because of her short stature, Bowen did not meet height requirements for several positions throughout her four-year tenure.
“As a 4’11” woman, maybe I couldn’t easily take down a 300-pound dude. So I couldn’t be an MP [military police],” she explained. “And the trucks aren’t made for a 4’11” woman so I couldn’t work in Motor T [motor transport].”
The specialty she landed in did not have restrictive height or physical requirements, yet a high-functioning mind was essential. She ended up serving as an intelligence analyst.
“We analyze and assess enemy threats,” Bowen said.
She spent two years stationed at Okinawa, Japan, before completing her service at a California base.
“My job was the sweetest,” said Bowen, a lance corporal. “I had access to top-secret information and got to travel. It opened my world to see there’s more than just finding a house, finding a spouse and settling down for the rest of your life.”
Sounds like a dream job, and it was for Bowen. Yet the weight of being a woman in a male-dominated universe was heavy. She left the Marines and found her next home at West Virginia University.
“It got complicated,” Bowen said on leaving the military. “Gender bias is a very real thing. I’ve been told to smile at work. ‘You’re making people uncomfortable. You have to smile more.’”
Marines are supposed to smile?
“No,” Bowen replied. “F*** no.”
Now 30, Bowen is a dual major in geology and geography. She jokes that those departments want to keep her around since she’s a senior now but not expected to graduate until 2020.
She started as a criminology major before figuring out it wasn’t a good fit. She switched to geology and then added geography when she realized it could piggyback off her intelligence analyst experience with GIS mapping.
Bowen hopes to find a career like the Marines, which she says was her dream job, that will enable her to travel.
Outside of the classroom, Bowen has also played a pivotal role in highlighting veterans’ issues on campus. She’s a former president of the Veterans of WVU club and pushed for the creation of the new Veterans’ Center in the Mountainlair. That central gathering place was much needed, she said, for students like her who’ve served the country.
“In the service, you’re told where to go, what to do, how to think and what to wear,” Bowen said. “You come to WVU and there’s not much of that system. It was very difficult at first.
“I screwed up a lot of classes and was dealing with PTSD, but I’ve been able to pull through because there’s been people who’ve stepped up.”
As a veteran, Bowen still experiences gender bias out in the community, but she credits WVU for being more progressive and proactive in dealing with all veterans, regardless of background.
“My goal is to put being a veteran not behind me but not have it be something that could hurt me. Right now, it can easily be turned into a weapon.
“Learning to be a female veteran is a real thing. I’ve gone to the VA and they’ll say, ‘Who’s your husband?’ or ‘Who are you here for?’ when I’m there for my appointments. Most female vets feel that way. It’s an invisibility cloak.
“They’re changing that here,” she said of WVU. “Within the last year or two, they’ve really stepped it up and we have this community – there’s no other place that could have a community [of veterans] quite like this. And I need that, because I’m never going to stop being a veteran.”