If the tiny, young woman from Texas had butterflies in her stomach while reporting to an all-male company in 1986, the men were none the wiser.
She changed out of her crisp service uniform and into work clothes and served as a bulk fueler, carrying heavy hoses and ensuring Marines got the fuel they needed to get the job done. She flourished as leader in a field dominated by men, and if she ever had doubts, the Marines she followed and led, were again not aware.
Today she is a wife, a mother, a grandmother and a Marine Corps sergeant major. Sgt. Maj. Irene O’Neal is serving as the senior enlisted advisor to the Inspector General of the Marine Corps. She is one of 15 women sergeants major filling some of the highest enlisted posts in the Marine Corps. This is how she got there.
When I told my mother I wanted to join the Marines, she was not very happy.
I had an older brother who enlisted in the Marine Corps several years before me. He did not want me to join either. I guess he saw how female Marines where looked at, or it was because I was his baby sister.
The first time I saw a true female Marine was in recruit training. I remember being blown away by how sharp they looked and how they didn’t take any trash from anyone. I have since run into my drill instructor at conventions and other events and she is always so proud of the fact I am a sergeant major. Proud of what I have accomplished.
Being a bulk fueler was very physical. We were always outdoors. We had our own way of doing things. Some people think you’re a bulk fueler because you’re not smart or because you like being dirty, but honestly they are some of the greatest people I have ever known.
Out of the two bulk fueler companies in Camp Pendleton there was maybe only four women. I was one of two women in my company.
One of the biggest obstacles I faced was when I became a corporal. I remember how the male junior Marines always seemed to be looking at me asking, “What does she got, what is she going to tell me to do?”
It was an internal struggle. As a Marine you never want someone to see you struggle or sweat. If I ever had any doubts or concerns wherever I went or whatever I did it was internal. I would give my self-check and I would confidently make a decision and execute. Knowing my job made the difference and the presence I presented was what led to my success.
When I met my husband, he was a combat engineer in another company. He was a corporal. I was a private first class. When I first met him we became great friends and he has stuck with me through all these years.
Now my husband and I have been married for 26 years. Doing the math including time spent apart geographically, my husband and I have been apart for 13 of those years. It worked because we made it.
It is great because my husband has understood the Marines. He retired as a master gunnery sergeant recently. I could always share things and bounce questions off of him.
During certain times of our careers, periods where we were looking reenlistment and future assignments, we would get our family together and include them in the decision-making.
I have three children, two boys and one girl. My oldest son, even though now he has been out of the house for years, always tells me to keep going and to do great things. Things like that have had a great impact on me and always remind me that they are the most important things in my life.
I remember being seven months pregnant as a first sergeant visiting my Marines in the field and they would say, “First sergeant what are you doing here?”
I would always say, “ Because that is where you guys are.”
At one point, when I became a first sergeant my husband was a master sergeant and we received orders from Okinawa and be in the same company. I could not imagine being my husband’s first sergeant. Luckily we ended being right next door in separate companies.
We both deployed a few months later. Which was a big problem because we have three children. So now we had to decide what we are going to do to take care of them. Luckily I had both my family and my Marine Corps family to help out.
Staying in the Corps for more than 20 years. I missed a lot of firsts, but now as an older mother I can say those firsts were important but I really enjoy being there for my children now that they are older. I have one grandson and another grandchild on the way — yes grandma wears combat boots.
If it weren’t for my Marine Corps family, I would not be where I am today. My oldest child who is now 25 years old has been with my mother, mother-in-law, brother, our neighbors and godparents. I remember my sister calling me and asking me, “How can you do this to your son, he is crying.” That hurt. It sounds terrible but he is a great kid.
The Marine Corps has been tough but it has made us stronger in the long run. The Marine Corps has always been first, but for those of us who have families, they have to be most important.
Female Marines tend to be a little tighter with each other because there are very few of us, but I also had a lot of great mentors, who were all men. I don’t think it takes a woman to mentor a woman to become a great Marine it just takes another great Marine, male or female does not matter.
Up until the time I became a first sergeant I stayed in contact with my first platoon sergeant. He squared me away. He never let me stray. He taught me about the facts of life to be an adult and a Marine. Most importantly he taught me that no one was going to give me anything I had to earn it. Every stripe or rank any Marine wears is one they have earned.
Some Marines today do not take the time to realize how we came to be who we are today. I may have come into contact with one female sergeant major from the time I enlisted until I was a gunnery sergeant. I remember wondering how she got there, how she did it. I was probably too fearful to ask her at the time.
I am glad to see how things have changed for the better. I love seeing Marines doing things they previously may have not been able too for one reason or another. I always think, wow I could never have done that, or this is great we have these opportunities now.