WEST JEFFERSON-Carol Pollack is part of a select few.
In fact, you could say she is the elite of the elite.
Pollack was, or still is by her own admission, a woman Marine.
Her 13-year service in one of the armed forces most selective and prestigious branches is an honor she still reflects upon fondly to this very day.
To truly understand the magnitude of this accomplishment, you have to comprehend the social norms that prevailed during her time service.
She shared her experience serving in the armed forces as she candidly reflected on her time as an officer in the U.S. Marines during an interview with the Jefferson Post at Forrest Ridge Living Center in West Jefferson.
Pollack was at a crossroads in 1958. She was nearing the completion of her collegiate career at Lamar College in Texas when she started to have second doubts about the job prospects for a young lady double majoring in art and secondary education.
“I was doing my student teaching and I happened to be doing it at a reform school for kids who didn’t fit in anywhere else and I was mopping up blood before the bell rung and I asked myself ‘Do I really want to do this?’ So, later that day I went to student union when I saw poster that said, ‘Be a Woman Marine.’
Pollack was sold.
In almost no time, she had enlisted and was on her way to Quantico, Va. for officer training.
But to be a female in the military prior to the Civil Rights movement could set one up for a perilous career in terms of advancement and equality.
It wouldn’t be bullets that Pollack had to worry about as much as it would be bureaucracy and double standards.
Pollack, however, was undeterred. She became one of the elite.
Altogether, only 2 percent of the Marines total enlistment numbers could be female. Pollack was not only one of those few women, but among 10 percent of female Marines to serve as an officer.
Her role in the USMC would be limited to support positions on the home front while the Vietnam conflict grew in magnitude and pulled more male servicemen abroad.
“Women at that time didn’t go to war,” she said. “We couldn’t go anywhere where there was fighting going on. Our motto was, ‘Free a man to fight.’ Because Vietnam was in full swing at that time, all those positions (on the home front) had to be filled by somebody. At one time, I had five or six things that I was in charge of. I had a very diverse situation. Everything from being a swimming pool officer to overseeing a 2,200 men battalion, I was in charge of.”
Despite her responsibilities, there were times when Pollack said she faced sexism and disrespect from her fellow Marines.
Due to her rank, Pollack was supposed to be awarded the right to give marching orders during ceremonies and parades. When her moment in the sun finally came during a military parade, she was passed over in favor of a male officer.
“I was ticked off,” she recalled.
Adding insult to injury, a large 90-pound USMC bulldog mascot firmly planted his rear end on Pollack’s feet as the parade commenced. The dog’s male handler looked on.
Aside from her career status, Pollack’s social life also took a beating.
During her time on base, Pollack noticed that droves of her male counterparts would chase skirts cross town at the local teaching colleges or nursing hospitals all the while overlooking the pretty female Marines next door.
Even with her experiences with rampant sexism in the armed forces, Pollack agrees with the military’s assertion that women should not fight alongside men.
“Women definitely have a place in military, but combat is not one of them,” she said. “That’s my personal opinion.”
To support her claim, Pollack recalled an anecdote about a civilian woman killed in the line of duty.
“What you hear on the radio, TV and talk shows in not what necessary is really happening,” she said. “It’s all sanitized before it is ever given out to public. They have to sensationalize everything. They are not going to do anything that creates a problem.”
One of those few who did dare to cross that threshold in the pursuit of a higher truth happened to be a female reporter that begged to follow a group of Marines on duty in Vietnam.
“She begged to join them,” said Pollack. “They said it could be dangerous, but they were not expecting any problems with Vietcong, but said ‘You stay at the back. If we say, ‘Get on the ground! Then you get on the ground.’ She said, ‘Yes.’ She understood. Under no circumstances, she was not to do anything unless she was told so. Well they run into some fire and she has to stand up to get a better shot at and she is being shot at. Well, men being men, are brought up to always protect the women folk. Well, two of them are killed trying to shield her from rifle fire.”
It is important to note that Pollack never saw combat or served overseas even though another local publication said she fought valiantly alongside other soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam.
New faces and nowhere to go, but up
Despite the politics of the time that prevailed during her military career, a simple technicality would be Pollack’s undoing.
“You had this little pyramid,” Pollack said to describe the USMC’s hierarchy and ranking system. “Only so many ranks in each section of this pyramid. I made captain a year early and I didn’t think that I would have any problem being promoted. Well there’s a difference here that no one told us about. If you are a regular officer, if you don’t make field grade in 13 years, you have to leave. Well that year, where they wanted to promote was from two specific fields. My field was not selected, so that meant I had to go.”
Although Pollack ended her time in the Marines on a bitter note, she reflects on her service with an air of nostalgia and longing. It was after all, the friendships she made during that time that made her service particularly special.
“When you look at most communities and they are very small communities, you have a very limited knowledge about what the world is like,” she said. “When you are put in a place where you meet people from everywhere…. what you do rubs off on you and what you do rubs off on them. The best friends I ever had was were people who came from somewhere so diverse and interesting. It was really nice. For me, that was the good part.”
Reach Jesse Campbell at 336-846-7164.