Elaine Stem is an Iraq War Veteran who talks about her role in Civil Affairs and being a woman in the Marine Corps.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Where were you born and raised?
ELAINE STEM: I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and raised in Taneytown.
KAYLA SEMBLY: OK. OK. So how did you become affiliated with Carroll County then?
ELAINE STEM: Well, my father didn’t want us to grow up in the city. He moved us out to the country. And the country happened to be Taneytown, Maryland. And, and it is out there.
KAYLA SEMBLY: So tell me a little bit more about your family, your father and–
ELAINE STEM: My father was in the National Guard, but he was actually, you know, a carpenter by trade, and he worked at Bethlehem Steel Company. He was a man that travelled a long distance so that we could grow up in the country so we could have more of a peaceful and safe environment, I guess.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Nice. So you said that he was in the Coast Guard?
ELAINE STEM: He– no. He was in a National Guard.
KAYLA SEMBLY: The national Guard.
ELAINE STEM: Yeah. But he was only there, you know, for his few years, and then he, he, he, he did get out. And my mother was just a house– housewife and raised us.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Any siblings?
ELAINE STEM: Yes. I have a brother that was in the Marine Corps also with me at the same time, really. And then he stayed 32 years, and he’s retired.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Did he influence you any way?
ELAINE STEM: No, I don’t think so. I think that it was something that I just wanted to do. When I was a junior in high school, it’s in my yearbook that I wanted to go in the military. I had not chose what service yet, but it happened to be the Marine Corps.
KAYLA SEMBLY: So what made you pick the Marine Corps?
ELAINE STEM: I think it was just– it was the first recruiter that I talked to, honestly, and it sounded good to me.
KAYLA SEMBLY: So, so that was basically your reasons– those were your reasons for enlisting, then.
ELAINE STEM: I just– it was something I wanted to do. I just thought the military life would be good. It’d be different, and you get away from home, and you learn.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Did your father speak to you about the Marine Corps and maybe his concerns–
ELAINE STEM: No, but my father is the one that wanted me to go. He thought it would be good for me, and he encouraged it. My mother, you know, not so much so. But, you know, but everything worked out OK.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Your mother was more reserved.
ELAINE STEM: Yes, right. Exactly. You know, going away from home.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Did you personally have any concerns?
ELAINE STEM: None.
KAYLA SEMBLY: None whatsover?
ELAINE STEM: None. None. And I knew at the time, you know, the Marine Corps women in the service was not something that was big. And it was– we’ve only been in existence, the Marine Corps, since 1943. So we’ve talked about the Korean War vintage and in Vietnam, and then– and I was in during that time. And then– so it was, uh, it was not scary, but it was something that was an unknown, which could be in most cases, you know, not knowing what they get into, what I’m getting into.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Did you meet any females before your–
ELAINE STEM: No, I did not.
KAYLA SEMBLY: –process?
ELAINE STEM: No.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Wow.
ELAINE STEM: See, and today, they do talk to women, you know, before they go in and have all the answers, if they have answered, you know, questions, you know. So it was– I didn’t have that back then.
KAYLA SEMBLY: So tell me about recruit training. Did you–
ELAINE STEM: Boy, that was pretty tough. Again, another challenge that I never encountered. So everything was tough, and everything was– but, you know, you don’t want to quit. You know, it’s just a challenge and endurance and keeps you going.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Did you find that any of your activities from home helped you in recruit training?
ELAINE STEM: Not really, because, you know, my mother did everything, and, you know, never let us do anything. So when I went, you know I had to learn a lot of things like ironing and stuff like that that we had to back then, you know, to get ourselves squared away for every day.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Was that probably the most difficult part of recruit training?
ELAINE STEM: Well, it did. It was– it was sort of, but, you know, I just did it.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Where were you stationed?
ELAINE STEM: After boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina, I went to Quantico, Virginia.
KAYLA SEMBLY: OK. Do you remember the MOS that you had?
ELAINE STEM: Yes. I was an admin, and it– and it was called O1 field. But it was administrative field.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Could you elaborate on–
ELAINE STEM: Administrative field? Taking care of everybody’s record books. Taking care of everybody’s life, you know. Making sure they get pays straight, their records there in order.
KAYLA SEMBLY: So could you elaborate on your military career before becoming Sergeant Major? I know that you served 30 years, which is very impressive.
ELAINE STEM: Well, you know, being in administrative field, I did that up until Gunnery Sergeant E7. Being stationed at Quantico, I did that, and then I got out after– I did four years and then I got out, and then I went in the reserves. And even in the reserves, you– up to Gunnery Sergeant, you’re in administrative field. And then after that, I selected to go and be a leader of Marines, which I went to the First Sergeant field. And then if you stayed in your MOS, you go to Master Sergeant, Master Gunnery Sergeant, and in the Marine Corps, you go from First Sergeant to Sergeant Major. And I chose to do that route, and then you’re not administrative field. But I knew so much going into being a First Sergeant, you were able to help Marines a lot easier because I had that– all that information could help them.
KAYLA SEMBLY: What do you feel were some of your experiences that helped you in leading as a Sergeant Major?
ELAINE STEM: The things you learn in boot camp. Leadership. You know, you watch your drill instructors instill in you things that you need to know. And so just being a leader is what you need to know.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Could you tell me the differences from your personal experiences between the Vietnam era and then also going abroad in Iraq as well?
ELAINE STEM: I don’t feel that the Vietnam campaign was anything like Iraq, since I did go to Iraq. Jungle warfare is nothing like urban warfare, and I don’t feel that the Vietnam Air Marines or military came back getting that support that we had, which I feel that when I went to Iraq, we had a lot of good support back here in America, which was good for us. But that was a different, different challenge, a different war since being in Iraq, I was there.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Could you elaborate on your experiences in Iraq specifically?
ELAINE STEM: A lot of experience. We did a lot of intensive training to get ourselves acclimated to the weather and what we needed to know before we went. And that was in Camp Pali in California and then in Kuwait. And then when war started in March 2003, we went to Iraq. And it was pretty dirty. We saw what the people needed. And I was in a– I was a Major of a civil affairs group. Civil affairs goes into a community and finds out what they need, and they needed everything. So we were very busy, and we were in an environment that was dangerous. You know, every night, we were being shot at. But, you know, every day, we were trying to help the people in the community, and I feel we did that. I got a lot out of that. Coming back after a 10-month deployment, I feel like I know what freedom’s all about because they did not have it over there.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Could you elaborate on your experiences maybe specifically with Iraqi women?
ELAINE STEM: I, I– all of us women were able to interact with the women and help them in their needs that they needed, which is a lot. And we were, the women, searching them because, you know, at the time in 2003, we didn’t know about IEDs and suicide bombers, you know, because it really established more in 2004. So thank you, God, for that. But we had to interact with them and help them and stuff like that.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Could you elaborate on any of your comrades while you were in Iraq?
ELAINE STEM: My other Marines were going out and doing things that we needed to do, get them things that they needed so they could build up their community because the war had really devastated the area. And they didn’t have no water. They had no propane gas for heat or for cooking food and stuff. So we, you know, we were all helping in that way.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Seeing that, seeing that event, what did that make you feel? How did that make you feel?
ELAINE STEM: We were helping people, and that’s what it’s all about. And we were– we get trained to do what we needed to do. And you feel an accomplishment of that. Of course coming back, you feel like you really did something, and you can appreciate your freedoms here a lot more.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Did you find that within your specific group going over to Iraq, did you feel that it was different for you just being a female, personally?
ELAINE STEM: I had a lot of challenges as a female, especially as a Sergeant Major. I will say that. Because in the Marine Corps, you know, we– there was Master Sergeants and Master Gunnery Sergeant, and First Sergeant and Sergeant Majors. We’re getting paid the same, but who’s always in charge is the First Sergeant, Sergeant Major. Being a woman, sometimes it’s even tougher. And you just gotta challenge those in the right way and tactfully, which I feel like I did that.
As a female over in Iraq, I felt that the Iraqi men and women that I was around really respected me because I was a woman in the position I was in, being in charge. And so everything worked. It wasn’t easy, but it worked.
KAYLA SEMBLY: So, so you stayed 30 years.
ELAINE STEM: Yes.
KAYLA SEMBLY: But you could have gotten out at 20, am I right?
ELAINE STEM: That’s true.
KAYLA SEMBLY: So why– why stay the extra 10?
ELAINE STEM: Obviously, I liked it very much. But as I said, I have eight years of active duty, and the rest I spend as a reserve. The good news about that, at the end of the road, I have two retirements. My other job was being at Headquarters Marine Corps. So I worked as a federal employee at the Headquarters Marine Corps in Arlington, Virginia as civil service. So I did 30 years with that and was able, giving up my weekend a month, two weeks in a summer, and a lot of duty being on boards with being a reservist. I feel that I did both, and I have two retirements. So if you really love what you’re doing, and I did because I was able to help young people, young Marines, counseling them and showing them, guiding them. I enjoyed it. So 30 years was not a long time for me.
KAYLA SEMBLY: So what specifically do you believe that you taught the young Marines, coming just–
ELAINE STEM: Well, they– they– they’re learning, like I was. But have somebody there to talk to them. And it’s not like I expected them to come up to me, because they did not because they’re very intimidated by a senior. But I went up to them. And, you know, I knew the ones that were having issues or problems, and some of them did come to me and ask me for help and stuff like that. And that’s what a senior enlisted does.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Are there any young Marines that stuck out in your mind?
ELAINE STEM: Many. Many. I just– you know, it’s just so many because being around 30 years and all that was a long time.
KAYLA SEMBLY: So what finally prompted you to retire?
ELAINE STEM: Well, when I came back from Iraq– when I went to war, I was 58 years old. When I came back, I had– after a 10-month deployment– had my 30 years, that’s the limit at the time, would be 30 years. So it was time for me to retire, whether you want to or not. But it–
KAYLA SEMBLY: So you personally were not ready?
ELAINE STEM: Of course not. No. You like doing what you’re doing. You feel like you have the energy to do it. But, you know, you always have to give the younger Marines a chance to get up there and be– and do the same thing I’m doing.
KAYLA SEMBLY: So what did you do after you retired? What did you–
ELAINE STEM: Well, I had a– I had a call from a, a chief warrant officer over in Kuwait, and they asked me if I wanted to be a site manager with the linguist program with a civilian contracting company. And I did that for at least four more times over in Iraq, you know.
KAYLA SEMBLY: So what was that experience like for you?
ELAINE STEM: Being a contractor? Like being a Sergeant Major. You’re taking care of people. I was a site manager with interpreters that– they’d go out in the red zone and do some things and do a lot. They are our speakers, you know, between the Iraqis and American counterparts. And so you just take care of their life. You turn them over to the coalition forces so they have an interpreter, which they need. And it’s very important to have one over there. I just take care of making sure that they are taken care of, you know, by our counterparts, and make sure they get the body armor they need, and helmet, and three meals a day, and a place to sleep and stuff like that.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Do you believe that that differed very much from actually being in that line of work the first time that you went over to Iraq?
ELAINE STEM: Well, you’re taking care of Marines. You’re making sure that their safety is utmost and they’re doing the right thing. And so you’re doing the same thing with the site managers, making sure they’re doing the right thing by turning them over to the commands, mostly Marine and– Marines and Army is the commands. And you’re making sure that they’re taking care of them. So it’s a taking care of thing, and I enjoy that.
KAYLA SEMBLY: So you didn’t see a true difference between being, you know, in that line of work and then being a civilian?
ELAINE STEM: It’s a leadership role. Just taking care of people whether we’re in uniform or not, right?
KAYLA SEMBLY: What do you miss most about service life?
ELAINE STEM: I miss it a lot. Everything’s slow– slow if you come back from an environment like that. We were working 12, 13, 14 hours a day, so it’s– and you come back to the country life, you know, like this environment, it’s slow for me. It was more living on the edge. I was used to that.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Is that something that you’ve liked from your youth, or–
ELAINE STEM: No. Not so much. Not so much from the youth. It’s just after doing it for so long, it’s just that it’s inside of you, taking care of people and doing things.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Is there anything else that you would like to personally elaborate on?
ELAINE STEM: How about expressing to people that what we did over in Iraq was a good thing. I’m not so sure the media carried that back here so much, but we took care of people. We took care of the people, and they appreciated us being there. I enjoyed that, you know. That’s what you miss, I think, you know, helping people.
KAYLA SEMBLY: How’d your family feel about you being in Iraq?
ELAINE STEM: They knew I was doing my job, what we– what we were trained to do.
KAYLA SEMBLY: So what was the greatest fear that you had in Iraq?
ELAINE STEM: In Iraq? Well, you know, at nighttime when it was pretty dark and you’d get shot at, you don’t know how it’s coming in or what’s going to transpire after a explosion. I guess that’s about the only fear you had, so you do what you’re supposed to do to take care of your Marines, getting them in a safe environment and best way you can. There is a fear about that. But at the time, everything’s happening so fast, you don’t think about, you know– You just think about what you gotta do.
There was more of a fear about it is after. After the fact, you think about it. I mean, I worked at gates where there was concertina wire only, and Iraqis were on the other side. Well, if you think– If I think that today, you know, I should have been scared about that because anything could happen, you know. But you’re just doing things.
So fear goes away as a Sergeant Major because you’re not supposed– not supposed to have it so much because you’re supposed to be thinking about all the right things you’re supposed to be doing at the time.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Did you find that your young Marines were more fearful? What would you tell them in those events?
ELAINE STEM: What they’re supposed to be doing.
ELAINE STEM: You’re doing this, you’re doing this, you’re going there, and you take care of it, you know. Whatever you’re supposed to be doing. They listened very well.
KAYLA SEMBLY: It’s amazing how much you bond together–
ELAINE STEM: Absolutely.
KAYLA SEMBLY: –in such a short period of time.
ELAINE STEM: And especially in a war zone.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Yes.
ELAINE STEM: You really bond.
KAYLA SEMBLY: Absolutely.
ELAINE STEM: It’s a tight organization. It’s a family organization, and it is about taking care of everybody, you know, taking care of each other, you know, covering each other. And that type of environment, when I find now in a civilian world, they don’t have that. It’s not that type of teamwork effort to work together to accomplish a mission.
KAYLA SEMBLY: So I just wanted to thank you for being here today and allowing me to interview you on, you know, the historical aspect of being a veteran. Is there anything else that you would like to personally say?
ELAINE STEM: Well, I do want to thank you for interviewing me and for listening, and for wanting to talk to veterans and hear what they have to say. And if we made any difference in this world, that’s what it’s all about. And I feel that I did that, and others feel the same way, whatever service we were in.