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KeCia Jordan and Leveta Smith grew up in two very different worlds. KeCia shared Jersey City, N.J. with nearly a quarter million souls, while Leveta was raised with 12 siblings in the tiny town of Louisburg, N.C., population 3,300.
Yet, today they are equals, both wearing the insignia of the Marine Corps’ top enlisted rank—sergeant major. KeCia is Sergeant Major of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, assisting the commanding officer with enlisted operations supporting all units on base. Leveta is the sergeant major for Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron, responsible for the well being of about 600 Marines, filling support roles ranging from administrative support to military police.
Their journeys here were divergent, but today they both excel at the delicate balance of being a Marine and a lady.
In 1987, KeCia was a 20-year-old single mother of two, struggling to keep a job and raise her children. “Finding a job was no problem, it was keeping a job that was hard because I wasn’t disciplined,” she concedes, owning her past with no regrets. “My motivation was that I needed to raise my kids, and in order to take care of them, I needed the discipline the Marine Corps offered.”
Leveta, on the other hand, signed up for the delayed entry program as a high school junior. After a year of preparation, she entered Parris Island boot camp in 1988 as a 17-year-old out to prove a point, drawing motivation from her brothers. Two of them were in the Army, another in the Air Force and one in the Navy.
“During my junior year, I saw Marine recruiters in school but they only talked to males,” Leveta recalls, “So I went home and asked my brother why. He said any girl who wanted to go into the Marine Corps was crazy and if I did, I’d never make it. Once he said that, it became a challenge and I was going to do it!” she asserts, the fire of that challenge still in her eyes and voice.
Both women overcame the obstacles of boot camp and continued to climb the ranks as the role of women in the military was changing and expanding. They both served in Iraq. Leveta also served a tour in Afghanistan and on the USS Enterprise with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron-251. Their paths crossed once at Parris Island, where they were both drill instructors in the mid-90s.
Leveta chose not to have children right away. “One of my biggest fears was getting married and having kids because I didn’t know how that was going to impact my career,” she said, adding she observed KeCia juggling motherhood and drill instructor duty. For her, the waiting paid off. “The best thing the Marine Corps ever gave me was my husband,” Leveta quips. “He’s my master gunnery sergeant and I am his sergeant major and the kids are our happy future Marines.” she says of her two children ages 10, and 13, and her niece, 16, who also lives with them.
KeCia raised her two children and is now raising her 6-year-old granddaughter. “I’ve had her since she was 10 days old,” she beams. “It had been a long time since I’d taken care of a baby. I had to Google how to do it because I’d forgotten,” she jokes or maybe only half jokes. “Life changes, I was doing bottles again…”
Being a Marine and a mother means that one is never far from the other; KeCia calls it the mom syndrome. “It can’t be helped, they are young, they don’t know,” she says of the young Marines placed in her charge. “You can’t be the tough Marine all the time. You also have to be that other person who brings them back up, to let them know it’s OK to make a mistake, but don’t do it again. Do not make the same mistake twice, learn from it.”
The role of women in the military has changed and continues to evolve. “The opportunities are out there for them, especially here at the air station,” Leveta said. “We have women serving in highly technical aviation jobs. There are women in the new F-35B squadron that just got here.”
If you ask female Marines which comes first, the lady or the Marine, most will probably tell you the Marine. But many women would also tell you a balance can be struck. “You can be classy, you can be female, you can be feminine and still be a Marine,” said KeCia. “We know when we need to get dirty, but we’re not in the mud all the time. We can be a lady and still lead Marines.”
What is your favorite saying?
KeCia: “I can show you better than I can tell you.”
Leveta: “We all make mistakes. It’s what we do afterwards that makes the difference.”
What is your comfort food of choice?
KeCia: “A bowl of cereal”
Leveta: “Hot soup (any kind.)”
What is your dream life after the Corps?
KeCia: “Being a mentor for underprivileged kids as a Marine Corps JROTC instructor and spending more quality time with family.”
Leveta: “Being a full-time wife and mom and working with under-privileged kids.”
CWO-4 Randy Gaddo, USMC (Ret.), was a combat correspondent as an enlisted Marine and later a public affairs officer. He retired from active duty in 1996 and now is a freelance photojournalist living in Beaufort.