MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- Female Marines have journeyed a long way since their clerical duty days when they were required to wake up every morning in boot camp and perfectly apply bright red lipstick and eye shadow.
In today's Marine Corps, women are expected to carry the same pack that an average male carries. They qualify with the same weapons and endure the same physical training. Now they are busting down barriers and invading male-dominated territories, boldly going where no woman has gone before.
A perfect example is Sgt. Sherry D. Williams, Marksmanship Training Unit, Headquarters Battalion. She is the only female gunsmith in the Marine Corps.
"She’s a hard charging Marine," said Gunnery Sgt. Paul E. Hollar, MTU, staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge. "She has good initiative. From what I’ve seen so far, she’s a squared away Marine."
As a precision weapons repairer and small arms repair technician, Williams inspects, maintains, repairs and builds precision small arms.
It all began with a trip to the Army recruiter.
"It’s a funny story," said Williams, who is on her 7th year in the Corps. "I was in the Army Delayed Entry Program. My recruiter messed up because I was supposed to leave for boot camp during my 11th grade summer, but I got there late. I spent two days in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. I even got all my shots. They sent me back because I didn’t have enough time to complete boot camp and go back to school."
Williams, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native, waited a whole year for her recruiter to fix her paperwork but nothing was accomplished.
"I told her if she didn’t get it fixed by the time my birthday came around I wasn’t going to go," said Williams, who was born in Guyana, South America. "So my birthday came and went and nothing happened. Then I told her I wasn’t going, and she tried to get me in trouble for disobeying an order."
Despite the threat, Williams enrolled at Long Island University in Brooklyn for six months to study pharmacy. However, she was not ready to settle down.
"I went to the mall one day, and I saw a Marine recruiter," said 27-year-old Williams. "I started talking to him, and I told him if he got me out of there in two weeks I’d go. I had already taken the ASVAB."
When asked what military occupational specialty she preferred, Williams chose to do something hands-on and nothing that involved doing paperwork.
"There weren’t open spaces for any job so my recruiter sent me open contract," explained Williams. "When I got to [Marine Combat Training] I found out I was going to be an armorer. I really was happy with that. That wasn’t my MOS by choice, it was just open contract, and the Corps gave it to me."
Her parents, Guyana natives, were at first disbelieving and unconvinced of their daughter’s decision to enlist
"At first my mom, who was in the National Guard, hated the fact that I wanted to be in the service," said Williams, who plans on retiring from the Corps. "My father was kind of scared. Before even thinking about joining the service, my fingernails didn’t get dirty at all. If I went to the store my hair had to be in place. And there I was. I was joining the service. But my younger sister, she’s proud of me. She wants to join the Navy."
"They were kind of skeptical about it," said Williams with a smile. "When I went through boot camp, Riddick Bowe was also going through his training. It wasn’t until he fell out of it that my mom wrote me, ‘Oh baby, I’m so proud of you.’"
According to the newspaper South Coast Today, former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe, announced to the world that he would full-fill his life-long dream of becoming a United States Marine. The boxer reported to Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot Parris Island, S.C., on Feb. 10, 1997.
The 29-year-old multi-millionaire was trained to take punches from the toughest fighters in the world but threw in the towel after being on the island for only 10 days. Bowe claimed he couldn't take the regimented lifestyle of boot camp.
After completing training, Williams’ first duty station as an armorer was in Okinawa, Japan, with Combat Assault Battalion, Combat Engineer Company. During her tour she talked to gunsmiths and grew more interested in their work.
"I kept talking to them,” said Williams. "At the time there were no females in the MOS at all. I wanted to be the first one but two other females beat me to it."
Her chance came while at Cherry Point, N.C., with Marine Aircraft Group 28 where her reenlistment option was to go to Weapons Training Battalion's Precision Weapons Section, Quantico, Va., for three years of on-the-job training.
The gunsmith training facility is the only shop of its kind anywhere in the Department of Defense. The PWS supports the Marine Corps’ Competition-in-Arms Program as well as the Fleet Marine Force by building and maintaining a variety of precision rifles and pistols including the MEU SOC .45-caliber pistol, National Match M-9 9 mm pistol, National Match M-16 A2 rifle, Designated Marksman Rifle, and the M-40 A3 sniper rifle. PWS also offers an 18-month training course through which Marine armorers gain the additional military occupational specialty, precision weapons armorer.
"When I got there the first things they gave [the students] were a handy file, hacksaws, a triangle and a square block. We had to make it into a one inch cube," explained Williams. "I think the main reason the instructors did that was to build our patience. Working with precision weapons requires patience. With some of the weapons, it’s tedious work. The tolerance is very low. I can get one thing working and mess something else up."
Williams added her reasons for joining the Corps were discipline and the opportunity to travel.
"I wanted to travel a lot," she said. "Unfortunately most of the units I’ve been to I have always been the only female or one of the only females. In the units that I’ve gone to that did have females, it wasn’t a deployable unit. So I ‘lucked out’ of the traveling. I wouldn’t say I'm resentful. I would just say I understood the fact that I was with an all male unit. But I did get the discipline."
Williams said her husband Shawn provides all the support she needs.
"February 14 will be our one-year anniversary," said Williams with a starry look in her eyes. "He loves being the ‘dependent’ as he puts it. When we met, he didn’t believe that I was in the military. Then he found out that I made guns, and that kind of blew his mind. He’s very supportive, and I thank God for that."
"I love what I do," enthused Williams. "Now I’ve started shooting competitions. It’s helping me not only in building them; I also get to see how the weapons work. To see a gun operate the way it's supposed to, I feel proud."
"She knows her job well," said Lance Cpl. John Garcia, small arms repairer, Headquarters Battalion. "She knows what she’s doing. We all get along very well here."
Williams recounted a time when her mother asked her if she knew she made weapons that kill.
"Someone may have a weapon I built, like the sniper rifles in Iraq, and it may make a difference between life and death. It may save someone’s life," she replied.
Williams offers advice to any woman Marine who wants to break barriers.
"They have to have the drive," said Williams, with a determined look on her delicate face. It’s not easy. It’s challenging, especially if you’re going to be the only female or the odd number. But if you’re professional, it doesn’t matter. I joined the Corps. The goal was there before me. Be professional, take the job seriously, stay fit and have a good mental attitude."