By Marine Corps 1st Lt. Michele Perez
Special to American Forces Press Service
July 30, 2009 - Being a high school teacher, a professional soccer player and a firefighter in one's local town all are great accomplishments. But one woman who has been all three still desired to pursue something more. Most second lieutenants serving in the Marine Corps are right out of college or have prior enlisted service. But at 31 and having lived through more real-life experiences than the majority of her peers, 2nd Lt. Suzie McKinley has finally found her calling as a Marine Corps officer.
McKinley is serving her first deployment to Iraq as the communications operations officer for the 2nd Marine Logistics Group here. However, just a few years ago, she was in a classroom teaching at the Winchendon School in Winchendon, Mass.
The school was not your typical high school. It held classes from 9th grade through postgraduate school, and students ranged anywhere from a star athlete destined to be drafted by the National Basketball Association to international students who would return to their native country to serve in their nation's military.
McKinley said she loved teaching, the impact she made on the students and the remarkable progress she would see them make. Yet, she added, she reached a point where she felt as if she was coming up short.
"I needed to be able to do more," she said. "I owed my students more; I wanted to get out and get [credibility]. ... I felt like I hadn't lived."
In hopes of finding that "something more," McKinley left the school in 2003 to pursue her master's degree in English literature at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., assuming that furthering her education was the answer. But in an unexpected, but welcome, turn of events, she found an opportunity to play on a professional soccer team, the Vermont Voltage, where she competed against teams from Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts and Canada.
Having played soccer since she was old enough to walk, McKinley said, she remembers the offer as an opportunity she could not pass up, though it was for the love of the game and not the money; she had to hold a few jobs to make ends meet. She coached soccer at the local high school, managed a backcountry ski center, and if that wasn't enough, she also became a firefighter in The Ripton, Vt., fire department.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime shot to train and play at that level," McKinley said. "The best part of it was to have all the young kids come out to the games and see us play, and to see a light in their eyes because they know there are opportunities out there."
But as much as she loved to play soccer, McKinley said, the rush of adrenaline in being a firefighter and being part of an organization where she possibly would be able to take part in saving someone's life started to draw her into firefighting.
But the day came when McKinley and her squad couldn't get to a victim in time. She still vividly remembers when she and a fellow squad member went into the building to retrieve the body. She had trained for something like this, but when they got to the scene, they found that there was a second victim -- the woman's pet Rottweiler had never left his owner's side.
That was the tipping point that caused her to search for a way where she would be able to firefight full-time, McKinley said.
"Once you experience something like that, you can't just do it part time. ... I wanted all of it," she said. "When the pager goes off, everything stops. The world stops spinning, and someone needs help. The only thing that matters is to get from A to B to get to that person."
Her first step was to attempt to enter the Air National Guard to serve in crash and fire rescue, where she would be able to make firefighting a career. But after beginning the process and going through the physical, she was placed on a waiting list. Discouraged by the waiting process, McKinley was talked into going to see a Marine Corps officer selection officer.
After discussing the training regimen and what she would be tested to do -- combined with the leadership, physical training and the opportunity to serve her country -- she she knew she was hooked.
"This is what I was meant to do," she said. "This is it, because I still have those kids looking at me, but they're not in my English class. They're Marines."
McKinley said she finds that many of the attributes that helped her to succeed as a teacher are transferrable to her new role as a Marine Corps officer. It requires patience, honesty and being OK with not being liked all of the time, she noted. But most importantly, she added, it requires the ability to listen.
She said she has the utmost respect for each of the Marines with whom she has the pleasure of serving, noting "the utter gratitude I have for them at their age to make the sacrifice."
"I can't imagine at 18, 19 joining the Marine Corps," she said, "but here these Marines are doing such an enormous service for themselves and their country."
Although she has no definite plan for what her future holds, McKinley said, she does know she eventually plans to return to teaching now that she has earned the knowledge and credibility she yearned for when she was teaching in that 9th grade classroom.
(Marine Corps 1st Lt. Michele Perez serves with the 2nd Marine Logistics Group.)