“I was just that much more determined to make it through boot camp because they didn’t think I would.”

Photo by Daniel R. Burke



Receptionist, Health System executive office

Length of service:

3 years

Other stuff:

The military impulse runs strong in her family Ñ her father and roughly one-fourth of her other relatives either serve or have served in the armed forces.

Napoleon once noted that an army travels on its stomach. Staff Sgt. Stephanie Johnson of the U.S. Marine Corps couldn’t agree more.

While the fare America’s military eats has historically won no medals for taste, Johnson says it’s gotten better recently, as have the mess halls they dine in. She should know, for not only does she eat it, she prepares it too.

Johnson is attached to a food service division based at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station. She joined the regular Marines fresh out of high school; when her four-year tour of duty ended in 1991, she stayed on as a reservist because she enjoyed the camaraderie.

Unlike the food, Johnson is highly decorated, having earned six medals and three ribbons for her service to her country, including a Kuwait Liberation Medal for her service during Operation Desert Storm. We talked with her about that service and her family, which includes three children, earlier this summer.

Q. What does a typical Marine tour of duty involve?

A. Usually, you go through your basic training [at Parris Island], and then school, which is food service for myself. And then I did a year in Japan.

[The mess hall in Japan] was — really, it was like a restaurant, because most of the mess halls now look like four-star restaurants.

Q. Does the food taste like four-star restaurant fare?

A. We try — I mean, we do our best. Certain meals are prepared to not as much salt or spices as you would normally get in a restaurant, but it’s a pretty good meal. You have your ice cream dispensers and you have your fast-food side of the area.

Q. Did your training involve preparing food in a combat situation?

A. Yes. Now we have a tray ration system where you attach it to a Humvee and it’s able to heat canned meals. You just put it into the system and it heats up and we’re able to set up. We have a tent where we can set up the tables for the Marines to come and eat.

Q. I assume these canned rations aren’t as tasty as what you fix in the mess halls.

A. No, but you have some Marines that actually really enjoy them, more than the prepared meals.

Q. Usually, units that provide food and medical care are well back of the front lines, but do they train you in what happens should the fighting come to you?

A. Yes. Every year, we train for that type of situation, and all Marines go through the combat training, as far as the weapons [used]. As far as myself, I’m a staff sergeant, so I qualify with a pistol, which is the 9mm, and the M-16 rifle once a year.

Q. Have you been called up for active duty since your tour ended?

A. I was actually active duty when I went to Desert Storm.

Q. What was it like?

A. In the beginning, it was calm, ’cause it was a humanitarian mission at the time. But once the actual war kicked in, it was a bit nervous. The first week, it was like maybe every other day we were running to the bunkers, but it just got to the point where it was every day, and you try your best to keep up the morale for other Marines that are actually on the front lines.

Q. How big was your division, and how many people did you feed?

A. We fed anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 a day [with] a crew of at least 250, I believe.

Q. Have you found it generally congenial being a woman in the Marines?

A. No, I find it to be quite competitive. I guess it’s because it’s so many men to women, you have to constantly compete in order to move up. And I had to be able to talk to a male Marine just as hard as another male Marine would talk in my rank structure.

Q. Do you plan to move up in the ranks?

A. Yes. I’ve been a staff sergeant for, in January, two years, so I’m eligible now to pick up gunnery sergeant.

Q. You said that just about everybody else in your family who served went into the other branches. How did they react to your decision to join the Marines?

A. They thought because I was spoiled, they didn’t think I would make it through boot camp, and I was just that much more determined to make it through boot camp because they didn’t think I would. But now we sit around, we tell each other jokes and things like that, so it’s pretty good.

Q. How is it that so many of your relatives joined the military?

A. I guess that’s because my family is from [rural] Georgia and Louisiana. So it was like a sort of way to get away from that type of environment and see much of the world.

Q. Do you think your three kids should join the armed forces once they’re old enough to?

A. I think that’s a choice they would have to make. I think that at least one or two years, most teenagers, they should. It gives you a discipline, and that’s something that in teenagers today is very much needed.

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Originally published on September 2, 1999