CAMP AL TAQADDUM, Iraq --
Being a high school teacher, a professional soccer player and a firefighter in one’s local town are all great accomplishments. For one woman who has been all three, there was still something more she desired to pursue.
The majority of active-duty second lieutenants serving in the Marine Corps are right out of college or already have prior-enlisted service before deciding to become commissioned officers. 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.
She is currently serving her first deployment to Iraq as the G-6 communications operations officer for the 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Forward) aboard Camp Al Taqaddum, Iraq. However, just a few years ago, she found herself within the confines of 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 enrolled ranged anywhere from your star athlete destined to be drafted to the National Basketball Association, to international students who would return to their native country to serve a number of years in their nation’s military.
Nonetheless, McKinley loved teaching. She loved the impact she made on the students and the remarkable progress she would see in their academic abilities over the course of only several months. But then there came a point where she felt like she was coming up short.
“I needed to be able to do more,” McKinley 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 Winchendon 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. However, in an unexpected, but welcomed turn of events, she found an opportunity to play on a female 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 remembers the offer as an opportunity she could not pass up. Unfortunately, she did it for the love of the game and not the money, so 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 her town’s local fire department in Ripton, Vt.
“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.”
As much as she loved to play soccer, it was the rush and adrenaline in being a firefighter and being part of an organization where she would be able to possibly take part in saving someone’s life that started to draw her into firefighting.
Unfortunately, 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 member of her squad 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 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.
“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 Crash 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 the OSO discussed the training regiment, what she would be tested to do, combined with the leadership, physical training and the opportunity to serve her country, she knew she was hooked.
“This is what I was meant to do,” she said as she serves on her first deployment overseas as one of the officers-in-charge of a section of 19 Marines. “This is it, because I still have those kids looking at me, but they’re not in my English class, they’re Marines.”
McKinley finds that many of the attributes that gained her success as a teacher in the classroom are transferrable over to her new role as a Marine officer. She says there’s a requirement to be patient, honest and you have to be okay with not being liked all of the time. But most importantly, you have to be willing to listen.
She has the utmost respect for each of the Marines with whom she has the pleasure of serving.
“The utter gratitude I have for them at their age to make the sacrifice,” she said. “I can’t imagine at 18, 19 joining the Marine Corps, but here these Marines are doing such an enormous service for themselves and their country.”
Although there is no definite plan for what her future looks like, McKinley does know she eventually plans to return to teaching now that she has earned the knowledge and credibility she yearned for back when she was teaching in that 9th grade classroom.