Erika I. Ritchie
The Orange County Register
CAMP PENDLETON — Second Lt. Mariah Klenke has done most everything with total commitment.
So it was no surprise to her parents, Darrell and Tina Klenke, that the 24-year-old from Breese, Ill., made history on Tuesday, Oct. 3, becoming the first female Marine to graduate from the Marine Corps Assault Amphibian Officer Course and earn the military occupational specialty of assault amphibian officer.
Six other Marines graduated with Klenke in a ceremony held at the YAT-YAZ Museum, which houses old assault vehicles and memorabilia from the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion at Camp Pendleton.
Klenke’s first duty station will be with the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion with the 1st Marine Division. Several other officers will begin their duties at the 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion with the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C.
“We cannot overlook the historic nature of this day,” Col. Dan Yaroslaski, commander of the Assault Amphibian School, told the graduates, family, friends, commanders and instructors gathered for the ceremony. “The Marine Corps has been through the process of integration. We can stop talking about integration. This is who we are. We have set the standards every Marine has to pass. There has been no distinction between male and female.”
Klenke was the first woman to enter the course after the Pentagon lifted its ban on women in combat roles in 2015.
She already was a high achiever in school — graduating from the University of Tennessee at Martin with a degree in accounting — when she told her parents that she planned to join the Marine Corps.
Tina Klenke recalled the moment her daughter made the announcement.
“We went for a car ride and she looks at me and says, ‘What would you say if I said I’m joining the Marine Corps?'” Tina Klenke recalled. “I told her, ‘Go for it.'”
Mom also told her daughter: “Do the best you can. There are so many opportunities for women.”
“She’s always been one to go above and beyond,” her father added.
For the last year, the former collegiate soccer player has held her own with her male counterparts. Klenke has been held to the same requirements as male Marines — first in Officer Candidates School, then in The Basic School and most recently in the Assault Amphibian Vehicle Officer Course.
The latter, a 12-week program, started in July at Camp Pendleton, preparing Klenke and six other Marine officers to serve as Assault Amphibian Vehicle platoon commanders. Klenke graduated with the third highest scores in her class.
“I’m excited to finally get done with the course and onto the fleet,” she said Tuesday, smiling broadly after the graduation ceremony
The most difficult part of the 12-week course, she said, was a one-week training of amphibious operations at the Beach at Camp Pendleton. There, she and her classmates practiced ship-to-shore movement and inland operation doing four missions a day.
“We operated on two hours of sleep,” she said.
Throughout her training, Klenke said, she was never treated differently from her male counterparts. “I wanted to do the best I could do,” she said. “It was me putting pressure on myself.”
Klenke, the youngest of four children, said her oldest brother, who joined the U.S. Army, was an inspiration to her. She had considered joining the military out of high school but decided to wait after getting a scholarship to play soccer at the University of Tennessee.
“A couple of months before graduation, I thought about joining the military again,” she said. “I chose the Marine Corps because it’s the best branch out there and I like being challenged.”
For classmate 2nd Lt. Daniel Humphries, 24, of Tucson, Ariz., who ranked No. 1 in the officer class, Klenke’s presence in the Assault Amphibian Officer Course wasn’t a distraction.
“She was good and the instructor did a good job keeping us all the same,” he said.
What impressed him most about Klenke, he said, was her ability to adapt to the very male-dominated environment of the assault amphibious vehicles.
“We’re all training the same standards,” he said. “There is no difference in the fight.”
During the ceremony, Col. Joe Russell, chief of staff for the 1 MEF, reminded the graduates that school is over and the time to lead is upon them.
“You will deploy,” he said. “Wherever the Marine Corps goes, you’re one of the first waves. Get ready to come in to an era of change we haven’t seen in a long time. It takes dedication to be a Marine, it’s 24/7, 365 days a year. The nation counts on us to be most ready when there is chaos.”
Russell pointed out global threats that are different than what Marines dealt with in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’ve got a couple of countries that have peer capabilities,” he said. “They hear us, see us and have vehicles with the same capabilities. The only difference between us and them — we have a distinct edge. We have the nation’s finest fighting systems.”
In the next few days, Klenke will be assigned to command a platoon. She most looks forward to getting to know them personally, she said.
“I want to know what they like to do and what they’re like,” Klenke said. “The Marine Corps is our job but it’s also our life. I want to make their job fun so they put their heart and soul into it.”
©2017 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)