Friends and relatives doubted that Kelli Ten Hulzen could survive military basic training.
So the new high school graduate from Waverly, Nebraska, had a chip on her shoulder when she enlisted in the Marine Corps back in 1991.
Undersized and unathletic at the start, Ten Hulzen survived the Marines’ notoriously tough boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina.
Though her stay in the Corps lasted just one tour, Ten Hulzen said, she had joined a culture that would be part of her long after she returned to civilian life.
“I identify with it. It never leaves you,” said Ten Hulzen, who now lives in Firth.
Currently, women make up about 7 percent of the Marine Corps, less than half of the percentage in the Army, Navy or Air Force.
Because of their small numbers, female Marines often rely on each other for support — even after they leave active duty. That’s why Ten Hulzen and several other female former Marines from across Nebraska have formed a chapter of the Women Marines Association.
The group, calling itself “NE1 Lady Leathernecks,” has never grown beyond the original handful of women who started it 18 months ago. So over the next three days they will hold “meet and greet” events in Omaha, Lincoln and Kearney to attract more Marines to their unique sorority.
“We have a similarity of experiences that have really bonded us together,” said former Marine Penny Miller Hardiman of Blair, another “Lady Leatherneck.”
Hardiman was in Navy Junior ROTC at her high school in Flint, Michigan, and joined the Marines in 1982 after graduating.
“I was up for a new adventure,” Hardiman said. “I was motivated to make a difference. I wanted that extra challenge — a physical challenge and a mental challenge.”
She spent 4½ years in the Corps, much of it as a ground captain directing AV-8B Harrier jets at Cherry Point, North Carolina. She met a Marine named Michael Hardiman, who would become her husband.
Today, their daughter is a Marine, too.
“I had a blast. I had some really good friendships from it,” said Penny Hardiman, now a registered nurse at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “I’m finding more and more women Marines to share that with.”
Besides boosting one another, the chapter’s purpose is to distribute packets of essential supplies to veterans who are down on their luck.
“We want to help women vets, vets that are homeless, concentrating on women Marines,” Ten Hulzen said. “If somebody’s having a rough time or needs help, we’ll be there.”
Women have been part of the Marine Corps for less than half of the force’s 239-year history. Ten Hulzen said that when she wears clothing with Marine Corps references on it, sometimes she gets a strange reaction.
“People say ‘Oh, is your father a Marine?’ ” she said. “Women can be Marines, and we are.”
The Corps first enlisted women in 1918, recruiting about 300 female reserves to fill stateside clerical jobs while male Marines served overseas during World War I, according to the Women Marines Association website.
Women became a permanent part of the Marines in 1943, with the creation of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. They were integrated into the regular Marine Corps following congressional action in 1948.
The Marines are a hypermasculine culture, a brotherhood that hasn’t always appreciated the presence of a sisterhood in its midst.
At least seven female Marines have died from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some Marine Corps leaders — and many among the rank and file — have opposed recent efforts by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to open up positions in front-line infantry units to women, expressing concern that it will hurt the effectiveness and cohesion of such units.
“I’m all for it. I don’t see a problem,” Ten Hulzen said.
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