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Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Sterling Michelle Gill

By Casie Vinall
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 21, 2003 – During her travels to South Africa to visit friends, Sterling Gill listened to those who had to fight to protect their borders during a recent border war with Angola.

From the other side of the world, Gill decided to become an active part of the defense of her own country. "It made me very conscious of the fact that, as an American, I was fortunate to not have to worry about defending my borders against communism," the Gunnery Sgt said. "I realized that I was very lucky to be an American, and felt that I needed to give something back to my country."

Gill acted on her decision and enlisted with the Marine Corps Reserve. She began training at Paris Island, S.C., and then received her military specialty training in computer programming at Quantico, Va.

"I joined as a reservist," Gill recalled. "I figured I could handle anything for a weekend and two weeks in the summer."

Beginning work with a motor transport unit in Augusta, Ga., Gill was transferred to Texas, California and then overseas to countries such as Okinawa and the Philippines.

She eventually returned to Augusta, where she completed her degree in history and international relations. She then returned to Texas and ended up with the 4th Recon battalion in 1995.

It was there that she met her future husband. Their first meeting was while "jumping out of a perfectly good helicopter into a lake," she said, noting it will be a good story for the future grandchildren.

Gill's travels to South Africa not only prompted her to join the service, but also foreshadowed her work with other cultures. After serving in a variety of positions, Gill began working for the Interallied Confederation of Reserve Officers in 1996, which was her first joint service experience.

"It's very interesting," she said. "I was lucky enough to be able to go over with the team and take notes, do travel claims(take) pictures and historical annotationsand (get) some articles published for the team, but it was very interesting to be able to travel over to that type of environment and talk with our NATO allies and get their feel, and their perspective on things."

Following her tour with the confederation team, Gill accepted a position in the international programs area for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs. There she worked in readiness, training and mobilization for an exchange training program involving Great Britain, Germany and the United States.

For two weeks during the summer, 20 German and 20 British officers travel to the United States, in exchange for 40 American officers who trade places.

"They spend two weeks out in tanks, and in the dirt," Gill said. "Let's say we bring a tank officer over here to the United States. He goes out to a National Guard unit, or a Marine Corps unit, and we put him in a tank, and he goes out and plays the whole exercise with that unit."

"And what it does is it allows them to get hands-on experience with what we do, and how we run our training," she said. With this hands-on experience, Gill said the officers benefit from improved relations.

"I think the biggest benefit is the interpersonal relations," she said. "So many people come back and say, 'I had a really great time,' and a lot of it has to do with who they talked to. 'I had a great time because my sponsor over there took me out, and we went and we toured Germany, then we sat down and we briefed this' and it's that personal connection."

This personal connection, Gill said, aids in joint operations. With an increase in exercises among the branches of service, she said this carries over into training with U.S. allies. She said working together facilitates communication between the forces.

"It allows for there to be a better working relationship if they know each other," she noted, "and I think that's extremely important in this day in age where we have a lot of these coalition forces going into different places.

"We need our allies, there's a reason we have them," she continued. "and it's nice to be able to say, not only are we allies, but I know this guy, and he's a friend."

All sides can benefit from looking at training at another angle, she said, and improving efficiency. "It opens up the possibilities to improve our training, to improve how we do things, and it gives us insight into another way of doing it," she said.

"It tends to take away that 'us and them' (mentality)," Gill said, "so you have a better working relationship when you do go overseas and get into that situation."

For the past six years, Gill has been working at her current job, making policy and giving oversight to help maintain the program. She said the program is always in motion.

"It's not like you're coming into a regular job where you can walk in and (say), 'OK, I use these orders, and this is who I talk to, and this is what goes on,' because every year it changes," she said.

"As reservists, they come over at a different time every year, they go to a different unit every year," she said. "So you've got this huge list of contacts that changes on a regular basis, and it definitely keeps you on your toes."

From the international aspect of the program, Gill said understanding other cultures is necessary. "You have to understand the kind of the general personalities that you deal (with)," she said, "and so it's very challenging and it's very interesting and it's very fun to be able to look at how the interactions of all the different personalities and cultures tie into each other.

"You have a language barrier," she said, but "language is not everything. There's also a communication barrier, because you're dealing with people that are six or five hours ahead of you."

She said she is thankful for e-mail, because before its time, "it used to be miserable to come into work at 5 in the morning to make a phone call to Germany, just because you couldn't get it worked out any other way."

Keeping connected with our allies has become crucial with the coalition work that is going on today in the global war against terrorism, she said.

When terrorists hijacked and flew a plane into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Gill was scheduled to be at a meeting in the area where the plane hit. The meeting had been cancelled.

"By the skin of my teeth, I wasn't here," Gill said.

"We found at later that the pilot of the plane was a Navy captain who had belonged to our reserve unit," she said. "We know that he was dead prior to the plane crashing, because he would have never allowed it to hit the building in his old offices."

When Gill's husband called the morning of and told Gill of the attacks on the World Trade Towers, she turned on the television. She said she remembers watching a correspondent broadcasting from Washington, D.C., displaying pictures of the smoke from the Pentagon.

"I remember the first thing that it hit me where I knew exactly where the plane had hit," she said. "I just knew immediately it had dive bombed our offices, and it was so eerie. I mean, I'm getting goose bumps now, just remembering it, that those were our offices, and I just knew without even seeing the picture that we had been hit."

Since the area hit was slated for renovation and the offices were in transition, fewer people than before were in the area during the time of the attack, she said. "As many people as we lost, and as horrible as it was, we were really lucky," she said. "If it had hit at another wedge, we'd of lost thousands of people."

When Gill returned to the Pentagon, she said she remembers looking through the pictures of those who were killed and recognizing many faces, such as those who worked on her hall, or the man who "loaned me 15 cents one day for lunch." She also discovered that one friend had been killed when she read his name on the casualty list.

Today, her service to her country continues, and she encourages others to join. Although not for everyone, Gill said she recommends military service.

"There are some people that just do not fit into the military," she said, "and there's nothing wrong about it, that's just, some people don't fit into the Peace Corps (either). It's just personalities."

However, for those who are interested in it and are seeking this type of service, Gill said she encourages them to join. "I think military service is a great thing," she said. "You learn a lot about discipline. You learn a lot about how far you can stretch yourself. I mean, there are things I would have never thought of -- jumping out of a helicopter or airplane -- before you stretch yourself.

"You move in directions and do things that you would never have thought of doing on your own," she continued, "and through that, you understand that there are things that you can do, and that you accomplish that you may have thought that you couldn't do before. And once you have that knowledge, you can do anything."

(Casie Vinall was a summer intern for DefendAmerica.mil in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.)

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