Face of Defense: Marine Midshipman Follows Her Dream
By Linda Hosek
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 4, 2008 A Navy Web site showing midshipmen crawling through mud and carrying rifles was all Lauren Reisinger needed to see to set her military future in motion.
Marine Midshipman 1st Class Lauren Reisinger stands in dress uniform during a visit to her home in Marin County, Calif., June, 29, 2008. Reisinger is on a leave of absence while she attends the University of Jordan on a Defense Department scholarship to study the Arabic culture and language. She is holding a Mameluke sword with her name engraved on it, which she received in connection with the Professor of Military Science Award, the highest honor given to one midshipman each year. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Then a high school sophomore and now a Marine midshipman, Reisinger couldn’t have predicted the extreme pain of her first five-mile “hump” or the absolute thrill of graduating No. 1 in her Marine Corps ROTC class and receiving the top awards for leadership, military knowledge and physical fitness.
She also couldn’t have predicted where she would be now: spending a year abroad at the University of Jordan to pursue Middle Eastern studies and Arabic, thanks to a Defense Department scholarship for tuition.
But that’s the future that lay ahead in 2004 when Reisinger applied for a full ROTC scholarship at Drexel University and selected the Marines – not knowing exactly why.
“I chose to check the ‘USMC’ box simply because something in my heart told me I should,” she said. “That simple choice has made an immense impact on the rest of my life.”
Now 22, Reisinger is close to completing these phases of her academic and military training. In May, she will receive a degree from Drexel in international studies with minors in Arabic and world politics. In June, she will earn her commission and be sworn in as a second lieutenant.
From there, she sees a career with the Marines – or one that could go in a variety of directions, depending on what drives her at the moment.
“For years, I have dreamt of being the secretary of state, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a senator, a foreign ambassador or even in my wildest dreams I have imagined myself as president,” she said.
A 'Black Sheep's' Background
While the military seems like a perfect fit for Reisinger, she had to forge it by herself, leaving the comfort zone of her life in Marin County, a northern California area she describes as “extremely sheltered, wealthy and liberal” and that local people refer to as the “Marin bubble.”
“Within my family, I am somewhat of a ‘black sheep,’” she said. “Of the four children, I am the only one to join the military, go to college outside of Northern California, not be a die-hard, very left-wing liberal, live in the Middle East and want to pursue a political career. My siblings support what I do, although they don’t understand where I get my drive from and don’t identify with my choices.”
In fact, most people tried to talk her out of it, she said.
No chance of that for a person as focused and self-aware as Reisinger, going back to when she saw those pictures of midshipmen crawling through the mud as a high school sophomore. Shortly after, she set out to sink her own feet into military life by applying for a summer seminar at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., before her senior year – and got it.
“I felt like I was in my element for the first time,” she said. “The military atmosphere made me come alive, and I just knew that I was destined to be an officer.”
Reisinger did so well that summer she received congressional nominations to both the Naval Academy and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. She also filled out an ROTC application, saying she didn’t really know what it was – only that “it was something military.”
When it came time to make decisions, she said, she relied on a gut feeling. She chose Marine Corps ROTC over Naval Academy Prep School and launched her academic and military life on the campus of Drexel University in Philadelphia.
As a freshman, she decided to concentrate on the Middle East and take Arabic, thinking she could use her language skills in the Marine Corps and later at the State Department or CIA.
“I became completely intrigued with not only the language, but the culture, religion and history of the Middle East as well,” said Reisinger, who arrived in the military with considerable cultural exposure. To date she’s traveled to 27 countries, and every continent except Antarctica.
Proving 'Them' Wrong
Then there was the ROTC challenge – one she wasn’t always sure she could hack.
“When I began ROTC, I was probably one of the worst in my class,” she said. “I obviously knew the least about the military, [and] wasn’t accustomed to the rigorous physical training or demanding military lifestyle. … It didn’t help that I was the only female Marine in my freshman class. Many of my upperclassmen thought I wouldn’t make it through [that year], but I was determined to prove them wrong.”
The hardest moment came the second weekend during a field exercise to Fort Dix, N.J., that started with a five-mile “hump,” or speed walk – something she had never done. She carried a 40-pound pack and wore boots two sizes too large because there weren’t any that fit her.
It was unmitigated misery from the beginning, she recalled, and she fell behind.
“I remember my back aching under the weight and pressure of the pack,” she said. “My legs ached from the unusually wide strides. My arms were going numb, because the weight of the straps on my shoulders was so heavy it cut off blood flow. But the worst of all, my feet were rubbed raw from the new, oversized boots.”
Following in a van was a gunnery sergeant she described as the “scariest force” she had ever experienced, even though she knew it was his job to toughen her up.
“I remember him yelling at me: ‘Hey, Blondie! What’s someone like you doing in my Marine Corps?’”
He ordered her to catch up. When the “hump” ended, it was only 9 a.m., with the rest of the day ahead of her.
“I felt as though I might die,” she said. But she stuck with the exercise until it was over, when she collapsed into bed, unable to move for a full day. “After that,” she said, “I made it my mission to get into shape.”
And she did – with help from the same gunnery sergeant who had terrified her. She worked out in the gym for up to two hours a day on top of regular training – and it paid off with high fitness scores and awards.
Rising to the Top
She applied that same focus to all her ROTC activities to prove herself and pull ahead.
“I never once slept in, always showed up with my uniform perfectly ironed, volunteered for everything, attended all extra optional evolutions and was easily the best in my class when it came to memorizing the military knowledge,” she said. “It took several months for all of these traits to show through, but once they did, I could tell that other midshipmen began to respect me and realize that I was a dedicated, committed, strong-willed person who was not going to accept failure.”
Reisinger also used her summers to absorb military experiences to make her more knowledgeable about the big picture. She spent a week on a destroyer ship, a week on a nuclear submarine, a week in aviation and a week in infantry training. She also attended Mountain Warfare School and Officer Candidate School.
As respect for her grew, she was chosen as the battalion commander, making her the highest-ranking midshipman. With that came the freedom to pick the brains of officers about leadership and to attend officer staff meetings.
“My passion for leadership began at a young age when I was always selected as team captain, was editor of the yearbook and was a class officer all four years of high school,” she said. “The military has taken that passion and given me a set of skills to develop my natural ability to lead.”
After four years, the once “weakest link” graduated at the top of her ROTC unit. For that, she earned the Professor of Military Science Award, which comes with a Mameluke sword with her name engraved on it. She also received national recognition, including the Dr. Sidney Ross Young American Award, the Military Officers Association of America Award and the National Defense Industrial Association’s ROTC award.
Back on the academic side, Reisinger said, she wanted to commit herself to learning the Arabic language and believed she needed to immerse herself in Arabic culture. She proposed a fifth year of study at the University of Jordan – and it was approved, along with a $49,205 scholarship from the Defense Department for tuition. She’s been there since late July and lives on a short leash with a family that monitors her friends, wardrobe and actions.
Despite the restrictions she feels as a woman, she said, she values the cultural and political exchanges she has had with Arabs. “I absolutely love representing the USA and feel like I have [had] a positive influence,” she said.
She added that she also hopes to have a positive influence on the world stage after she leaves Jordan – first as a Marine Corps officer and later as a politician. She knows exactly where to place the credit for her successes.
“After my parents, the Marine Corps has had the most influence on my life,” she said. “The military makes me a stronger, sharper, harder and even more driven person than I would be otherwise.”