FORT LEE, Va. -- What is normally a happy occasion seemed less so for Chief Warrant Officer 5 Maria G. Martinez when she was handed the Quartermaster Corps’ senior position for her rank at a change of responsibility ceremony here in November.
During the formalities that marked the beginning of her tenure as Regimental CWO, she stood at the lectern reading from a prepared script in a low monotone, her voice sometimes trembling and her nose occasionally sniffling.
In retrospect, Martinez described the occasion as heavy – a thousand pounds of emotion from the past 30 years compressed into minutes. It was the emblematic finish line of an arduous career journey. The excitement over the opportunities the position offered – oh, and she would be the first woman to walk the corps’ RCWO path, by the way – clawed at her as well, but her restraint reigned back any outward elation.
“In the real world, if you show some type of emotion or cry, it’s looked upon as a weakness, right?” she suggested as a measure of acceptance.
The sneaker company Nike has been saying the same thing with a recent women’s empowerment TV ad that starts with the line, “If we show emotion, we’re called dramatic …,” and ends with, “If they want to call you crazy … fine, show them what crazy can do.”
Martinez’s life and career doesn’t exactly fit into the crazy category, but far from normal would be an apt description. Her achievements represent what is possible from a life that started at the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder, and the resiliency of individuals who experienced unfettered harassment and bigotry in the earlier days of the military.
Born in Coahuila state, Mexico, Martinez grew up as the oldest and only girl among three children of a working class family. She used the phrase “humble beginnings” more than once as a gloss-over description of her childhood.
“I think our home in the neighborhood had the first (water) toilet,” she recalled.
To help pay the bills, Martinez’s father worked on railroads across the border in the U.S., and would bring her dresses and other gifts from his travels. Like any adoring daughter, she was enchanted with the life she knew.
“I had my mother’s love and my dad would bring me things from the states. I never knew I was poor until I joined the Army, really,” she said.
Martinez and her family moved to Houston while she was still in kindergarten. As her dad followed work opportunities, they would subsequently relocate to Rock Springs and then on to Comstock, Texas, a southwestern ranching town situated roughly 35 miles from the Mexican border.
“There are only 200-300 people there,” Martinez recalled. “Caucasians and Mexicans were all I knew.” Along with her first inklings of what poverty looked like.
Comstock had no factories or mills, only a border patrol and large ranches. The townsmen worked long hours as ranch hands – caring for livestock and doing odd jobs around the properties as Martinez’ father did. Townswomen worked as domestics in the homes of “the Americans” as her mother did.
“I would see my mother work so many hours,” she tearfully remembered. “She would get paid $250 a month to wash all the dishes in the morning, wash their clothes and clean the house. But she always took time to dress me to go to school; me and my brothers. I think I have a lot of shoes now because I only had one or two pairs as a child, and I would always rotate them. My mom sacrificed a lot for us.”
In addition to the family’s fragile financial situation, Martinez was saddled with English language problems during her elementary school years, and was bullied as a result. Furthermore, her academics were subpar, she said.
“I was always in trouble,” Martinez recalled, “because teachers would constantly send me home with books, and I couldn’t understand them. My mom learned English with me trying to help me read all the books.”
Martinez graduated as salutatorian of her 10-student high school class in 1988. What came next was a young adult’s acceptance of facts – she could go to college and weigh down her family financially or join the military.
“I knew my parents could not afford college, even though I was given a (partial) scholarship (as a National Honor Society member and track and field athlete),” Martinez said. “I didn’t want to put an additional financial burden on them. The recruiters told me I would get paid every two weeks just doing what I love – running and putting in a little hard work here and there.
“They never told me about cleaning toilets,” she continued with a laugh over the memory of life as a private in basic training. “My mother never allowed me to do any of that stuff. She would iron my clothes and do everything so I could concentrate on studying. I was a little spoiled, I guess.”
Martinez might have been sheltered but was certainly not beyond hard work, having been a firsthand witness to such. She quickly picked up on the idea that Soldiering, beyond the icky GI party moments, is an honorable profession in which hard work was rewarded with promotions and gender was not an issue, at least on paper.
After her enlistment in 1988 and training as a 76-Papa (now 92A) automated logistical specialist, she headed into the ranks with a drill instructor-influenced understanding of what the institution stood for, but she quickly became aware of political, racial and gender issues at the ground level. An incident early in her career concerning the latter provided the impetus for adaptation throughout her career.
“I had duty one night and (the first sergeant) came in,” she recalled. “It was Christmas or New Years. He said, ‘I guess you’re the only one here.’ My battle buddy had gone to dinner or something. He said, ‘I can kiss you right now and nobody would know.’ He saw an opportunity.
“I said, ‘I will punch you so hard you won’t be able to walk in the morning, and I will let everybody know!’”
Needless to say, the first sergeant declined to advance, and Martinez said he never bothered her again.
Martinez learned such behavior demanded an immediate response – either squash it then and there or report it, especially if it continues. “I never had to report anything, but I think there are many in our ranks who have experienced it and did not report it,” she said. “That’s hard to accept.”
Learning opportunities were abundant during Martinez’ first tour of duty. One of her supervisors, retired CW4 Mary Thompson, was a walking, talking tutorial who embodied Martinez’s version of what a Soldier should be and whose attributes were worthy enough to bottle up and sell.
“She was a fireball; that’s what they called her,” Martinez said. “I used to type for her and did whatever she said because she was very aggressive, but she was still a lady and very compassionate. She was my inspiration from day one.”
And justifiably so. When Martinez received an Article 15 for fighting with her roommate and platoon sergeant, Thompson was steadfast in her support when no one else stood in her corner.
“When everybody turned their back on me, my chief was still there, and she still believed in me,” said Martinez, noting the incident taught her to channel her emotions. The letter of support submitted by Thompson during those disciplinary proceedings is among the mementos Martinez has held onto over the years.
The experiences with Thompson and another warrant officer, (now retired) CW4 Armando Ygbuhay, whom she worked for at a subsequent assignment, influenced her decision to pursue the warrant officer path, she said.
In 1995, Martinez attended warrant officer school with the support of her mentors and others. Although she had suffered quite a few indignities as a Soldier, nothing – not even her family’s subservient status as ranch hands and domestics for the wealthy in Texas – could prepare her for the indignity she suffered during a senior officer in-ranks inspection.
“They smoke you and do all kinds of stuff to degrade you,” she said of the formation, which served as a kind of introduction to course expectations. “They’d ask you things like ‘What makes you think you want to be a warrant officer?’ and other questions.”
When the “Where are you from?” question was posed to Martinez, she answered she “was born in Mexico and raised in Texas.”
“What makes you think you need to be here?” asked the senior leader, who then spat on Martinez and told her “to go back to Mexico.”
“He probably said it to a few other Hispanic people as well,” she acknowledged.
Admitting her propensity for not backing down when it when it comes to self-preservation, Martinez said she wanted to “sock” the officer but held her bearing. “I had just got into the warrant officer school,” she observed, “and I couldn’t afford to get in trouble.”
The incident, however, had set her aspirations of achievement on fire.
“It gave me a greater ambition to succeed; to get through things,” she said, noting it also taught her “not everyone is going to be in your corner.”
By the early 2000s, Martinez was on a career tear. She had completed two tours in Saudi Arabia and a team from her shop at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, had earned the Supply Excellence Award for three consecutive years. There was a cost, however, to Martinez’ ambitions. She said she pushed her troops hard, and some resented her for it.
“They brought me down to ground again and reminded me awards are great, but you cannot forget the fact people are human, and they have problems and issues in their private lives. You cannot cross the line.”
Remarkably, some of the same Soldiers who resented Martinez for her aggressiveness stood in her corner during a time of great suffering.
“They were by my bedside in Alaska when …” She does not complete the thought, but wipes her eyes over the memory. “It wasn’t mandatory,” she said. “They were there because they wanted to be by my side, not because someone told them they had to do it.”
The compassion her Soldiers showed was a teaching moment for Martinez.
“Life has its ups and down, but you have to always come back to your roots,” she said. “Always help someone else. It is not just about you getting empowered.”
Martinez went on to complete three other overseas tours. She has mentored Soldiers, built leaders and has checked off a long list of achievements to include being the first in her family to earn a college degree.
“She took all the tough assignments and worked at every level,” said retired CW5 Antonio Ocasio, a Fort Lee civilian employee who met Martinez roughly 14 years ago. “Having a stable family helped her do it. She pulled it all off because of the great people behind her.”
As the Regimental CWO, Martinez will shape future training activities for QM branch warrant officers and serve as an advisor to the QM General about WO Cohort matters.
In retrospect, Martinez’s story could be associated with a lot of things – the March observance of Women’s History Month, the upcoming Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month campaign or annual celebrations of diversity in the military ranks.
Or it can be just accepted as remarkable and worth the release of every emotion she chose to hold back during her change of responsibility ceremony last year.