She’s Got Grit: What you can learn from the highest ranking woman Marine Corps general
Hint: You’re not born with grit
The highest ranking woman general officer in the United States Marine Corps reserves and the only woman Marine Corps general officer commissioned through ROTC, Tracy Garrett has weathered the many changes in the Marine Corps over decades. When I reach her at her home in Port Townsend, she is soft spoken and articulate.
After growing up as a military brat for the first 16 years of her life — her father was a combat veteran of Vietnam and Korea — Garrett knew about the military out of the gate. She and her three younger siblings moved with their parents around the country for the first sixteen years of her life. When her family settled in Kent, Washington after her father’s retirement, Garrett decided to follow him into uniform.
A scholar and a leader
Though she did not grow up with athletics in the years before Title 9, Garrett as a young girl was both scholar and leader. “School work was always important to me,” she says in an interview for a dissertation for women in leadership. (1) She was also involved with the Girl Scouts for many years, which she considers foundational to her understanding of leadership and responsibility. When her father took over the JROTC program, she joined in high school to further develop her leadership.
Garrett knew in high school that she wanted to go to college, but money was tight. So she applied for a NROTC (Marine option) scholarship at the University of Washington. Throughout her college years she found ways to lead not only in ROTC but in her sorority as well, Kappa Delta, while balancing outside employment and college classes. Garrett didn’t expect to make the Marines a career, but thought of it as a good starting place for later life experience.
Garrett earned her commission from the ROTC program and majored in English. She married her college sweetheart, and went active duty. Her husband had no military affiliation but began training as a merchant marine.
“At the beginning of your career you have ideas of adventure and opportunity,” she says. “I don’t think this is any different for men and women.”
Unlike other military branches, the Officer Candidate School for Marines is only the beginning of training. All Marine Corps officers then move into The Basic School, 22 weeks of infantry skills and tactics.
Joining one of the first integrated Basic School classes
“Just before I joined, The Basic School had been different for women,” she explains. “Women had their own training company, and the school was shorter and focused only on those skills women could do in the Marines, administration, finance, that kind of thing.”
Garrett’s Basic School was one of the first integrated classes.
“We lived in the barracks with the men,” she says. “We were in “two-by- twos,” rooms that held two people with a bathroom in between. The rooms all around us were men.”
That wasn’t the most challenging part though.
“Everywhere in the Basic School we went with our pack, but our company always had extra equipment, too,” she says. “Marines always do. We had the machine gun, radios, stretchers. At the time I was probably 120 pounds, and every single day we headed out our staff platoon commander gave me extra gear to carry.”
She noticed, and so did the guys in her platoon.
“It was hard,” she said. “We were all 2LTs and there was nothing anybody could do about it. I said: I can do this.”
Was she ever discouraged or angry?
“Yes! Of course. You just have to do it, whatever it is. Sometimes getting angry fires up your determination so you aren’t defeated.”
How do you stay true to yourself through a changing organization?
When Garrett entered the Marine Corps, just as Title 9 was passed, it was undergoing one of many transformations she would live through over the years. “The Marine Corps used to accept women on the basis of brains. It was something you could measure, and there were always more women interested than there was room for them,” she explains.
She laughs. “But you know, some really smart people are useless. When we decided to integrate the force more fully, we looked at women with athletic backgrounds, but there was still a bias toward white women, and they didn’t have the same exposure to athletics as some other women did. It was a different time. It wasn’t ladylike to be sweaty. And sports were limited to tennis and archery.
“There wasn’t a standard physical fitness test until just before I came into the Marines,” Garrett says. “It was up to your commander to determine if you were fit or not, and it was a very arbitrary assessment. For women, we used to do a 40 yard shuttle,” she laughs. “Then there was a 600 yard walk- run, and most women I knew walked it. There was a bias toward femininity, too. We all wore heels and skirts. Today everyone wears the same uniform. The organization changes, but you don’t,” she says. “You have to be flexible but still stay true to yourself.”
Garrett’s first assignment was at Camp Pendleton, where her husband joined her soon after she began work. Though they hadn’t planned on starting a family, Garrett became pregnant. The Marines weren’t ready for that. Despite having changed policy to no longer discharge pregnant Marines from service only a few years earlier, Garrett was required to submit a written request to stay on active duty.
“I found that offensive,” she said. “What was wrong with me? Nothing!”
Beyond the offense, she and her husband ran into challenges with childcare, too, which was only available from 10 AM to 6 PM. “I was working 6 1/2 days a week, 10–12 hours a day,” she says. Her husband was often away at sea. Garrett loved the Marines, but had to find a way to be both a mother and a Marine. The Reserves allowed her to do both.
This led to the hardest lesson she would learn in her career.
The Hardest Lesson: Not Just About the Uniform
“It’s learning the lesson of balance,” she says. “Work and family. You have to figure it out so you can be an example to the people around you. It’s a harder challenge for women. I never worked with women, not ever. I didn’t want to be too much one of the guys. Being a mom as a young officer meant I had to figure out how to be an excellent mom and an excellent wife to a husband who was not military and an excellent Marine.”
“Sometimes getting angry fires up your determination.”
-MGen Tracy Garrett, USMC
What else was difficult?
“It was hard to stay in shape as a young mom,” Garrett says. “I didn’t grow up with athletics, and after two caesarians and trying to keep up with work, it was really tough.”
Moving to the Reserves might have been limiting to Garrett, but she continued to work hard and look for opportunity. Moving to Seattle, Washington to be closer to her family put her in a perfect position to work with outstanding logistics groups and the 4th Landing Support Battalion.
Going to War
In 2004, she was asked to be the Chief of Staff for the deployment to Iraq in support of Iraqi Freedom, a combat deployment which is her proudest service to the Marine Corps. “It was a deployed force of 15,000–18,000 people augmented by Army and Army National Guard and other joint and coalition forces,” she says. “The Marines had all of Western Iraq. It was always the tyranny of distance, moving the wounded and supplies around such a large area.”
“It’s learning the lesson of balance.”
-MGen Tracy Garrett, United States Marine Corps
The challenges were “getting peers to do shit,” she says. “The Chief of Staff is responsible for getting everyone to do the general’s thing without invoking his authority. There were twelve commanders, battalion level, all men. Because I was in the Reserves, we hadn’t served together in the past, and we hadn’t been at professional schooling together, so I was an unknown. You have to go into those situations and be honest about who you are and how you see things.”
She started by taking a risk, introducing a common Reserve leadership activity into the planning.
“In the Reserves, we always had command conferences so the commanders could get to know each other and spend time around each other, as well as talking about the operations,” she says. “But these guys weren’t used to that. I had to get the General to buy in, and then call each person and get his buy in, and then schedule it so every commander could make it.”
Despite the resistance to a new idea, and the division between those who had already deployed (“They thought of themselves as desert warriors and the rest of us as wannabes, and it was bullshit,” she says) she organized the conference and had everyone fully invested in its success.
In 2007, Garrett was promoted to Brigadier General, and became the first woman Inspector General of the Marine Corps. Three years later she was promoted to Major General.
What does she tell young officers coming into the service today?
Advice to new leaders
“I tell young officers that there is a graph with skills on one axis and leadership on the other, she says. You start with low skill and grow it. But skill becomes increasingly irrelevant after ten years. That’s where your leadership grows, but your leadership will always be questioned if it isn’t based on a foundation of strong skills. Your job (as a junior officer) is to become excellent at your skills. You have a relatively short time to become excellent. That has to be your focus.”
About grit, Garrett says “Grit makes me think of mental toughness. I don’t think you just have it, but I’m also sure you don’t just get it at 22. You have to develop it young. That’s why I’ve been so involved in the Girl Scouts and STEM programming for girls. It’s about developing skills, learning to support a group and learning to lead a group.” After being a Girl Scout for so many years growing up, well into high school, Garrett now serves on the board of her regional Girl Scouts organization.
“I’m a big believer in the work they do,” she says. “Did you know at one point about ten years ago 85% of the women in Congress had been Girl Scouts? They called it the Troop on the Hill. Barbara McKulsky in particular carried the Girl Scout promise and law in her pocketbook.”
Garrett’s long career gives her an interesting perspective on the maturation of a leader, too.
The experienced leader
After the initial “adventure and opportunity” a young person feels starting out, “you get to a place where you don’t want to let people down. You don’t want to disillusion anyone about what might be possible for them. That’s part of maturing in the service. Of course at some point you do it because it’s true to who you are.”
“Being a Marine is a life, it’s a lifestyle, it’s a mission.”
In the progression from a skills focus to a leadership focus, Garrett says around the time she took battalion command she saw the switch. “I could check their homework or I could inspire them to leadership,” she says. “At somewhere between 20–25 years, you’re not only a leader inside of your service, but a leader outside. You are part of a larger dialogue, representing your specialty in a much larger field. Then you get to another place -- looking out. I ask how I help the Marine Corps integrate. I can say: I’ve seen the outside world and we’re not there yet. It becomes your mission to help reform your service in a meaningful way.”
Before we close, I ask her what she thinks of the new integrated forces.
“The Marines have to start recruiting the women who can do the job,” she says. “But we also have to be looking at the work. Just because men can do something doesn’t mean that it defines the work. The requirements are going to change. We are nothing if not tradition bound in much of this. We don’t have to be patient, but there aren’t going to be three consecutive miracles either,” she laughs.
“It’s not all about strength, either,” she says. “Being a Marine is a life, it’s a lifestyle, it’s a mission.”
A few books MGen Garrett loves: Nine and Counting: The Women of the Senate, Juliette Gordon Low, The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts, Unbowed: A Memoir, Soundings
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1. Marianne Waldrop, “Understanding Woman Leaders in a Male Dominated Profession: A Study of the United States Marine Corps’ Women Generals,” PhD Diss, University of San Diego, 2016.