Most amazing people don’t start their lives knowing that they’re going to be legends. They perform their tasks, learn their lessons, endure their hardships and accomplish their victories, all without the knowledge that someone, someday will herald them as revolutionaries.
I suppose that’s what makes them legends. They were strong enough to become legendary, but humble enough not to realize it.
Such is the case with Retired Major General Marcelite Harris.
Marcelite, as she likes to be called these days, started her life in the military during a rather interesting time. The Vietnam War was in full swing and social reform was sweeping the nation. But for Marcelite what captured her attention was not the civil unrest or screaming throngs of protesters but the call to travel the world while serving her country. The military seemed like the perfect fit.
Marcelite’s road to greatness started off in a seemingly ordinary way.
“When I came into the Air Force after officer training school I was an administrative officer,” Marcelite explains, “and a deputy administrative officer at that. That included the postal work, drafting (if people needed something drafted), and other office-related duties.”
Not the most exciting position in the whole world, admittedly, but she did her job and she did it well. And so it was thus for a while. Until she went to Germany. That’s when everything changed.
“The Colonel (Col. Thompson) who was the Director of Materiel – which included supply and maintenance – said to me, ‘how would you like to be a maintenance officer?’ and I said ‘Well, sure!’ and it was just like that!”
This would have been a seemingly innocuous transition, really. If being a maintenance officer weren’t exclusively a male occupation to have at that time. Something Marcelite was about to find out.
“All the other [maintenance] officers had gone to this school; it’s a seven month training school,” Marcelite says. “And I thought it was just going to be, you know, custom orders and there she goes.”
So she applied…And was promptly turned down by the Air Force Personnel Center. Why? Because, according to Marcelite, they had no women in the career field, and it sounds like they wanted to keep it that way.
“I worked with a female general who worked in the office where my application had been received, though she wasn’t a general at the time. She told me that they literally took my applications and threw them in the trash can.”
Clearly the quest to become a female maintenance officer wasn’t going to be easy. She didn’t let that ruffle her feathers, however, so Marcelite applied again. And they turned her down again.
“This time it was because [I was told] my career field was short of officers,” she explains, “but they could take anyone and make them into an admin officer.”
And Marcelite Harris is not just anyone. So the battle continued.
“I spoke with Col. Thompson and he said, ‘let’s write to Col. Jeanne Holm’, who later became the first woman general in the Air Force. I wrote a letter to Col. Holm, and told her that I was interested in being in the [maintenance] career field. She wrote me back in about six weeks and said, ‘ you’ve got a class date’.”
So that’s how Marcelite Harris became the first female maintenance officer in the Air Force. However, the challenges in this young trailblazer’s life were far from over.
“This was during the late 1960’s,” Marcelite explains. “The late sixties saw us do away with the draft. We saw civilian women going for equal pay with upward mobility. The world was just changing itself. Women were burning bras and everything in protest.”
It was a pretty revolutionary time to be a woman in the workforce, but to be a woman in the military – in a heavily male-dominated career field – was a unique challenge all its own. Some might say that it would be too much trouble to get involved in such social reform push-back. But, as we’ve already established, Marcelite is not afraid of facing adversity.
After finishing school and becoming a well-trained maintenance officer, it seemed only natural for Marcelite to jump right into the action. She wanted to start working with airmen, start taking charge, start making a difference, and the flightline seemed the perfect place for her to do just that.
Unfortunately, that too would come with some interesting road blocks.
It was hard for Marcelite to get on the flightline, but it turns out she had a few friends in the right places. The colonel who got her into maintenance – that same Col. Thompson – was the wing commander at Korat, Thailand. Col. Thompson told personnel to send her to him because he wanted to put her on the flightline.
Oh, but if only it were that easy.
“I get to that base, and sure enough they did not put me on the flightline,” Marcelite says. “So he told the colonel [in charge of the flightline] later, ‘put her on the flightline’. He told the colonel a second time, ‘put her on the flightline’. By the time he told him a third time he said, ‘I’m not asking; it’s an order. Put her on the flightline’. That order that changed my life.”
That one action made her decide to stay in the Air Force. So what was it about working on the flightline during Vietnam that made Marcelite decide the Air Force was the permanent place for her?
“People,” she says without hesitation. “It was the people.”
That, she says, has made all the difference.
“I was on the flightline in Thailand during the Vietnam War. I witnessed seventeen, eighteen, nineteen year olds taking care of airplanes. These are people who are so dedicated, so thorough in their work. This was a time when students who were in the United States were protesting the war. It got to be very heated in the states, but these people still knew that they were putting a pilot in that seat. They wanted the plane to come back and they wanted the pilot to come back and to complete his mission.”
Marcelite lead and worked alongside the dedicated, hardworking maintenance crews who maintained the aircraft for pilots during the Vietnam war. It was hard work, it was grueling work, but it was all worth it. Completing the mission was the top priority.
“They [the maintenance airmen] were young, and they did young, silly things, but when it came to that aircraft they were very serious.”
The flightline became Marcelite’s home away from home. She would work, do paperwork, even eat lunch in a truck that lived on the flightline almost as much as she did. To her, this was where she belonged. Her job – and her people –mattered to her most.
“That’s when I realized the Air Force was people. That’s what it really is.”
Indelibly, certain people stood out more than others.
“Col. Thompson was definitely my mentor,” Marcelite says. “He was ahead of his time; thinking that more career fields could be open for women.”
She went on to become one of the first AOCs – Air Officer Commanding – (a squadron commander) at the Air Force Academy. Again, this was one of those small steps that made big waves. This was during the time when they were just starting to allow women into the academies. Females were catching a hard time for it, too.
“They had three classes of all men ahead of the women,” Marcelite recalls, “and they tried to run them out.”
Well that was just not going to happen. Not on Marcelite’s watch.
“The men basically opened that door for me,” she says, “because they were being mean to those women.”
The days where organizations could hang unspoken ‘no girls allowed’ signs on their front doors were coming to an end. As a result, Marcelite was there to help lead the female leaders of the force to a brighter, more balanced future.
Her career took her from the admin office, to the flight line, to the Air Force Academy and even to the White House where she served as an aide during the Carter administration. Every step she took was one that few or no women had taken before, yet for Marcelite it was all in a day’s work.
“Being the first is not something I think about,” she says with a light laugh. “I don’t think that I am about to open a door for women. Those things just happen to me. It just happened that I was the first woman to do it.”
When it comes down to it, Marcelite says, it’s the dedication to the work that shines through above all else.
“The reason that I was the first to do some things is because I love my jobs. Therefore I did my jobs well. That caused people to say ‘you’re who I want’.”
That’s one of the lessons Marcelite hopes to relay when she tells her story, especially when she tells it to women.
“Know your job and do it well. Know your people,” she says. “Nothing is denied you by going into the military. You are important. You’re important to the mission and to the United States. You’re important to the president. You are important, and that’s what matters.”
When I asked who she admired as a leader, Marcelite – a woman after my own heart – said that it was the irreplaceable Captain James T. Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
“A lot of the traits that he exhibited in that show I adopted for me,” she says. “He was considerate. He trusted his people. He was able to manage. To get people to do what they needed to do. He didn’t ask people to do something he wouldn’t do. So that’s kind of the way I would lead my people.”
A woman of success and authority with an appreciation for Star Trek. Now that is the making of a legendary leader.
I guess we know now why the last part of Marcelite’s name spells elite.
The efforts of leaders like Marcelite Harris helped pave the way for women to pursue any path that they wanted. Women are taking on roles like never before these days as we move toward a more gender-neutral playing field. We couldn’t have done that without the strength, dedication and unwavering professionalism of people like the magnificent Marcelite Harris.
And I know that I, for one, will be eternally grateful.
Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science. She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.
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