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thedrifter
09-22-08, 09:26 AM
It's a 'band of brothers' — and sisters, too

Advertiser News Services

QUANTICO, Va. — Yes, she can. Si, ella puede. And she has.

When Sgt. Maj. Irene Zamora O'Neal joined the United States Marine Corps 23 years ago, she was escaping a lack of opportunities and abject poverty.

Today, she represents the achievements Latinas have made as they move up the ranks in the military into highly decorated careers, while inspiring others into leadership roles.

O'Neal recently was honored with a medal and crystal trophy by the Heroes and Heritage organization, at the National Council of La Raza's 2008 annual conference.

O'Neal received the award for her volunteer work and for the inspiration she provides to Latino youth about leadership, patriotism and education.

"The Marine Corps is a macho organization," said Fernando Rey, the chief executive officer of Heroes and Heritage. "It is 10 times more difficult to succeed in the Marine Corps than in the Army or Air Force. It is rare for a woman to get to that point where she is. I admire her."

O'Neal, a native of San Angelo, Texas, and a Mexican-American, said she joined the Marine Corps when she was 17, in search of education and opportunities, and following in the footsteps of her brother.

He had already been in the Marine Corps for two years. Her father died when she was 10 years old, and her mother struggled financially as a single parent to raise nine children. The family lived in a home with no running water or electricity. College was not an option for O'Neal.

But since enlisting in military service, O'Neal has never looked back.

"You hear about the band of brothers, I also call it the band of sisters," said O'Neal. "The Marines are a family. Unless you have been in the Marine Corps, you can't understand the type of bond and respect and pride that we hold. There is an opportunity for growth and for family. I love it."

O'Neal rose through the ranks of the Marine Corps, including service as a drill instructor and senior drill instructor.

While serving as a drill instructor, she received the Marine Corps League's "Drill Instructor of the Year" Award.

The 41-year-old O'Neal is one of two Latinas to ascend to the highest position for Marine Corps enlisted personnel. She was promoted to her present rank in January 2006, and since 2007 has served as the sergeant major at Marine Helicopter Training Squadron-164, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.

As the senior enlisted adviser to the commanding officer at California's Camp Pendleton, O'Neal is responsible for about 900 Marines.

Since 2006, Heroes and Heritage, a nonprofit, veterans and community outreach organization, has recognized the contributions of Latino service men and women to the military and their community.

Ellie