Manteca woman blazes trail in Marines
Iraq vet among few women to lead copter crew
Alex Breitler
Record Staff Writer
Published Friday, Mar 17, 2006

MANTECA - Anything but a desk job.

Jennifer Vollbrecht wanted action. And she found it in the Marine Corps.

The 20-year-old Manteca woman returned earlier this month from her first stint in Iraq, where she served as a helicopter crew chief - one of only a handful of women in the Marines ever entrusted with that job.

Vollbrecht had little time to relish her role in history. She worked 14-hour days on CH-46 dual-blade choppers shuttling injured troops in and out of battle zones. She faced the constant threat of being gunned down.

All this for a woman who, prior to boot camp, had rarely set foot outside Manteca.

"I don't really know what made me join," Vollbrecht said. "It wasn't for my family or anything. I just wanted to get out and see the world."

Women make up just more than 6 percent of the Marine Corps, up from 1 percent about four decades ago, according to the Women Marines Association. The nationwide group represents thousands of current and former female Marines.

Not only are the numbers of female Marines growing, but so is the range of duties handled by women, said 59-year-old Lynn Giaudrone of Stockton, president of the association's local chapter. She said she had goose bumps when she learned about Vollbrecht and her achievements.

"I'm amazed," said Giaudrone, who drove a forklift during the Vietnam War. "It's really important what she's doing. She is trailblazing for those behind her."

Vollbrecht's work also earned accolades from a retired lieutenant general who once served as president of the women's association.

"It's quite an accomplishment," said Lt. Gen. Carol Mutter of Brownsville, Ind., who 10 years ago became the first female Marine to wear three stars.

Women in the Marines are still prohibited from infantry, armor and artillery duties, Mutter said."But I think we have quite a few females who would volunteer for those jobs," she said. "They don't go into the Marine Corps to just sit behind a desk. You want to get out there and really make a difference."

Vollbrecht spent most of her life in Manteca, where she was home-schooled and attended church regularly at the Christian Worship Center.

She met with Marine recruiters and told them she wanted excitement. But she had to work for it. She trained for a year and enlisted on her 18th birthday, said her mother, Kim Lewis of Manteca.

"The Marines appealed to her," Lewis said. "They were the best of the best."

Vollbrecht endured boot camp and went through a year of schooling to become a helicopter crew chief. She said she was told at graduation she would be the sixth woman to do that job.

Officials with the Marine Corps couldn't confirm that, but a spokesman did say statistics broken down by gender suggest only a few women have held that position over the years.

Vollbrecht was responsible for careful inspections of helicopters and the loading and unloading of cargo and passengers. Many of the injured troops were flown to hospitals in Baghdad.

She said she was respected by her male colleagues.

"But it didn't just come," she said. "I had to earn it."

Vollbrecht married her husband, Nathan, in July, about a month before she shipped out to Iraq. For six months, the couple shared only e-mail and weekly phone calls.

That made her homecoming this month all the more joyous. Her mother, three of her four siblings and her husband met her at the airport.

After a quick visit back home in Manteca, Vollbrecht returned to San Diego, where she's training for a possible second deployment to Iraq.

Her mother hopes that day never comes. But if it does, she knows Vollbrecht is where she's wants to be: with her fellow Marines, both men and women.

"That so suits her," Lewis said. "She doesn't care if somebody says that's not a girl's job. She's going to go out and do it."

Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 239-6606 or