Posted on Sat, Jun. 02, 2007
Graduating into the Marines
Leah Etling

Jessica Leal could have received a scholarship to attend college if she committed to later join the Marine Corps, but she chose a different —and perhaps more difficult — path.

Three days after graduating from Shandon High School on June 15, Leal plans to leave directly for South Carolina to attend boot camp.

“I went toward what I’ve always wanted to do.…That’s the way I looked at it,” said Leal, 18, who has attended school in Shandon since fourth grade.

Though Leal is the only student from Shandon this year entering the Marines, recruiters from Paso Robles have developed relationships with Shandon students, and the small school has had a number of graduates go on to serve.

“Each year, kids know the previous year’s kids that went in, and they talk with them. I think that’s a big part of it,” Shandon school district Superintendent Chris Crawford said.

There are six recruits from the North County this year, according to the Marines Corps recruiting office in Paso Robles. Leal is the only female.

She will follow in the footsteps of her older brother, Tim Gourd, an Army sharpshooter now deployed in Iraq, and grandfather Daniel Leal, who served in the Marines during the Vietnam War.

Leal has lived with her grandparents Pamela and Daniel Leal since age 9. Before that, she went to four different ele-

mentary schools in San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties while living with her mother, who now lives in Iowa.

Her early itinerant life has left Leal searching for life experiences that give her a sense of family, she said. She has found that in Shandon and expects to find it in the Marines as well.

“I like the fact that no matter what happens you’ll always have a family,” she said of the Corps.

She has been training for a year now to prepare for boot camp, meeting with recruiters and other area recruits on weekends and doing exercises such as running with backpacks full of sand, sprinting up and down stairs and completing dozens of push-ups, sit-ups and leg lifts.

“I feel like I’m mentally ready, maybe not 100 percent physically ready,” she said. Her boot camp at Paris Island, S.C., will last 12 weeks.

Crawford said Leal’s dedication to preparing for boot camp has been noticeable.

“She is a very driven person, and she’s looking to make a commitment, both to the country and to some friends she has developed that are in the military,” Crawford said.

At Shandon, Leal has been involved in drama, FFA and cheerleading and played softball and basketball this year. She also sings and plays numerous instruments.

She has a grade-point average of 3.3 and enjoys history, English and math. She hopes to earn a law degree during her military service and become a member of the Marines’ JAG division.

Shandon drama and English teacher John Carroll said he has watched Leal grow. She’s working on a novel in her spare time, Carroll said, and she has taken two trips to Europe with the school’s travel club.

“She has such potential. I think it can be realized through the service she wants to do,” Carroll said. “I have no doubt she will go back to school.…I know she knows the value of education.”

Though she still has prom, graduation and other end-ofthe- year activities ahead, Leal said her real excitement is coming from beginning her career.

“I really want to go (to boot camp) now,” she said. “That sounds crazy because a month ago I didn’t know if I was ready. Now I want to get it done with.”

She knows it may be a challenge. “(The recruiters) said, ‘Don’t expect it to be easy. Expect to have to fight (for) whatever you want. We don’t just hand things to you. You have to earn them.’ ”