East Hartford woman sings praises of her Marines
By: John Karas

East Hartford has always held red, white, and blue close to its heart. So it's only fitting that one of the town's residents will be an Honorary Grand Marshal at the 2007 Veterans Day Parade scheduled to take place in Hartford November 4.
Phyllis McMeans, who served in the Marine Corps during the time of the Vietnam War, was chosen by the parade's organizing committee as one of the five honorary Grand Marshals to lead the celebration this year.

McMeans will also play an even more prominent role during the ceremony. Following the traditional moment of silence that honors all of those who have given their life for freedom and country, she will direct the Hopewell Baptist Church Gospel Quartet in their rendition of the National Anthem.

"I am humbled," she said of the planned honor and recognition. She spoke during an interview at the Department of Transportation where she works. "I feel blessed and very proud because there is a saying in the Marine Corps: 'There are no ex-Marines - we are all Marines.' And I am a proud believer of that," says Phyllis.

Born in Alabama, McMeans has lived in Hartford and East Hartford since she was very young. "For all intents and purposes I am from Connecticut," she says. She credits her years in the military with shaping her to the person she is.
"I was 22 years old, and I was a wild kid," she confides. "I went to join the military to get some discipline. They disciplined me, I met a lot of people, I learned a lot of things, and I became a proud member of the U.S. Marine Corps."

Her career and avocation both proves she very much is a 'take charge' individual. Starting out as a corrections officer and advancing in government service, McMeans also brings out the best in others as choir director of the talented, large choir whose voices fill Hopewell Baptist Church. It's a big responsibility, and somebody picked the right person for the task.

"It matured me," she says of being a Marine. "It gave me wisdom in different areas, it allowed me to stand up, straight up, and face situations that I might not been able to face before. Now I stand tall for what I believe in, and when I talk to people about my military background they can see my stature. It made such a positive difference in my life. It was an excellent experience."

McMeans recalls with a smile that initially, it was the Air Force, she wanted to join. But it was 1971, right in the middle of Vietnam War, and Air Force had a six-month waiting list.

"I knew that I did not want to wait six months," she says, "And as I was leaving, pretty dejected, the guy from Marine Corps standing in the hallway told me 'I can get you out of here in two weeks.' And I said 'O.K' and it was the best decision I made in my life."

Now, more than 30 years later, she cannot hide her pride for having served with the Marines.

"I am not prejudiced," she said with a smile, "but I am telling you: the Marine Corps is the best."
When you go through a Marine Corps boot camp, she notes, and then you decide you want to join another branch, you don't need to go through that services' boot camp.

"It is the opposite for them," McMeans pointed out. "They have to go through the Marine boot camp, to become Marines."
The boot camp was only the first step in the new direction her life was taking. She trained at the Marine Corps Base in Parris Island, in California, as a personnel administration specialist, a position that dealt with the support of new recruits. She then served at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, at Twenty-nine Palms California, the world's largest Marine Corps airbase.

"It was a good time for me," she recalls. "I was a woman in the Marine Corps, and at that time women did not go to the war zone unless they were nurses. But it was sad for some of the guys. Where I was stationed, was a desert area, and it was where they did a lot of their training, before they went to Vietnam. So we would meet the guys, and we knew they were heading for battle."

McMeans was then transferred back to the East Coast, to Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, North Carolina, in Carolina, where she trained as an air traffic controller for helicopters - "I think I might have brought in two helicopters, and I had plenty of help," she quips - before moving to Marine Corps headquarters, in Washington DC, from where she was discharged.

Altogether, McMeans served with the Marine Corps for three years, but it was a time, she says, that transformed her from a fairly "wild" young adult, to the person she became.
And this "new" person is clearly the reason the former Marine was chosen to lead the November parade.

She is a woman who has had the courage to pursue her career dreams and aspirations, even by changing career paths when she stops being satisfied with what she is doing. Unafraid to take charge in difficult situations, she was correction officer at the Niantic Correctional Institution, worked for big insurance companies, at other state departments and is now starting at her new position at the Connecticut Social Services Department where she will oversee large state contracts. She is a member of local 196 of the AFCSME council that this year, donated a $1,000 donation to the women's wing of the Veteran's hospital for whatever their need.

Above everything else, she believes the most important thing in life is helping others. A minister at her the Hopewell Baptist Church, in Windsor she has taught music at the Hartford Artists collective for many years, and works with the Martin Luther King Jr. Choir performance with the Hartford Symphony. She also has been called upon to direct a couple of other area choirs.

It's quite an impressive list of achievements for somebody who went into the military as a "wild kid," and it becomes even more impressive when McMeans is asked for her future plans. Her greatest wish, she says, is to get out there and help even more. What she has in mind is to work with senior citizens, offering them friendship and companionship. "I'd love to be able to just be there for them, and do that on a full time basis," she says.

But she never forgets the Marine Corps and the nation's armed forces, which will always have their place in her heart, she says.

"When I see our men and women fighting at some foreign place, I am happy to know that they are fighting for my freedom," she relates. "I feel good about that. I feel good that we are protected by our armed forces because I know they know what they are doing. I believe we should support them in whatever the country sends them to do."