The Urge to Serve

Article excerpt

Byline: Gail Sheehy

During the run-up to the Iraq War, Tee Hanible, a young Marine working a desk job, asked to be deployed. It meant leaving her child behind. What makes a mother of a 3-year-old girl feel such a powerful need to sacrifice for her country?

You're not Marine Corps material-- you won't make it." That was Tawanda Hanible's brother, Lindell, running down the sister who had always shown him up in school. Lindell was two years older and already a Marine. He told "Tee," as she was called, "you're too girly." He forgot that she was also stubborn as a fence post.

The odds had been against Tee from birth. Her biological father was shot and killed when she was an infant. She was raised in a strict foster home on Chicago's deep South Side. Minnie Hudson, who later adopted her and her brother, had four children of her own. Anywhere from two to 20 foster children rotated through Hudson's three-bedroom apartment, sleeping three in a room or on a couch or floor.

At 15, Tee turned rebellious. Drugs had saturated the South Side like a plague. Crime went rampant. Drive-by shootings picked off some of her friends. Tee lost her way. "Poor grades, wrong crowd," was the rap on this once-star student.

When word surfaced that her best friend was going to be jumped, Tee's teenage rebellion found a cause. She smashed the glass on a fire alarm. "Run, take the side exit!" she shouted. The girl escaped a beating. For this tiny act of personal heroism, Tee was thrown out of school.

Hudson, the only mom she knew, and dearly loved, was now in her 70s and sapped by a stroke. Too weak to reverse the backsliding of the brightest and most talented of all her children, Hudson sent the girl off to a paramilitary reform school in rural Illinois. Lincoln's Challenge, run by the National Guard, gave Tee the structure and discipline she craved. She graduated with a scholarship for college.

"The change in her was remarkable," recalls her sister Nicole. "She apologized for all the pain and trouble she had put me and her mother through. That program transformed her whole trajectory in life."

At a military recruiting center, she was lassoed by a Marine who gave her

an aptitude test. Males needed a 31 score to pass; females needed 50; Tee scored 60. Few survivors of boot camp would call it "fun," but Tee drew the attention she wanted by becoming the company clown and playing simulated war games against the guys. She was thrilled to be chosen to join the first small class of females permitted to take the same Marine combat-training course as the men. This was 1997, and news crews were all over the story. Being exceptionally tall, Tee was stuck with the heaviest weapon, the SAW, a portable machine gun capable of heavy firepower. "Every time we humped on 10-mile hikes, I carried the SAW," she says. "I was just happy to make it through."

After training at Camp Pendleton in California, Tee was assigned to a desk job as an administrator. She fell in love, became pregnant, and made a hasty first marriage.

Everything changed for her on Sept. 11, 2001. Tee and her fellow Marines sat immobilized before a TV as they watched a plane attack the Pentagon. Marines are trained to spring into action at the first word of emergency. Tee developed a nagging sense of irrelevance. A year later, she saw her chance to fight. "When we got word that we were gearing up to go into Iraq, I wanted to be part of defending our country," she says, her vehemence undiminished as she recalls September 2002. Her job was to write the orders to fill the billets for Marines being sent overseas. She set her mind on being one of the Marines sent into action, whatever it took. When she spotted an opening for an administrative chief, she plugged in her own name.

Her boss called her in and tried for half an hour to discourage her. "Are you sure you want to go to Iraq?" probed Ronnie McPhatter, a chief warrant officer. …