When retired Maj. Gen. Angela Salinas enlisted in the Marines in 1974, she recognized that she was joining an organization known for its incredible fierceness, not for its desire to include women.
“I’m joining an organization who doesn’t want me,” says Salinas, now 68. “But once you earn that title of Marine, no one can take that from me.”
While a military career was not a path a young Salinas expected to follow, it sparked a remarkable life of service, first as a distinguished Marine and then as an executive with the Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas.
Enlisting in the ’70s
She remembers arriving at the post office to mail a letter when a Marine walked out of the nearby recruitment office to ask why she wasn’t in the Marine Corps.
“The country really almost ignored that their biggest resource is somebody that looks like me, and really women were ready to step up,” Salinas recalls. “I said, ‘Look, buddy, I am just trying to mail a letter. Get away from me.’”
Little did she know that a week later, she would be at Parris Island, South Carolina, meeting her drill instructor.
At the time, the responsibilities of women in the military were very different from what they were permitted to do during World War II. In that war, they were able to work in every occupational field within the armed forces. But when WWII ended, those jobs were eliminated.
Nonetheless, when she arrived for basic training, it changed her life trajectory.
“That moment in time is the transformation of an entire lifetime,” says Salinas. “We started off in a segregated environment. We were kind of like a separate corps within a corps. You’re doing makeup. How do you carry your purse wearing gloves? I mean, lipstick had to match the color of your cap cord.”
For Salinas’ first assignment, she was the only woman working as an administrative clerk with the Fourth Recon Battalion in San Antonio.
“I’m in my little skirt, and when I checked in, the Marines’ eyes like bugged out of their head,” she says. “There were no aspirations coming in to ever be a general. I always said if I could make it to corporal, that would be the apex of my career.”
A culture shift
“The Marine Corps began realizing it is no longer about gender. It is not about culture. It’s not about ethnicity. This is just about leadership,” says Salinas. “I was very blessed, because women were stepping up.”
That’s when, in 1978, Margaret Brewer became the first woman promoted to brigadier general in the Marines.
By 1985, Salinas herself had moved up to the rank of captain. She had also found a role model in Gail Reals, the Marines’ second female brigadier general and the first woman to command a Marine base.
“What was phenomenal about Gail Reals was she’d come up through the ranks and cracked the concrete ceiling,” says Salinas. “Not even a glass ceiling, but that was like rock-solid concrete. Everyone, enlisted and officers, saw her as a role model. She’s a rock star.”
Four years later, in 1989, Salinas got her turn as the first woman in the Marines to command a recruiting station. Then, in 2006, she became the first Hispanic woman promoted to brigadier general in the Marines.
While serving as one of the first female commanding generals, Salinas remembers the time a congresswoman stopped by and asked a young corporal what they thought about a woman being in charge. The corporal responded, “We have a commanding general, and nothing has changed.”
“I think that’s the highest tribute you can say — when the Marine Corps chose the best qualified to be here, and that’s what we’ve got,” says Salinas.
After 39 years of service, Salinas retired in 2013, marking herself as the longest-serving woman in Marine Corps history.
Leading the next generation
While getting reacclimated to civilian life, Salinas received a call about an opportunity to become CEO of the Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas.
“I got excited, because it would be something that spoke to me,” she says. “People think that Girl Scouts is all about cookies, camps and crafts. But the reality is, our Girl Scouts is about character, confidence. This is about women and resilience.”
Today Salinas creates opportunities for girls every day by helping them grow and accomplish their dreams.
“You can’t change the status of women if you’re not addressing the challenges of girls,” she says. Salinas cited social media as one of the challenges girls face today because, in her opinion, it forces them to grow up too soon and denies them the chance to be themselves.
Salinas notes she works for an organization that’s known as the premier leadership group for girls.
“In the Marine Corps, it’s ‘Once a Marine, always a Marine,’” she says. “As soon as I walked in the building, on the wall was, ‘Once a Girl Scout, always a Girl Scout.’ So I said, ‘Well, I think I’m home.’”
This is an episode from AARP Studios’ new documentary series Reporting for Duty. Each month you can expect a new inspirational story about veterans and military families at YouTube.com/aarp.
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.