(Photo courtesy of Jennifer Esparza)

Marine veteran finds the power in her own voice

Woman Veteran of the Month

January 29, 2018 - 8:13 am

Editor’s note: This piece contains some strong language. 

Jennifer Esparza, a Marine Corps veteran originally from southern California, is one of four co-founders of “Not In My Marine Corps.” After the Marines United scandal broke in March of 2017, she, and other veterans began commenting online about the story and the issue of sexual harassment in the military.

“There was this big moment where a lot of people started acknowledging and recognizing that this was a very real thing that happens all the time and it’s not okay,” Esparza said.

They created a Facebook group and website aimed at giving military women the resources and support that they need to deal with sexual harassment and assault. They are also pushing for legislation like the Military Justice Improvement Act that would change the way the military prosecutes serious crimes like sexual assault.

The "Not In My Marine Corps" group now has almost 2,000 followers, a community Esparza did not have when she was in the military.

She joined the Marine Corps in 2002 after the September 11th terrorist attacks and was picked to be an administrator, handling the important paperwork of her unit’s personnel.

(Photo courtesy of Jennifer Esparza)

The paperwork she processed showed snapshots of the unit's individual lives, including marriages, divorces, and casualty reports.

Esparza’s military career gave her opportunities to meet new people and work in different locations like the Pentagon, a recruiting station, as well as a deployment to Ramadi, Iraq in 2004.

“I feel like I was exposed to a lot of different people, cultures, areas that I wouldn’t have achieved on my own,” she said.

Recently however, Esparza has been looking back on her time in the Marine Corps and the sexual harassment she experienced that led her to leave the service.

“I felt like it was happening a lot and I didn’t realize what it was doing to me,” she said.

“The sexual harassment is-it’s something that I ignored for a really long time that had really terrible consequences on me and no one else,” she added. “And so I regret not speaking up because I loved the Marine Corps and yet I felt like I was kind of, in a way, forced to leave because I just—it wasn’t healthy for me to stick around anymore.”

When someone gave her  how to be a woman in the military and dealing with harassment, it was more harmful than helpful. A female officer told Esparza that she needed to choose what kind of woman she was going to be, “either a bitch, a slut, or a dyke.”

“I really took that to heart and I wish I didn’t, but it was kind of stuck in me that well, maybe if I turn this person down and don’t talk about it, then I’m just the bitch,” she said. “And that’s the one I want to be anyway. So really silly and really damaging for no one else but me.”

Esparza didn’t have many other women to talk to while she was in, but since leaving the Marines she has reached out to them to talk about these experiences.

“I didn’t have anybody to share that with. I did share it with some men and that back fired. So, I ended up just staying to myself and after getting out, I sought some help in figuring out why I was feeling a certain way, why I was having panic attacks.”

If given a choice to join the military over again knowing what she knows now, Esparza said she would “definitely do it again. I do feel grateful for the experiences that it provided me,” but would speak up more for herself.

“I’ve learned how to stand up for myself and not tolerate that kind of stuff,” she said. “And I wish I had been stronger back then or I wish I had somebody to have a different conversation with me.”

She added, “But I think speaking up would have made a huge difference in my career and I would probably still be in.”

(Photo courtesy of Jennifer Esparza)

Esparza left the Marine Corps in 2013 and applied to the University of Oregon to be closer to family. She graduated in 2017 with a bachelors in international studies and a minor in Arabic.

She is now pursuing her childhood dream of becoming a lawyer, and is currently a law student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Esparza is hoping to study international law, human rights, as well as work on women’s issues in conflict areas.

“It was really hard to get out of the Marine Corps, but the way things have happened since I got out it’s just been lining up almost too perfectly,” she said.

In collaboration with the Service Women’s Action Network, we are featuring an inspiring woman veteran each month. Check out our last featured veteran: U.S. Army veteran Yolanda Choates.