MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. -- In 1975, the Marine Corps approved female Marines to serve in every military occupational specialty except those whose mission is to engage in direct combat. Two years later, Sandy L. Lawrence became the first female Marine mechanic on the flight line at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz.
At the age of 18, she was the second woman to graduate from the ejection seat mechanic course. She began working on A-4 Skyhawks with Marine Attack Training Squadron 102. She said that at the time, she was breaking gender boundaries that had been institutionalized by American culture.
“A long time ago, they didn’t think women could do the job,” she said. “They didn’t think women were smart enough to learn how to turn a wrench or technical enough because women stayed at home, did the laundry, did the cooking, did the cleaning, they did all that stuff. They thought women were second-class citizens.”
Despite what others may have thought, Lawrence succeeded at her job. Three pilots safely ejected from their aircraft on seats she worked on, and she was promoted to sergeant meritoriously.
Since then, Lawrence said the Marine Corps has made a lot of progress in equality. Military recruitment commercials often target a young man’s sense of adventure, which Sandy says women possess in abundance.
“When I first joined, I think I would have liked to go to Afghanistan,” said Lawrence. “Not that it’s a glamorous thing , but when you’re young, I think it’s a good thing.
“I’m glad to see (the Marine Corps) is finally becoming a more equal opportunity place for women,” she said. “When I first came in, my squadron was getting ready to go on deployment on a ship, and I couldn’t go because I was a female.”
Today, female Marines serve in Afghanistan and on amphibious ships around the globe.
When the Skyhawks were phased out of the service and VMAT-102 deactivated, Lawrence was reassigned as a parachute rigger with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Training Squadron 253 at Cherry Point. While America’s philosophy on gender roles was still evolving, Lawrence said there was no doubt she was just as much of a member of the squadron as anyone else.
“It was like having 200 big brothers because they always picked on me, but they always protected me,” Lawrence said. “Like when we went on a deployment, if I was picked on (by someone outside the squadron), I’d have 200 brothers come to my defense.”
Sandy felt her personal family was just as important. She married Roy E. Lawrence, who retired from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel in September 2011. After she became a gunnery sergeant, they decided it would be best if she left active duty to give their three children a more stable life.
Sandy still maintains her Marine Corps ties through her retired husband and her son, Sgt. Jeffrey A. Lawrence, who carries on the family tradition as a communications and navigation equipment instructor at the Center for Naval Aviation Technical Training Marine Unit Cherry Point.