By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso
During her senior year of high school, Kathy Estes was lifeguarding at her community pool when men in military uniforms pulled into the parking lot, emerging from cars with government license plates. “They came up to me and started talking to me about joining the Marine Corps,” she recalled. “I thought it was a joke played by my brother who was in the Navy.” When she realized the recruiters were legitimate and serious, Estes paid attention. “I came from a very large family in a small farming community in Missouri. I wanted to go to college. The recruiters lured me in with the GI Bill that would help me pay for school if I went into the USMC Reserves. It was the best thing I ever did.”
Estes’ future ambition was shaped by her first day at boot camp at Parris Island, SC. “I saw my first female officer and I decided I wanted to be one,” she said. Thirty years later she retired as a colonel and is now serving as the vice president and chief administrative officer for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society.
Growing up with five brothers, Estes wasn’t fazed by being a woman in a traditionally male organization. “In my early days as a Marine I dealt with verbal harassment. People wanted to see my reaction. But American society has changed so much since then, and I probably had more opportunities as a woman in the Marine Corps than many of my peers did in civilian life. There’s no pay gap in the Marines. Your pay is based on your rank and your time in service.”
“The Marines broadened my world and gave me the discipline I needed to get out of bed for class when I went to college,” Estes explained. Estes spent four years as a reserve enlisted Marine while she earned her degree in English at Northeast Missouri State University. She applied for officer candidate school and began her active duty career. “I graduated in May, they slapped gold bars on me, and I was commissioned in the Marine Corps.”
Her reserve duty prepared her well for The Basic School at Quantico, Virginia, because she had already fired machine guns, completed cold weather training, and hiked with her infantry brethren even though she was technically assigned to supply administration. “What I was supposed to learn as a lieutenant I had already been exposed to and learned,” she said. After The Basic School, Estes served as a disbursing officer at MCAS Yuma, Arizona, and as the defense accounting officer at Headquarters, Marine Corps. Then the Marine Corps sent her to the George Mason School of Law in Northern Virginia.
“I’d wanted to be a lawyer even as a child,” Estes recalled. “My only reservation was that, as a lawyer in the Marines, you can be assigned to any role. I felt like it would be inconsistent with our values as Marines to defend someone who violated Marine policy. It took me a while to understand that zealously advocating on behalf of a client was ensuring that the system was fair, and upholding the constitution.”
After graduating both from law school and Naval Justice School, Estes’ first duty station as a lawyer was in Okinawa, Japan. She served as a prosecutor and as the military justice officer. During this assignment, she was also selected to serve as staff secretary for the Third Force Service Support Group.
From there, Estes returned to MCB Quantico to serve as an instructor and legal advisor at The Basic School. “I had the opportunity to be a company commander there—they’d never had a female company commander or lawyer company commander. It was a career highlight.” Estes took the trailblazing in stride. “A lot of who I am today is built on the fact that I worked very hard, and I had several opportunities that I didn’t hesitate to take—opportunities usually provided to me by open-minded men. My boss took a little criticism for putting me in the position of company commander, but I had a very successful class and that opened up doors for me later on.”
The class assigned to Estes at The Basic School was made up of warrant officers. “I remember the three-star general who leaned across his desk and said, ‘Here’s the issue we have with warrant officers. They understand leadership. Your responsibility is to teach them officership.’”
As Estes watched some young Marines playing football during their limited free time, she developed a metaphor to help instruct her warrant officers. “The role of an officer isn’t about making decisions on the field,” she told them. “That’s what good enlisted leaders do. Warrant officers are like assistant coaches on the sidelines. You have to stop thinking like quarterbacks and start thinking like coaches. You have this responsibility, not just in combat, but also in the barracks.”
Estes completed a graduate program at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College after her tour at TBS. Selected for promotion to lieutenant colonel, she received orders next to MCRD Parris Island to run the law center and serve as staff judge advocate. “While I was there I was selected for command as a lieutenant colonel. In the other services, if you’re a lawyer, you’re a lawyer. Marine judge advocates have the unique opportunity to compete for command and not just practice law.”
Estes was given command of a support battalion, responsibility for 105 drill instructors, and oversight of thousands of recruits. “We oversaw their physical, mental, and moral training. They would arrive in the middle of the night, walk along those yellow footprints that symbolize the transition from civilian to Marine, receive their uniforms, and get their hair cut.”
Estes’ battalion at Parris Island included a company designated to rehabilitate recruits who had dropped out of training. “Through the concerted efforts of smart junior officers, medical personnel, and athletic trainers we formed a team that used fantastic tracking tools, which enabled us to develop individualized programs to return as many recruits to training as possible. Because of this collective effort, we had two-thirds of recruits return to training, which saved taxpayers money and gave us new Marines faster. Previously, the average percentage of returning recruits who had dropped out was only one-third.”
From there Estes and her family returned to MCB Okinawa, where she served as staff secretary for the senior USMC general on the island, and then worked as staff judge advocate in 3d Marine Division. She and her family were based there for six years. She was off duty one day in 2011 when she and her then 12-year-old son traveled two hours to Tokyo for a swim meet. “My son was in the pool practicing and I was in a food court when we started to feel the shaking,” she recalled. “The Japanese workers started leaving, plastic food trays were falling down, so we went outside. Later, my son told me he had body surfed out of the pool.” Even though they were hundreds of miles from the epicenter of the earthquake, they could definitely feel it. “My boss told me to go home, get my uniforms, and come back to Tokyo to help,” Estes explained. “I was the lawyer for him and the entire Joint Task Force. Helping with humanitarian assistance after the earthquake and tsunami was tragic, but straightforward. What was hard was dealing with the aftermath of the meltdown at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant that was caused by the natural disasters. We were trying to get Americans out of the radiation zone. No one knew the answers to the questions everyone was asking. We had physicists trying to figure it out.”
In Japan, Estes was promoted to the rank of colonel and selected for command again. “This was an incredible honor. It was the pinnacle of my career,” she said. Estes was given command of a service battalion for Marine Corps Installations Pacific. “Okinawa has several camps, and mine were all over the place. Sometimes I had to give seven different speeches in seven different places in one day.” Thanks to her multitasking experience as a battalion commander at Parris Island, Estes was well-equipped for the job. “A large part of that job was serving as commanding officer of Camp Foster, which was like a small city. It was like being mayor and city manager of a city that included the commissary, exchange, barracks, schools, the largest military hospital in western pacific, and 25,000 family members of service members. I had to make sure the base was safe, and interact with the local leaders of four Japanese cities that bordered Camp Foster.”
“When I gave up that command, I was ready to retire,” Estes said. “I didn’t think there was anything better than that.” But because her younger son, who by this time was fluent in Japanese, having spent half his life in Okinawa, wanted to stay for one more year to graduate high school, Estes took one more post advising the senior military commander in Okinawa for the Third Marine Expeditionary Force.
After her son graduated, Estes retired and the family moved to Texas. Her husband had already retired from his career as a US Army officer. Estes briefly practiced law and taught civilian law, but she missed working with Marines.
“Back when I was a financial management officer at MCAS Yuma, when the Society was structured differently, I had a collateral duty of running the NMCRS office in Yuma,” Estes said. “I learned a lot about the organization. After that I constantly referred Marines and Sailors and their families to the Society.”
So Estes was eager to return to making a difference in the lives of Marines and Sailors and their families. “We’re asking Marines and Sailors to take care of their own, we’re continuing to educate them, and we’re continuing to provide the same quality of service and care we’ve provided for 113 years. I’m going to make whatever contribution I can make to that effort.”