From Congo To USA ... Then The Marines
Life growing up in Kinshasa, Congo, Africa was dictated by traditions and culture, but from a young age, U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Gracia Hartley, the admin chief for Marine Corps Base Hawaii, knew that she was ... not made for ... nor fit into ... that life style.
“I grew up in a very religious and big African family,” explains Hartley. “In my culture girls and women are put into this box.”
According to Hartley she felt restricted and was only allowed to wear skirts and dresses. She even wasn’t allowed to go outside and play.
“I was constantly told, ‘you’re a girl who's going to grow into a woman and become someone's wife,’” she described. “I was told I’m supposed to cater and take care of my [future] husband and family.”
Growing up, it seemed she was always rebelling against her family’s idea of what a woman or girl should be, Hartley remembered.
“It wasn’t until we had to flee the country that things began to really change for me,” she said.
On August 2, 1998 the Second Congo War began, a war that claimed the life of her father and forced her family to uproot and evacuate. Just like that, Hartley lost her father and her home.
“My family came to America as refugees,” she explained. “We needed to escape the war and get to safety to ensure our survival.”
The cultural differences were unbelievable to Hartley and along with a new home, came new rules.
“My mom started letting me wear pants instead of skirts, and once I got to high school she let me join the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps,” she said.
Hartley remembers loving her time in the JROTC program, and had a mentor who became a father figure to not only her, but all the other cadets as well.
“Retired [U.S. Marine] Master Gunnery Sgt. William Robinson,” she described. “He had such an impact on us that I wanted to become just like him so I could do the same for others.”
Hartley knew in her heart that becoming a Marine, like her mentor, was all she wanted.
“In my family the military was not an option,” Hartley recalls. “It got to the point where my family threatened to disown me.”
Hartley, instead, went to college but without any scholarships or financial support, accumulated debt and decided to withdraw after only a semester.
“I left school and worked several jobs for two years,” she said. “One day at work a girl I was in JROTC with approached me.”
After speaking to her, Hartley decided that her opportunity to join the Marine Corps was now or never, so she visited the recruiting office.
“I had to try and entice my family into accepting me joining the military,” Hartley explained. “I was so afraid of their reaction that I didn’t tell my mom until one month before I shipped that I had enlisted into the Marine Corps.”
Coming from such a traditional and strict family made joining the Marine Corps one of the hardest decisions of Hartley’s life. Regardless, her desire to serve outweighed her fear of possible retribution from her family.
“She didn’t speak to me until the week that I was leaving because she realized I wasn't going to change my mind,” she said. “When I graduated as an honor graduate, she used it to brag about me since our family was all about perspective.”
Over time, Hartley’s mother became proud to say her daughter was a Marine, despite her initial objections to her daughter’s chosen career.
“10 years later and here I am,” said Hartley. “I get to share the love I have for the Marine Corps with others.”
Staff Sgt. Gracia Hartley’s dedication and continued service has even influenced and paved the way for her younger sister to follow in her footsteps, enlisting in the Marine Corps just a few years after her. She successfully completed recruiting duty and did exactly what she hoped to do, making an impact on dozens of young men and women. Now Hartley continues to strive for excellence while serving as a role model for peers and young Marines.