Retired Marine stays dedicated to service

Aid: A Carroll woman hopes to rejoin relief efforts in Iraq as a civilian.

April 04, 2004|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Spring green tints the fields across from the 1895 farmhouse in northern Carroll County where Elaine May Stem grew up - a different hue from her view a year ago.

Last year, she was donning a flak jacket while serving as a sergeant major in the Marine Corps Reserve in a landscape of browns and grays, from the sands of Kuwait into dusty Iraq.

A year-old photograph shows her seated in a folding chair in front of a missile bunker.

"Not much green there," she said of the contrast between Carroll County and Al Kut, a town southeast of Baghdad. "It was like being in 2000 BC. ... Shepherds with staffs and camels and goats."

Now she wants to go back to Iraq as a civilian to help rebuild the country - something she believes in deeply.

"It was an awakening about what you really have," Stem said.

She is eager to share her Iraqi experiences and insights and has been a guest speaker at local events. She recently spoke to members of the Taneytown Economic Development Commission and will be heading to Illinois soon to speak to a group of new Marines and their families.

"I'm always willing to talk to people about it because it was quite an experience - but I really want them to appreciate what they have got, especially the kids," she said.

Stem, 58, completed a six-month deployment in August, after her unit was called up in February last year. She retired from the reserve in October with 30 years of service.

Even though she is retired, the Marine Corps isn't far from her thoughts. A spotlight illuminates an American flag and a Marine Corps flag on a staff at her home on Kump Station Road, about six miles northeast of Taneytown. And one of her favorite expressions is semper fi, short for semper fidelis, the Marine Corps slogan that means always faithful.

Stem joined the Marine Corps in September 1965, served two years of active duty, then went to work for the federal civil service at Marine Corps headquarters in Arlington, Va. She retired from the civil service 10 years ago.

A Marine Corps reservist since November 1974, Stem rose to the rank of sergeant major in 1998, the highest enlisted rank.

Stem, who walked the ruins of Babylon and other historic sites while in Iraq, said it was the people who have stayed in her mind.

"Ninety percent of the people are glad to see us," she said. "I'd like to go back and help the people. That's what we did: help the people."

She also knows the dangers in Iraq. She recently served as a pallbearer for her friend Robert J. Zangas, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Marine Reserve who was in her unit. He retired and returned to Iraq as a civilian three months after they completed their tour of duty.

Zangas was one of the first two U.S. civilian casualties March 9. He and a lawyer working for women's rights and their translator were killed by gunmen posing as Iraqi police officers, according to the Associated Press.

Stem served with Zangas in the 4th Civil Affairs Unit based in Al Kut, a small town - "bigger than Taneytown, smaller than Westminster," she said.

In addition to hopping helicopters and planes to get mail and food to Marines, her duties included helping the Iraqi people restore the basics of life - water, food and fuel. Her unit of about 200 covered the area south of Baghdad.

"Nothing was open, no banks, no stores," she said of Al Kut. "There was no electricity when we got there - it had been cut years ago."

She said she was often stationed at "the gate."

"People came by the hundreds every day, with problems and issues I would solve," she said. Children would arrive with burns from bombs left in the fields, and a young medic would apply antibiotic cream.

"People would come down looking for help: food, water, propane gas for cooking," she said. "But you don't know who to trust. You couldn't hide from a suicide bomber."

That's why the sergeant major spent much of her time ordering young soldiers to stay safe.

"You had to be alert. I had to get my young Marines to keep their flak jackets on, constantly," she said. She also reminded them to keep eye contact and to avoid traveling alone.

"My job was to keep them safe," she said. "You take `em over there alive, and you want to bring `em back alive."

Today, Stem works as an executive assistant at the Eagle Alliance, a joint venture of Computer Sciences Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp., near Fort Meade.

During her time in the military reserve and in civil service, Stem gained the respect of men who later rose to high ranks in the military and government.

"I have known her from 1975. She's a great gal - also a great Marine," said retired Marine Col. Martin D. Julian of York, Pa., who worked with her at corps headquarters in northern Virginia.

"Loyalty to her friends and the corps has probably been one of her trademarks," said Julian, adding that he feels "blessed by knowing her. She's a go-getter."

Phil Straw, a staff member in the Westminster office of Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, said the congressman planned to give Stem a flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol in recognition of her service.

"I just have immense respect for her and her long and honorable service to our country," Straw said. "She is the type of individual that America both appreciates and values with respect to serving our community honorably and well."

Her ex-husband, Larry Stem, a former Marine, also expressed pride in her accomplishments.

"She grew up in this little town, joined the Marine Corps and became the highest-ranking noncommissioned officer" in the service.

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