Cheryl Steen-Smith

USMC, 1982-86, Okinawa, S. Korea, Stateside

Cheryl Steen originally hails from Massachusetts, where her dad, a United airline pilot, was based. As her father’s base airport changed so did the family’s residence, first to New Jersey, then to Ohio, near Cleveland. (Cheryl’s dad, Joseph Steen, served in in the Army Air Corps as a gunner with a bomber crew during WWII.) Her mother’s name is Janas and Cheryl has an older sister, Vicki.

Moving into a more rural community was a culture shock for Cheryl. Her mom was a beautiful model and Cheryl copied her style. When she entered high school, her high heels, make-up and skirt made her stand out. (It took a while to acclimate!) In high school Cheryl kept busy playing the flute and piccolo in the marching band, being a member of the Flag Corp and supporting the wrestling team as a “Mat Maid.” Cheryl also represented her school at Buckeye Girl’s State. She was a member of the French Club and was fairly fluent when she graduated in 1981, at the young age of seventeen. Cheryl describes herself during that time as “mischievous and adventurous”, often decked out in jeans, a t-shirt and a black leather jacket. She was proud of her 1977 Grand Prix with a 400 “big block” under the hood.

Next stop for her was North Central Technical College in Mansfield where she enrolled to pursue a double major in Mechanical Engineering and Drafting Design. After a year in college Cheryl and her mom took a trip to downtown Mansfield where Cheryl’s destination (unknown to her mom), was the military recruiting offices. With no clear choice of which branch she wanted to join, she started at the first office where the Air Force recruiter informed her of a year long waiting list. 

“I went next to the Army, where the recruiter was obnoxious that I would want to join the Army, skipped the Navy recruiter because I don’t swim well, finally arriving at the Marine recruiting office. I knew inside that I wanted to join the “hardest” group or not go at all!”

Mom had been next door at a jewelry shop so when they got back together, she was shocked to hear, “I have decided to join the Marines!” The recruiter took Cheryl to Cleveland to MEPS for her physical and ASVAB test of which she aced both. When she returned home to announce she had enlisted, Cheryl remembers her mom sobbing and Dad’s response, “the discipline will be good for you” and “you just can’t quit if you don’t like it!”

Cheryl’s contract assigned her to train as a 3531, a heavy vehicle operator. She would learn to drive jeeps, the six-wheel drive Gama Goat, the five-ton and “Deuce and a half” trucks. She had been offered a clerical position but responded, “I don’t type!”

On August 30th of 1982, Cheryl arrived with a busload of other new recruits at Parris Island in the late evening hours. Her memories of basic are a blur of D.I.’s screaming, clothing issued, (including a mandatory girdle), lotion to repel sand fleas, the gas chamber, and lots of P.T.! “I never did understand the girdle! I was 5’7 and weighed 113 pounds!”

Cheryl successfully completed basic and was sent next to Camp Geiger, North Carolina to begin her training as a motor transport operator. She handled that well and was assigned to the 2nd FSSG (2nd Force Service Support Group), 8th Motor Battalion, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

Cheryl received orders to transfer to Okinawa, home of the Marine Corps Base Camp “Smedley D. Butler”. There she was assigned to the 3rd FSSG/9thMotor Transportation Battalion. Cheryl discovered that she was the only female driver there. “It was made clear during my first convoy that I “had better keep up!”

Cheryl advanced to the rank of Lance Corporal while stationed in Okinawa. During her time there she drove over 11,000 miles in military trucks. Her primary rig was a 5-ton transport vehicle in which she carried troops, equipment and loads of hazmat materials. (This was in 1983-84 and Cheryl remembers “that during convoys, meals consisted of Vietnam era C-rations.”)

Low morale became an issue at Camp Butler as the unit had its readiness status downgraded to “non-combat ready”. Serious mistakes occurred that contributed to this rating, such as the time a shipment of brand-new M900 series trucks arrived in Okinawa. Some of the current 5-ton trucks the Corps used had multi-fuel engines (M54 Series) and could run on gasoline/diesel/JP-4 fuels. The unit’s Sergeant-Major, ignored several warnings regarding the new “single-fuel” trucks, ordered them filled with JP-4 fuel which immediately seized up the engines!

A personal setback occurred when Lance Corporal Steen was called into the Sgt-Majors office where he issued her a reprimand for an alleged incident that had occurred some six months prior which Cheryl adamantly denied could have possibly occurred. When she was asked to sign the report and accept a loss of rank, Cheryl used “colorful language” towards the Sgt-Major. (Anyone having served in the military recognizes, as did Cheryl, that whether justified or not, this action was not a career enhancing move!) In addition to the demotion, now a PFC, Cheryl was assigned to be the personal driver for the Sgt-Major!

While deployed to South Korea in 1984, for the “Team Spirit” multi-agency war games Cheryl recalls two events which have stuck with her. While there a General in the South Korean army took notice of the young female marine and sent his adjutant over to her unit to arrange a date for him with PFC Steen. Fortunately, her Commander made it clear to the General that this type of behavior was not acceptable behavior. Also during the “Team Spirit” maneuvers, there was a serious helicopter crash that killed 29 military personnel, including 18 fellow Marines. “That was a very stressful and sad time.”

In the winter of 1984, 20-year-old Cheryl arrived at Camp Pendleton where she was assigned to the MP Battalion. Her duty station was a Quonset hut where she was responsible for assigning Ford sedans and prisoner vans out to the MP’s.  It was a good duty station for her. “I loved Del Mar, the beach, and fishing.” 

In July of 1986, Lance Corporal Cheryl Steen completed her active duty with the Corps, compiling a Good Conduct Medal, Navy Unit Commendation, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, and Rifle Expert Badge. She was called up to active duty once during her two years of reserve, reporting to Miramar NAS for a drill.

Cheryl would reluctantly leave California, returning to Ohio for a year, after her father suffered heart attack. In 1987, she returned to Vista, California taking a position arranging transportation for Alzheimer’s and dialysis patients. In the evenings she took a free course at a local community college learning how to be an emergency dispatcher. This would launch her career in dispatching. 

She worked first at Riverside County Sheriff’s department as a 911 dispatcher. She recalls the “the voices, the fear and urgency of people calling for help.” She handled robberies, homicides, rapes, and riots. “I still have hard memories of people calling for help and it being a long delay for officers to arrive, even for priority “ONE” calls, due the number of high priority calls”. A rape victim’s voice and a choking victim who did not survive still haunt her. In 1991 she would transfer to the Rialto Police department where she would dispatch until 1994.

She accepted a marriage proposal in 1994. The couple soon moved to his “old stomping grounds” in the Ozarks of Arkansas. “Life is different in the South”, especially for a transplanted Yankee girl from Ohio. Their son was born in 1996 and the family would move to Ashland, Ohio in 1997.

A divorce and the shutting down of the company she worked for would create an extremely difficult time in Cheryl’s life. The ensuing financial struggles taught her how to be humble, how to allow other people to help her and her son. “One woman I had worked with came to the house with five bags stuffed with groceries from her church.” The Salvation Army and other community resources helped her survive the storm and start over.

Her life and career rebounded after she was hired to be the office manager for a customs brokerage house. They were impressed with her work ethic and encouraged her to study for her own broker’s license. She successfully passed the test in 2006 and, after her background investigation, became a Licensed Customs Broker in 2007.

Cheryl would return to college, enrolling at North Central State College in 2008, where she took one class at a time so as not to incur debt. She completed the requirements needed for an Associate degree in Business Administration. From there she enrolled at Mt. Vernon Nazarene University earning her bachelor’s degree in 2011. Cheryl was still not finished with her education and after taking a short break returned to MVNU, completing her Master’s in Business Administration with a concentration in Operations Management in 2015.

These days Cheryl spends her free time perfecting her passions for cooking and gardening. She and her son took karate together and both have earned black belts. Almost every year the two take a trip, usually to Florida, where they spend several days out on boats, deep-sea fishing. Cheryl recently completed her first marathon. Her home is protected by a pair of loving bloodhounds, Daisy and Josie.

Even years later Cheryl reminisces about her time in the Marine Corps, “I miss it. That feeling of doing something for the greater good. Being involved in something much bigger than yourself.” 

Thank you Marine. Semper Fi!