Winstead’s story began in rural Tennessee. Growing up, her hometown had one stoplight and very few people, with even fewer Asian Americans. Her graduating class in 2012 had a total of 70 people and she was often singled out for being Asian American throughout her school years. Unlike most of the other students, she had a plan to join the United States Marine Corps.
“My mother had a hard time understanding why I wanted to join, and she blamed my father for inspiring me,” Winstead explained. “He served 32 years in the Army and Navy combined, so she assumed that I only wanted to join because I saw him serve; and also because women did not serve in the military in South Korea while she was growing up there, only men had to join the service so she just didn’t understand.”
Winstead explained to her mother that she felt a calling to the Marine Corps and that she would not be some fancy lawyer living in New York City; her drive and desires were different than others.
In 2018, Winstead graduated from the University of Hawaii with a Bachelor’s in Law and commissioned into the Marines. Aspiring to become a Marine Judge Advocate, Winstead endured 10 weeks of rigorous training at Marine Corps Base Quantico’s Officer Candidate School. After suffering an injury, she was forced to stay an additional six weeks but did not allow the setback to destroy her aspirations.
“Marine Judge Advocates are few and far between, and finding a mentor at that time was a challenge for me. I was already facing so many physical and mental challenges but I decided that I had to push myself; I woke up every day at four in the morning to train and still managed to find time for studying for three continuous years.” Capt. Tiana Winstead, defense attorney
“Marine Judge Advocates are few and far between, and finding a mentor at that time was a challenge for me,” Winstead explained. “I was already facing so many physical and mental challenges but I decided that I had to push myself; I woke up every day at four in the morning to train and still managed to find time for studying for three continuous years.”
Winstead completed each challenge that she faced and continued forward, finally becoming the Marine Judge Advocate that she desired to be. While serving under III Marine Expeditionary Force, Winstead had the opportunity to travel to South Korea to support exercise Ulchi Freedom Shield.
The exercise is a joint-bilateral simulation operation for Republic of Korea forces and U.S. service members that provides each force the opportunity to work together and achieve shared goals; to identify any issues that could potentially affect mission accomplishment in the future.
When initially tasked with the exercise, Winstead didn’t think much about being in Korea, let alone her mother’s hometown. She was looking forward to finally applying her defense attorney skills and criminal law knowledge during the exercise, but after arriving in South Korea and seeing the small city of PoHang, she was instantly reminded of her mother.
“Once I landed and saw the signs, saw women that reminded me so much of my mom, I wanted to tell her that I was in her hometown,” Winstead explained. “I landed, texted her when I got to my room and I woke up the next day with over 20 photos of family members, Google map locations, and a detailed plan to meet up with my aunts and tour the area.”
Growing up, Winstead’s mother did not teach her the Korean language, hangul, because she was embarrassed by her accent and did not want her children to have one. Her Korean family had much of the same issue; being from PoHang they were not exposed to English growing up. Nonetheless, four of Winstead’s cousins met her at the base the following weekend to meet her for the first time.
“My family was extremely surprised to see that I was a Marine, and especially to see that I was so feminine as well,” Winstead explained. “There’s a common misconception across the world that being a female Marine makes you somehow less feminine. Regardless, I was shocked to see how supportive and proud they were immediately after meeting me.”
Winstead was taken to a house located in the back alleys of the outskirts of PoHang. The house was one open room that had a sink and one small bed, much different than what Winstead was accustomed to in America. The house belonged to her mother’s aunt, a woman whom she had never met. Although they had no physical interactions, Winstead’s mother had sent photos and updates on her family in the mail for the past 28 years.
“I had no idea who this woman was, but she rushed to me and embraced me; she kept repeating ‘you look just like her’ in Korean; I had no idea who she was, but she had watched me grow up my entire life.”
She was also given the chance to visit her grandparents’ burial site.
“My favorite memory is my cousin telling me that we were going to go have lunch with our grandparents as they were sleeping,” she recalls. “I was told we had to take fish and soju into the Kudzu forest, where we stopped at three mounds of green grass hills. My cousin placed the fish onto a tray, poured the soju, and said a prayer; that’s when I learned we could enjoy the presence of our past family as we are in this world while they exist in the afterlife.”
Winstead explained the impacts of human interaction with international partners, and related it to the Marine Corps.
“Embrace your heritage and ancestry, I spent the majority of my life suppressing my background because I was worried I wouldn’t be accepted for being different.” Capt. Tiana Winstead, defense attorney
“I lived my entire life prior to Ulchi Freedom Shield taking for granted the beautiful and unique Korean family and culture; I truly do not believe that [in-person] international interactions, joint training, and meeting our international partners can ever be replaced with video chats, classes, or training separately,” she explained. “Meeting my family allowed me to experience a small portion of the magnificent impact of international dialogue and interactions, an experience that we can never lose in the Marine Corps as it builds bonds for the Marine Corps and for the individual Marine; they may learn something about themselves or their history, and we may be able to change international perspectives by interacting.”
Winstead also mentioned that learning her heritage made her keen on cultural details involved during the exercise. Knowing the cultural differences would bring light to knowing a proper burial is needed in the afterlife, discovering that the Korean traditions handle casualties differently than the U.S. may, and even knowing how to discuss prior international conflicts in a politically correct way that can appease not only the U.S. and R.O.K forces, but the public as well.
She offered her advice to Marines who may be in her similar position.
“Embrace your heritage and ancestry, I spent the majority of my life suppressing my background because I was worried I wouldn’t be accepted for being different,” she said. “It’s obvious that Marines with Korean heritage aren’t the iconic image of the U.S. Marines, but it is amazing to be so unique and rare; thank you Marine Corps for allowing me to finally realize that after so long.”