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BLUEMONT, Virginia — Retired Maj. Jennifer Marino, the executive director for Boulder Crest Retreat for Military and Veteran Wellness, dedicates her life to serving others after 15 years of service as a CH-46 pilot in the Marine Corps. The nonprofit organization provides service members, with combat-stress related injuries, and their families a place to go for the physical, mental, financial and spiritual recovery. (U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Cpl. Jose D. Lujano/Released)

Photo by Cpl. Jose Lujano

From Midshipman to Marine: One woman’s journey to help others

15 Aug 2014 | Lance Cpl. Sarah Luna The Official United States Marine Corps Public Website

When retired Marine Maj. Jennifer Marino graduated high school, she accepted the challenge of the U.S. Naval Academy.

In 1994, the country was in a time of relative peace. Marino was 17 years old and mainly focused on her own goals. Marino wanted more out of life and to test her abilities.

“I just really grew to understand how important it is to rely on other people and to be reliable for them,” said Marino. “It’s not so important to stand out because the mission that you’re accomplishing as a team is what matters.”

Marino deployed to Iraq in 2003 and 2004 with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadrons 161 and 166 respectively as a CH-46 helicopter pilot. She dropped off and picked up Marines in a combat zone and flew casualty evacuation flights.

“She didn’t really share those stories, until she got back, about a couple of the flights that were more harrowing,” said Nicki Marino, Jennifer’s sister. “She did a fallen angel flight for someone who died in combat and when she told me the story, I could tell it was hard for her.”

Marine forces suffered 851 troops killed in action and 8,623 were wounded during the eight-year Iraq War, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command. Marines fought street-to-street and city-to-city fighting against Iraq’s military and later the rising insurgency.

“I was not exposed to nearly the in-your-face sense of mortality as a lot of other Marines or service members out there,” said Marino. “I wasn’t a corpsman in the back working on a Marine trying to save his life and watching him die before my eyes and feeling powerless. Even though I was only a number of feet away from that, my focus was forward on getting the aircraft to where it needed to go and I think that’s huge.”

Following her deployments in Iraq, Marino was selected to fly with Marine Helicopter Squadron One, Marine Corps Air Facility Quantico, Virginia, where she was also part of the first and only all-female Marine One crew.

“I had a chance while I was at [HMX-1] to deploy all over the world and support presidential missions in different continents,” said Marino. “That was a really dynamic and interesting job very busy, very on-the-go.”

Even after putting aside her flight helmet, her career in the fast lane did not cease. She was assigned to serve as the aide-de-camp to the 17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen for eight months.

“It was really busy and rather stressful, but also such a great experience to get to work and be exposed to that level of our military system and the Department of Defense,” said Marino. “ [I got to] travel with him all over the world and help coordinate and plan his itineraries and meetings with everybody from the king of Bahrain to business leaders in New York City.”

After serving with Mullen, Marino returned to HMX-1. She completed the Marine Corps University Command and Staff College and subsequently pursued a master’s degree in applied positive psychology. 

“I became really interested, I think, really when I was working for admiral Mullen,” said Marino. “I just really became compelled to try to work on programs that would help Marines and their families deal with the cumulative stress of deployment after deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.”

With almost 15 years of service, Marino made the decision to apply for early retirement to help veterans.

“It was hard for me to make that decision because I felt kind of like I was quitting at the end of the third quarter,” said Marino. “I felt that I wasn’t going to have the impact I wanted to have and really be able to do the work I wanted to do sitting at a desk in a staff job.”

Months before her retirement and beginning a cross-country bicycle ride she had planned, Marino met a soldier who helped make her dream come true.

Marino and the soldier shared what they dreamed to do after completing their respective graduate courses. Coincidently, the soldier knew someone who was starting a retreat sounding similar to Marino’s dream and offered to make an introduction.

Marino jumped at the opportunity and got in contact with Ken Falke, the founder of Boulder Crest Retreat for Military and Veteran Wellness, but she soon realized that he was looking for the position to be filled while she was scheduled to be on her 77-day bicycle ride to meet Gold Star families.

“It was so frustrating because I felt like this was being put in my lap for a reason, yet I couldn’t accept it because I was committed to these families,” said Marino. “Nothing in the world was going to make me cancel my plans to visit all of them.”

Marino met nearly 90 families while completing the cross-country tribute and got the position despite her absence during the first few weeks of the new retreat.

Marino is now the executive director of Boulder Crest Retreat, a nonprofit organization in Bluemont, Virginia where service members with combat-stress related injuries and their families can go for physical, mental, financial and spiritual recovery.

“I remember her telling me about the whole experience, meeting Ken and him telling her ‘I really want you to do this’ without even having a resume in his hands,” Nicki said. “It wasn’t about her accomplishments. 

“I think it’s just a complete alignment of her passion and her hard work.”

Marino began her journey thinking it was more about her, but the 15 years spent after becoming a commissioned officer prove otherwise.

“From midshipman to Marine, if I were to boil my experience down to one major life lesson, it is this, accomplishing my goals feels great, but what fulfills me in life is really not about me — It's other people,” Marino said.