Ep. 2: Mary Tobin
Breaking down barriers from Iraq to Brooklyn
We met at Bluestone Lane in Brooklyn at 8:00 am to squeeze this interview in before scurrying to our 9–5s. We only had 45 minutes, but I could have stayed for hours. Some people drain you of energy, but Mary will breathe life into you. She effortlessly and at once projects boldness and strength, wisdom and grace. It is my absolute pleasure to share a bit of that life-giving spirit through her story.
Ladies and gents, Mary Tobin.
YS: Let’s start with your background. Why did you join the military?
MT: I graduated from West Point in 2003, but I never planned on the military. In high school, I was forced into Junior ROTC. A portion of students are automatically enrolled, and I was randomly selected. My parents could have gotten me out of it by signing a waiver, but they didn’t. So I didn’t have a choice. Eventually I learned to enjoy the program. It fostered leadership and discipline, and I did well. I graduated as the #1 JROTC cadet of my school and in my city.
YS: So even though you weren’t initially interested, it sounds like you were a natural in that environment. How did you make the jump from JROTC to West Point?
MT: It was my Army instructor that encouraged me to go to West Point. At the time, I had no clue what a “west point” was.
I’m the only daughter of five kids. I grew up in a poor background, and getting any college education was a priority. I was set on majoring in biochemistry at Spelman, and it was going to take a lot of convincing to change my mind.
My instructor saw that, so he sent a cadet from each of the service academies to my door. Their mission was to make a case for their school. I guess it worked, because I applied to all three academies, and I got into all three. I still wasn’t convinced about the military, but I wanted to give myself the best opportunity. I decided on West Point. My hero growing up, Colin Powell might have helped tipped the scales.
YS: I’m struck by how influential this Army instructor was to you. He went to a lot of effort to affect the course of your life. So West Point it was! Then what?
MT: So fast forward to May 31, 2003. I graduated from West Point, joined the Army, and in January of 2004, I was in Baghdad, Iraq. It was almost 6 months to the day. We provided security through and after the first Iraqi democratic election, and I was a platoon leader in the field artillery unit leading patrols. Since I was a female, I had to get a waiver to be a leader in a “line” or combat facing unit.
YS: To be clear, you had to get a waiver, because you were leading a unit in combat? Is that right?
MT: Yes, and it was on my first deployment when I got hurt pretty badly. The Taliban would rain down on base like hellfire. Francis Scott Key’s lyrics “and the rockets red glare…” took on new meaning.
YS: Wow. It’s not fun to think that our military bases were so penetrable. How did that happen?
MT: We worked with Iraqi people as much as we could, but it was impossible to know who was secretly working for the enemy. When we would give base tours, we never knew who might be mapping it out, looking for the communal areas. It was a risk we had to take.
My unit ran communications and monitored radars. We could scope and see where fire was coming from, but not until they were firing could we send reaction forces out.
One time, while running to a bunker, a piece of mortar hit behind me and propelled me into the bunker. Other soldiers around caught me, but the bottom half of my body was jammed into concrete. I pushed through for the remainder of deployment, a total of 13.5 months, before returning to Fort Sill and taking the time to recover from my injuries.
Jaw drops. Mary is Wonder Woman in real life.
My military career was not easy, but I loved it. I became so patriotic. Serving for something higher than yourself really appealed to me. In war, you fight for the woman or man to your right or left. At the end of the day, Iraqi people want the same things we want — basic humanity. They want a shot at life. They want their kids to grow up and have a shot at life. Serving for them as well, that was the highest honor.
YS: What was your military community like? Were there many other women?
MT: Ha, no. Throughout my Army career, I was the only woman in my company. I led troops full of artillery guys who had never served with a woman. Women had been allowed to serve at headquarters, but I was one of the first to be a platoon leader in the field. Once I had this reputation as a kickass female in a tactical unit, I never left. As a result, women just weren’t in my sphere.
YS: Who did you talk to?!
MT: Every one of my mentors in the military was a man, and they reached out to me.
Props to those guys.
I’ll never forget when one of my mentors, a special forces lieutenant colonel, pulled me aside after getting my ass handed to me. He said, “You can’t change the fact that you’re a woman. You are a black woman, and you’re a line leader, but you’re a good leader. If you have to cry, go ahead. Cry and then wipe your face off and come back.”
YS: Tough love, right? Well it’s obvious you were respected and performed well. Why did you decide to leave the Army?
MT: My body couldn’t overcome my injuries. After my second deployment in Iraq, I had 6–7 surgeries in 2009. My doctors finally told me, if you want to walk when you’re 40, you need to get out. But getting out was the last thing I wanted.
I spent a year and a half going through the medical board, fighting it. When they told me I was done, I appealed all the way up to the Surgeon General of the Army. Their response? ‘Thank you for your service, ma’am.’
YS: So to come full circle, after resisting JROTC and then West Point, you fought hardest to stay in the military. Did you have any time or energy to prepare to leave? What was your transition like?
MT: The transitional briefings and career options that the military gives you — everything is geared toward men. At the time, the resources out there to help service members transition were not prepped for women like me.
I’ve been in charge my whole career, responsible for millions of dollars of equipment and soldier platoons. I was not used to having to ask for help.
YS: Did you have any clue what you wanted to do?
MT: No, but fortunately, I had a friend in Okinawa who invited me to move there and take some time to clear my head. When I thought about what career would give me the same sense of worth and purpose as the military, I was sure I did not want to go to corporate America. It was so unappealing. I talked to all the recruiters, and they all offered the same types of jobs in sales, logistics, etc.
So I stayed in Okinawa, and with my background in IT, I was able to work with the Marine Corps as a civilian IT officer. I ran communications for 10,000 people in the Pacific and directly supported the 3rd MEF. I felt the sense of service and satisfaction that I had in the Army. I thought that maybe federal government was it for me. (PS.There were also no women there.) But then my injuries began flaring up again, and I moved back to the states to get better care.
My next thought was, where can I find a veteran friendly community? So I moved to DC where I finally started to get VA help and worked at HUD as an IT analyst. DC is where I entered the “helping women transition” space. I became a mentor with SWAN, and now I’m serving on their board. I reached out to the West Point community too, and advised women who were transitioning after their initial obligation.
YS: What would you tell them?
MT: When you first leave the military, don’t use a headhunter! They’re not investing in your transition. They’re trying to fill a spot. Instead, look for the veterans’ network at companies that you’re interested in.
That’s what we’re saying!
The first time that I really connected with other women veterans, I was smitten! I realized I had been missing out on this sisterhood.
At one gathering with West Point graduates from classes 1980–2003, within 10 minutes together, women were weeping. Once I tapped into this community, I realized that I didn’t experience things in a silo. We all achieved. We all overcame.
YS: You’ve since moved to New York to work with Community Solutions. Why the change?
MT: I had reached the point at HUD where I was too high up to feel the impact of my work on the people I was serving. I wanted to feel the impact that I was making, like in Iraq and Okinawa.
Separately, I wrote a personal thought piece on Facebook in reaction to a controversial photo that black, female cadets at West Point posted with raised fists. The photo and my comments received attention on major media networks, and Community Solutions reached out to me.
YS: Can you tell me about your job now? Why do you like it?
MT: I’m passionate about our cause, and that’s important to me. Our goal is to end veteran and chronic homelessness. We have a special interest in Brownsville, Brooklyn — the largest concentration of public housing in the country — where we focus on improving employment outcomes, raising literacy in grade schools, and creating opportunities for youth.
On the beach in Okinawa, I asked myself questions. One that played on repeat was Why do I feel a profound sense of loss? I realized that it was really important to me to be doing something that had a sense of higher purpose. Mohammad Ali and Nelson Mandela have been major icons in my life. Mohammad Ali says that your rent on earth is your service to others, and Nelson Mandela spent his life post prison giving. He left nothing untouched. Like them, I sincerely want to leave the earth a better place.
YS: I have no doubt that you already have and will continue to do so. How do you think the military has prepared you for “the real world”?
MT: I’m pretty fearless. I’m not afraid to make mistakes. The military teaches you to prepare like hell, to make a really good case for why you’re doing the thing, to give your commanders options.
The military also gives you a purpose, so you know why you’re doing the thing. If you fail, you do the after action briefing. So when you do it again, you learn and do it better next time.
Be fearless in failure. What matters when you do fail is what you learn from it.
YS: Well, you’ve done it! You’ve successfully transitioned, several times now, and you’re happy. What made your transition successful?
MT: My best friend gave me space to think. The military might be the most formidable time in your life. You need to process that. When you first leave, you might perceive your military experience with the most recent feelings and associations you had in the military, but you need to give yourself space and time to process your overall experience. What do you want to take from it?
My best friend gave me space, and my sorority sisters reminded me of my purpose — that the military would not be my ending. I needed to hear that especially when I was in the wounded warrior unit. Transition is hard. This is why women mentorship is so important. We need to be able to cry on each other’s shoulder without judgment.
YS: If you could go back and do it again, would you do anything differently?
YS: Mary, this has been awesome. To wrap up, here are a few of our favorite quick fire questions. Thank you so much for taking the time.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —YS Q’S
What would your superhero name be? Quiet storm. I come into rooms very quiet and unassuming. And then I open my mouth.
What are your top media recommendations right now? Podcast/movie/book etc? Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. It’s a classic to have on your bookshelf. If for nothing else, it reminds you that you’re not alone. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. For every veteran women. Life’s about the journey! Ted Talks. Google: Ted Talks, women, leadership.Find some badass women you never knew existed.Then I’m a nerd so…The Stanford Review & The Harvard Business Review. Fast Company This magazine does a great job of highlighting women leaders.
What is your one piece of advice for women in transition now? You can be whatever the hell you want to be. Never be afraid to pivot. If you wake up one morning and decide this isn’t it, PIVOT! You only have one life. PIVOT! Pivot until you’re happy.
What’s your tagline? “Die empty.” I remember the moment when we heard the news that Nelson Mandela died. The world mourned, and even though I adored him, I couldn’t help but smile. I smiled because he gave the world everything that he had — everything inside of him.What better way to go than completely spent?
How do you want to be remembered? That I died empty.