Attending a Marine Corps Ball as a guest set one woman on a path to serve three decades with the Corps, and she is the most recently recognized Female Combat Veteran of the Year by the North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
Retired Sgt. Maj. Yolanda Mayo received the honor from N.C. VA Secretary Larry Hall in a small ceremony on May 10 at the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh, where a total of 16 female combat veterans were recognized – but only two of whom were Marines.
“I was recognized as one of the female combat veterans of 2018,” Mayo recently told American Military News. She later learned she was selected for the top award. “It was a huge honor,” she said.
Though now retired, Mayo said her service hasn’t stopped.
“Even when you take the uniform off, that doesn’t stop your service to your community or to your country,” she said.
She was one of just two dozen female Sgt. Majors in the Marine Corps. Now she says there are just 22.
“It’s a very exclusive field for us,” she said.
Her Marine Corps career began in 1986. She was attending Central Michigan University with a major in theater and broadcasting, her sights set on public affairs, when attending a Marine Corps Ball changed the course of her life.
The experience captivated her, and she instantly felt a taste of the camaraderie the branch had to offer.
“It just dawned on me as I’m sitting there watching all the pomp and circumstance, seeing how this brought all these people together, and the pride that they felt in this, and listening to everything … I thought that’s what I want right there. This is what I want,” she said.
It impacted her so strongly, she enlisted less than two months later on college break.
“That was November 10. I enlisted in the Marine Corps on Christmas Eve and I haven’t looked back,” she said.
She opted for an open contract with a February ship date – five months earlier than she would’ve shipped – with a guaranteed spot in public affairs. Her journey took her to Engineer School at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
She had several roles, from engineering to admin, and finally public affairs. She went back and forth between active duty Marine Corps and the Selected Marine Corps Reserve (SMCR) over the years.
Along her journey, she served two tours in Iraq, one of which was during Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1990. She earned three meritorious promotions and various awards.
“One of the things that was constant in every job I’d ever done was taking care of Marines,” she said. “I wouldn’t change anything. I’ve loved serving with the Marines I’ve served with.”
She now works in a civilian capacity as Deputy Operations Officer for the Marine Corps Community Service on Camp Lejeune, where her career first began. There, she helps connect Marines with critical resources.
“I had to do something that was still connected to the Marine Corps,” she said. “A lot of people say you miss it so much and you really have a hard time transitioning when you retire. I’ve been transitioning my whole life.”
Mayo works with numerous veterans organizations off base, as well. She serves on the board of directors for Onslow County Oktoberfest, which raises funds for the soup kitchen used by veterans, among various other outreach programs.
She also runs “Real Quick,” the weekly Camp Lejeune TV show.
“They call me Sgt. Major iCarly,” she joked.
“What I’ve enjoyed most is the people,” Mayo noted. “I’ve served with outstanding people. Seeing the incredible things these people can do, seeing their bravery, seeing how they can push themselves to the limit and push again – it’s humbling.”
Despite the extensive accomplishments of her career in the Marine Corps, Mayo said her biggest accomplishments are her children, a son who is a Marine and a daughter who works with wounded veterans in physical rehabilitation and who married a Marine.
“One of my favorite things that I was able to do is give him his first salute,” Mayo said proudly of her son.
“At my retirement, I had the opportunity to present him with his Mameluke sword” as a surprise, she added.
“I’m very proud of them and what they’re doing for our country,” she said. “The youth are our future.”