US Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Joy Kitashima, center, sergeant major of Marine Corps Installations Pacific-Marine Corps Base Camp Smedley D. Butler, answers a question about leadership during the Opha May Johnson Symposium at Tengan Castle, Camp Courtney, Okinawa, Japan, July 2, 2021. Kitashima is slated to become the senior Marine enlisted adviser at III Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Ryan H. Pulliam.
US Marine Sgt. Maj. Joy Maria Kitashima will return to Okinawa next year, the Japanese island where her military police career began. But this time she’s going to be the top enlisted advisor at III Marine Expeditionary Force.
On Nov. 22, Kitashima, 46, was selected to join the command of Lt. Gen. James W. Bierman Jr. When she takes her post in July of 2023, she’ll become the first female force-level sergeant major in the history of the Marine Corps.
In her 26-year career, she has seen stints in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Haiti, but the Bloomington, Indiana, native never considered enlisting until a recruiter approached her while she was studying law enforcement in college.
“Sometimes you don't know the opportunity right in front of your face until you take advantage of it. And that was my case,” Kitashima told Coffee or Die Magazine.
US Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Joy Maria Kitashima, incoming sergeant major of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, speaks during a relief and appointment ceremony at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, July 11, 2022. The ceremony represented a transfer of responsibility, authority, and accountability from Sgt. Maj. Jacob M. Reiff to Kitashima. The 2nd MAW is the aviation combat element of II Marine Expeditionary Force. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Adam Henke.
After graduating from Vincennes University with an associate of science degree in law enforcement in 1996, she began a very different sort of education at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and military police school at Alabama’s Fort McClellan.
The Corps cut her orders to 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, a one-year tour on Okinawa. After that, she served as an MP at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina and as a Marine combat instructor at the School of Infantry East.
She only intended to stay in the Corps until her initial contract ended, but she told Coffee or Die doors kept opening for her, and she found more opportunities to grow as a noncommissioned officer, so she stayed.
Today, she envies the “young brains” who go into the service knowing they’ll make a career of it, “because I didn’t know that.”
“I didn’t know it ever,” she said.
US Marine Corps Col. Henry Dolberry Jr. congratulates Sgt. Maj. Joy Maria Kitashima during an award ceremony at the Marine Corps Installations Pacific headquarters building on Okinawa's Camp Foster, June 23, 2022. Kitashima was awarded the Legion of Merit for her performance and accomplishments while serving as the sergeant major of MCIPAC. US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Kayla V. Staten.
She went to Marine Combat Training because her master gunnery sergeant said the school needed “females who can PT.” He asked if she was interested, and she shot back, “Absolutely.”
Kitashima admits at the time she didn’t know the difference between an M203 grenade launcher and an M136 AT4 rocket launcher, but she was “all in.”
She reenlisted and went to Camp Geiger as a corporal.
“That's kind of been the theme throughout the career,” she said. “Just because I don't know what I'm getting into, it doesn't mean I'm going to be too afraid to try. And also, they’re called ‘orders.’”
Sgt. Maj. Joy Kitashima, then-sergeant major of Marine Corps Installations Pacific, visits Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, on May 19, 2021. Brig. Gen. Bowers, commanding general of Marine Corps Installations Pacific, and Kitashima visited the base to inspect ongoing construction efforts and discuss the future development of MCAS Kaneohe Bay. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Brandon Aultman.
Learning and teaching about combat also changed her.
Kitashima no longer saw herself as primarily a law enforcement officer. She realized it was more important to be a Marine.
“That was every bit of the challenge and everything I ever wanted out of being a Marine, and I had that,” she said.
At Camp Geiger, she served under leaders who believed in her “way more than I ever did.” They kept challenging her to be more, to do more, to lead Marines.
And after MCT, other commanders and senior enlisted Marines did the same thing.
“Nobody’s looked at me like ‘Well, you should be doing this, and doing this, because that's what I did.’ They didn’t look at me like that. They looked at me like, ‘Hey, you're a leader, what do you want to do?’ And then they allowed me to shape my style based on guidance and mentoring because we're always being mentored.”
Donald Baldwin, the Marine Corps Base Camp Blaz chief of staff, right, briefs Sgt. Maj. Joy Maria Kitashima, the Marine Corps Installations Pacific sergeant major, during a visit to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, May 18, 2021. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Andrew King.
She took those lessons all the way up the enlisted ladder.
In late 2016, she was named the 5th Naval Gunfire Liaison Company sergeant major.
Less than two years later, she got orders to become II MEF’s Information Group's top enlisted Marine. She assumed the duties of Marine Corps Installations Pacific sergeant major in mid-2020. Two years later, she took the same post at 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing in North Carolina.
Kitashima's awards include the Legion of Merit Medal, four Meritorious Service Medals, and three Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals.
US Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Joy M. Kitashima, then sergeant major of II Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group, observes a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter landing during Exercise Trident Juncture 18 in Dalsbygda, Norway, Nov. 1, 2018. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. David Delgadillo.
Next year, she’ll be joined at Camp Courtney by her husband, Mark, a retired master gunnery sergeant, and their 11-year-old daughter, Caitlynn.
“I hope I never do think that I have arrived, because if learning isn't occurring every day — whether it be from the young Marines in my office, who are teaching me slang that I really don't need to know, to mentors who have been in a lot longer than I — it’s the learning piece,” she told Coffee or Die. “I hope I never lose that.”
Kitashima “stopped putting a number” on her time in service a long time go. Now, she just hopes to keep being a Marine until she feels she’s no longer serving a higher purpose.
“Every day, as long as I wake up and I have a reason to go in to work — that will hopefully benefit the Marines and sailors and my family — then I’ll continue serving. Maybe III MEF, maybe that’s it, and it will have been an amazing ride. Life happens. I’m going to play it by ear. But I won’t quit, and I’ll give it everything I’ve got every day,” she said.
Sgt. Maj. Joy Kitashima, then Marine Corps Installations Pacific sergeant major, listens to instruction during a live-fire range at Weapons Training Battalion, Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, Aug. 12, 2021. The Marine Corps shooting team hosted hands-on training with the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle with the Leupold TS-30A2 Mark 4 MR/T riflescope. US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Victoria Ross.
No woman has become the sergeant major of the Marine Corps, but that glass ceiling was shattered in the Air Force on Aug. 14.
That’s when Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass became the service’s 19th chief master sergeant.
And like Kitashima, she never thought she’d keep serving beyond her first contract. But she did.
“Throughout my Air Force career, my intentions have always been to follow the advice my mother gave me: do your job and do it well,” Bass told Coffee or Die Magazine in a prepared statement. “Any challenges I faced, or obstacles I had to overcome, were framed with that intent. The harder I worked, the more I realized that success comes to those who are often too busy to look for it…and ultimately, it’s one’s character and competency that matters most. I wish all the best to Sgt. Maj. Kitashima on this incredible honor she has earned.”
Editor's Note: This story was changed to correct an editing error. A selection board and slating process led to Sgt. Maj. Kitashima being placed at III MEF.
Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.
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