|Friends and family gathered at the Menifee In-N-Out to celebrate the return of Alexandria Ramirez, a Marine who was deployed in Afghanistan for seven months.|
Afghanistan certainly isn't known for cheeseburgers and fries, so American Marines like Martinez must endure their deployment without the comfort of their country's favorite fast food. Luckily, there's an In-N-Out located on Haun Road in Martinez's hometown of Menifee.
On Wednesday, July 16, Martinez returned to Southern California, being greeted by loved ones at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar (right). That night, her friends and family met at In-N-Out to celebrate the Marine's safe return from her seven-month deployment.
"She just wanted to get on American soil and enjoy a hamburger," said her aunt Terina Ramirez, who attended the celebration.
About 50 people crowded into the burger joint to show their support for Martinez, an Air Support Operations operator, who left home in January to serve her country. While in Afghanistan, Martinez provided aircraft support for troops on the ground.
"I want the community to know that we have young people in our town who are being deployed and fighting for our freedom," said Ramirez.
Ramirez helped spread the word about Martinez's homecoming party, which was planned by a family friend, Pam Willis. She told Martinez she would treat her to anywhere she wanted to go, and Martinez chose her favorite burger joint. Then Willis thought it would be an even better idea to invite "all of Menifee" to join them. She created a public Facebook event and invited over 100 people, but those who stopped by were mostly family and friends from church.
Martinez spent the evening dashing around the restaurant, exchanging hugs and catching up with friends while they ordered Double-Doubles in her honor.
Ramirez, like everyone else at the party, is proud of Martinez. They're especially proud because she's a female Marine who was able to find success as a woman in what many consider the most challenging military branch.
"With her training and her independence, she's just a very strong young lady," said Ramirez. "She's such a great mentor for young people today, and she's very driven."
"I wanted to give her more structure," said Tina, who's lived in Menifee for 16 years. "I told her to just try it for the semester, and if she didn't like it, she could leave. But she ended up loving it."
After her first year in NJROTC, Martinez gave up her spot on the girls varsity basketball team to further pursue the cadet program for the next three years of school. She fell in love with the program's camaraderie, discipline and attention to detail. It was there that she learned she could do something for the world.
"Being in the military is even more than that," she said. "You're completely involved in everything and you truly are serving as a part of something that's bigger than just you."
Martinez was already enlisted in the Marines Corps before she graduated from Paloma Valley in 2012. She was inspired to join by her instructor, a retired First Sergeant Marine, and her best friend, who enlisted right before her.
Two years later, Martinez was deployed. To a civilian it may seem frightening to work in a war zone, but Martinez said she was grateful for the experience.
"It was a very wonderful experience for me to go out there and to learn," she said. "Being so young and getting that opportunity was a treat."
Working as an operator, Martinez rarely left the base. This comforted her mother and others who were concerned for her safety.
"I wasn't scared because I knew her job was safe," said Tina. "I'm just thankful for technology."
Martinez was able to keep in touch with friends and family through email and Skype. She emailed people regularly, sharing stories about her experiences on base in Afghanistan. She was even able to watch the entire ceremony of her best friend's wedding through Skype.
Technology also helped Martinez feel less homesick. Her deployment, which she described as being unbearably hot and monotonous, was her first experience away from home. It was difficult to adjust to 120-degree weather and long work hours.
"I'm very, very close to my family," she said. "That really kept me going, knowing that I had so much support back home. It made the homesickness kind of go away."
Martinez won't have to feel homesick again anytime soon. She's currently on leave for two weeks, and afterward she'll be stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.
She hasn't decided if she wants to make a career out of the Marine Corps, but hopes that she'll be able to travel the world and be exposed to different cultures. Although she loves serving her country, she admitted there are downsides.
During a phone interview before her party, Martinez explained some of the obstacles she's had to overcome as a female Marine.
"Sometimes it is very challenging because you get compared to the males, and when you aren't as strong as a male, they kind of put you down," she said. "When you aren't selected for something, or you are selected for something, people always kind of hate on you because you're a female. Even when you're trying to pick up rank, a lot of times males pick up faster than females, or vice versa, because there's favoritism sometimes."
Despite occasional discrimination and criticism, Martinez said the Marines are balanced and she's honored to be seen as a strong, young woman.
"I think that every female Marine is doing their part to succeed," she said. "They're not trying to be like the males; they're trying to be themselves. They're creating a name for themselves, and I think that we have a good relationship with our brothers in arms in that we're all working together for the same job."
While on leave, Martinez plans to take a road trip with one of her best friends, spend time with her family, hang out at the beach and shop. Her mother said she was overjoyed to have her daughter home, and those who went to her In-N-Out celebration seemed to feel the same, as they all clamored for her attention.
During the party, Martinez noticed that her friends and family had changed since she'd been gone. She pointed out that a boy had grown taller than her, and her friend's baby bump was finally showing. But had anything changed about her?
"I don't know," her stepfather, Steve Romero, chuckled. "She's only been home for a couple of hours, so I guess we'll find out next week."
|Alexandra Martinez received a big welcome home at the Marine Air Station Miramar Wednesday.|