On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Master Sgt. Stacie Crowther enlisted in the Marine Corps when she was just 17 years old, at the beginning of her senior year in high school.
Crowther’s career as a Marine musician took lots of turns, including two deployments to the Middle East. She enlisted as a flute player in the band but found herself operating a machine gun turret in Iraq on her second deployment.
In 2017, Crowther was selected as the first female assistant drum major for the “President’s Own” Marine Band, where she led the band on the world stage at the White House.
Crowther continues to break barriers as the first female bandmaster to serve in the role officially at Quantico.
Produced by Victoria Chamberlin
This segment is part of our series profiling local women who are making a difference and influencing their communities. This series is airing throughout March in celebration of Women’s History Month.
- Master Sgt. Stacie Crowther Bandmaster, Quantico Marine Corps Band
KOJO NNAMDIThat, you probably know. It's called “Washington Post March,” by John Philip Sousa. And our guest has led the playing of this on several occasions. Throughout March, in celebration of Women's History Month, we'll be meeting local women who are making a difference in their communities and in their professions.
KOJO NNAMDIIn this week's installment of our Game Changer series, we're joined by Master Sergeant Stacie Crowther. She enlisted into the Marine Corps at the beginning of her senior year in high school, when she was just 17 years old. Crowther's career as a Marine musician took lots of turns, including two deployments to the Middle East. She enlisted as a flute player in the band, but found herself operating a machine gun turret in Iraq on her second deployment.
KOJO NNAMDIShe was selected as the first female assistant drum major for The President's Own Marine Band, where she led the band on the world stage at the White House. She continues to break barriers as the first female bandmaster to officially serve in the role at Quantico. Master Sergeant Stacie Crowther, thank you so much for joining us.
STACIE CROWTHERThank you for having me.
NNAMDIWhat made you decide to become a musician in the Marines?
CROWTHERI think what ultimately led to my decision to becoming a musician in the Marine Corps was that I didn't know what I wanted to do when I graduated high school.
NNAMDISounds familiar. (laugh)
CROWTHER(laugh) A big push from my mom. My brother had joined the Navy my junior year in high school. My mom took down the number to the Navy Band and tacked it up outside my bedroom. so I would see it every day. I had no idea what the Navy was. I thought anybody who wore a uniform was in the Army. I know much better than that now. (laugh)
CROWTHERNeedless to say, I never gave the Navy a call. And then. my senior year in high school. there were some Marine Corps recruiters that were there in the cafeteria. I'd gone up, talked to the recruiter, picked up the musician's pamphlet. and that's where it all started.
NNAMDIWhat was it like going to boot camp and then to infantry training, as a woman, and at such a young age?
CROWTHERI was terrified. (laugh)
NNAMDII can only imagine.
CROWTHERI was terrified. I was from southeast Texas. That's the first time I left home. I was 17 years old when I left. I had just graduated high school in May of '99. I went to boot camp in June. Doing that evolution as a woman didn't really cross my mind. Doing it so young didn't really cross my mind, either. Just the act of doing it is what crossed my mind, that I was just going to go out there and take names and get some while I was out there. So, being in boot camp then going to Marine combat training, something I never thought I'd do, but I did it. And now, here I am, 20 years later, still doing it.
NNAMDIEvery Marine is a rifleman first. I understand that was especially true for you when you deployed to the Middle East. Can you tell us about those experiences?
CROWTHERSure. Well, with every Marine is a rifleman, in boot camp you shoot the rifle. Before that I'd shot BB guns. (laugh) You know, being from the South, that's what you do. You shoot BB guns. So, I'd never shot a rifle before. I fired the rifle, did well. And then the role of being the gunner on deployment, never thought I would do that. So, we did workups to that.
CROWTHERSo, they sent all the band Marines I was stationed with, the Third Marine Aircraft Wing Band in Miramar, California, they sent all the band out to the range. We did the 240, and the 240 Gulfs were actually attached to the band, which was unheard of. So, we got to go to the range. We got to do all that shooting. And then finding myself in the turret of the humvee was...
NNAMDIHow did your mom respond to that? (laugh)
CROWTHEROh, gosh. She was (laugh) very angry. She was very angry. So, on my first deployment, I didn't even know that I was being deployed. I'd come from the Parris Island Band in South Carolina. I reenlisted at that time with incentive to be transferred to Miramar. With that incentive to be transferred, no one from the Miramar band said, oh, yeah, by the way, we're getting ready for deployment. So, this was in October of 2002. This was before the declaration of war.
CROWTHERI checked in. It was November of 2002. They said, oh, yeah. You need to go check out your rifle and your gas mask. And I said, what? What are you talking about? They said, oh yeah, we're getting ready to deploy. And my stepdad, who was with me at the time, he had driven over with me from Texas. And he looked at me, and I looked back at him. I said, don't tell mom. He said, you know I have to. So, she was very angry, so I had to kind of...
NNAMDIShe didn't think daughters were supposed to go to war at all.
CROWTHEROh, no. That's what she said. And I said, ma, I can't talk to you if you're not going to be supportive, because I'm terrified, also. And that's what she would say, daughters aren't supposed to go to war.
NNAMDIWell, you did. The Marine Corps is less than 10 percent female, and it's been slow to integrate men and women in training environments and combat specialties. How have you handled sexism or harassment during your career, if you've had to deal with it?
CROWTHERI'd say the band field itself, we have a higher percentage of women that are in the band field. But once we move outside the band field and we start going to different schools and things like that, then you're a much smaller percentage. One specific scenario, I was attending some advanced training for the Marine Corps. And I was the only female in a class of 60. And they had lined us up. We were taking our physical fitness test.
CROWTHERThey had lined us up at the pull-up bars, because we were going to do our pull-ups for the test. And they said, oh well, you have to get to the back of the line, because the females will do the flexed arm hang at the end. And this was at a time when we had the option to do pull-ups, as well. And I said, well, I have the option to do pull-ups.
CROWTHERAnd I heard a man who was up front, didn't know who he was, and he said, oh, you're going to hang up here with the men. (laugh) I said, yeah. So, all I did was get up on the bar. I did my max-out set. And so, since then, I've chosen to act instead of talk. If somebody has any question about my capability or my involvement or how or why I should be here, then I just use actions instead of words.
NNAMDIJust show them.
NNAMDIOur guest is Master Sergeant Stacie Crowther. She's the first woman to lead The President's Own Marine Band as the assistant drum major. She is now assigned as the bandmaster at Marine-based Quantico, which is another first. It's a big leap going from playing the flute to leading the band as drum major. How did that happen?
CROWTHER(laugh) That was actually by accident. I was stationed in Italy at the time, and I'd gotten a call from our headquarters of Marine music. And they said, we want you to go to the school of music and we want you to teach basic academics. One of the requirements to teach that was to be a graduate of the unit leader course, which I'd never been to.
CROWTHERAnd so, at that time, I was at that point in my career where I decided that if I reached a certain point, I was going to stay in for 20, or you get out at 10. So, I was -- at that time it was a big decision to make, so I decided to stay in. I went to the school of music. I checked in, and they sent me to the unit leader course first, before teaching. And that was the first time that I got to be in front of the band with the mace, because before that all I wanted to do was play the flute. Not because I was good at it or because that was just my passion, it's because I was terrified and was fear of failure of doing anything else.
CROWTHERSo, I never got in front of the band and I had that opportunity in the unit leader course. And when I did the sound of the band behind me was so amazing, that I knew that I wanted to be a drum major. And that's how I became that.
NNAMDIWell, what does the drum major in a military band do?
CROWTHERThe drum major for a military band, we're going to lead the band on the march. And we do that by using what's called a mace, the long stick thing that's in front of the band that people see. So, we lead the band on the march, and we give them signals with the mace. It tells them where to go, what to do, where to turn, when to stop, when to play, dictates time for the ensemble.
NNAMDIThe President’s Own Marine Band is a little different from other bands in the Marine Corps. What is its mission, The President’s Own Marine Band?
CROWTHERThe President’s Own mission is slightly different than what the field band's missions are. We do consider that band to be our premier band, while we do have 10 other field bands that are outside of "The President's Own." So, any Marine that's in The President’s Own is specifically hired for that band, while the field bands come in, and we can rotate around.
CROWTHERBut that billet as the assistant drum major for that band was special, because that is the only rotational billet within that band. So, coming in with the experience that I had and being with that excellent caliber of musicians that are up there was really a gift for me as a drum major to be able to -- it's like driving a Cadillac. (laugh) It's just really great.
NNAMDIIt took you two auditions to be selected as the assistant drum major for The President's Own. What was different the second time around?
CROWTHERThe second time around, I felt like I was at a different place in my life. I was in much different headspace. And when I went up there, the first time around, it was so stressful. And I told myself, I am never doing this again. And that was about a four-year break between the two.
NNAMDIEven though the first time around, it was won by someone who was a good friend of yours.
NNAMDIOkay. But you said, no again. I'm not doing this again.
CROWTHERNo, I'm not doing that again. I'm not doing that again. But when the time came around and it was time for a new assistant drum major to go up there, I talked with a very good friend and mentor of mine, Will Contreras, who had also, at one point, been the assistant drum major up there. And he told me I should go for it. And I said, okay. And so I did, and it was very -- not that it was relaxed and that I just didn't care one way or the other, but it was -- I felt like it was a good place for me to be, at that point in my life. And so I went in, and I did the audition to the best of my ability, and I got selected for that job.
NNAMDIWhat were some of the feelings you had to overcome to succeed in that second audition?
CROWTHERSome of the feelings I had to overcome with knowing that there had never been a female in that job before, and kind of tagged on from the first audition of people having different opinions on why they would hire me, specifically. They're going to hire you because you're the only female, or they're not going to hire you because you're a female, things like that. Just those inner feelings that you really -- once you're out there on the grinder with the Marines and marching in front of the Marines, it really doesn't matter. You're just there to do a good job.
NNAMDIAnd you get over the fear of failure that had dogged you before that time.
CROWTHEROh, yes. Oh, yes.
NNAMDIHere is Neal in West Friendship, Maryland. Neal, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NEALThank you very much. Master Sergeant, I just wanted to tell you that I served in the Corps from '76 to '80. And I was a motor transport man for a while, but then I did a lateral move to the grunts. I wanted to just say thank you very much for your service, and Semper Fidelis, Marine.
CROWTHERSemper Fi. Thanks very much, sir.
NNAMDIWhat is the significance of a woman leading The President’s Own Marine Band?
CROWTHERI think the significance comes from society. To me, the significance of me leading the band isn't because of my gender or why it was important to me. It was important to me because of the opportunity to be in front of that ensemble. Obviously, I don't do that anymore, but it is another woman that is doing that now. She is doing a great job up there. But I don't think that just the role of being a woman in that position, I think it's more of a society thing.
CROWTHERWhen I checked in up there, I didn't really consider what the magnitude of that was. I was just -- I wanted to do a good job, and I wanted to do it as good or better than anybody that had had that job before. But when I checked in, the executive assistant to the director at the time, Lieutenant Colonel Barclay, told me that I got the job because I was the best qualified for the job. But as a father of two daughters, he had to tell me how proud he was that his daughters would be able to look at what I was doing and think, look, dad. I can do that one day, too.
NNAMDIAnd you hadn't thought of that.
CROWTHERI hadn't thought of that. And so, from that moment I thought, whoa, that's (laugh) -- oh, man. I got a big job to do now. I thought it was big before but now it's a big job. And I enjoyed every single minute of that.
NNAMDIFascinating that when he saw you do it, he thought of his own daughters looking at you and saying, I can do that. Of all the missions you've led as assistant drum major, what's the most memorable for you?
CROWTHERThe most memorable when I was the assistant drum major up there, it was a funeral in Arlington National Cemetery, actually. The band up there performs countless funerals in Arlington, as well as all of the...
NNAMDI(overlapping) You yourself has done 135.
CROWTHERYes. One specific, notable funeral was a staff sergeant that was killed, I guess, most recently in Afghanistan. But they had the -- it seemed like the entire New York Fire Department that was out there lining the streets. And it was incredible. I mean, I know incredible seems like a wrong word to say when you're talking about giving honors to one of our nation's heroes. But it was magnificent to see the support that was out there from his community, the family that was there. It was amazing.
NNAMDIIt was awe-inspiring. Here now is Patrick in Washington, D.C. Patrick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATRICKHey, Kojo. How you doing?
PATRICKOkay. So, (unintelligible) conversation just wanted to share my thoughts. When the lady drum major mentioned about marching in front of the band, I actually, was a drum major myself back in my days when I lived in Jamaica. And it was a cadet program kind of similar to the ROTC here. And I remember I was a bugler, and when I actually became drum major for the first time with the mace, and when you're marching with the band playing behind you, it's an awesome experience. So, I know exactly what you mean.
CROWTHEROh, yeah, (laugh) it's great.
NNAMDIThank you very much. Hearing that coming from somebody who was doing it in a different country know how similar the experience is. But now you serve as the bandmaster for the Marine Band at Quantico, another first. But what responsibilities does the bandmaster have?
CROWTHERSo, being the bandmaster at Quantico, there have been other female bandmasters in the Marine Corps, but being the first one at Quantico, again, I just want to do a good job, you know. Gender aside, I just want to do a good job. But the role of the bandmaster, I oversee operations and personnel for the unit.
NNAMDIOh, okay. And how different is that from being the drum major?
NNAMDIIt's a completely different type of assignment.
CROWTHERIt is very different. I no longer march in front of the band with a mace. I sit at my desk and I practice my keyboard, my computer keyboard, not a musical keyboard. I did have the opportunity to march in a parade with the band recently, but I really miss being outside and being with the Marines and marching and making beautiful music. But I understand that the role of the bandmaster is a very important one, also, because without the scheduling, operations, personnel management, then the running of the band would be much more difficult.
NNAMDIHas serving in the Marines met your expectations? If you could talk to that 17-year-old girl who enlisted in high school today, what would you tell her?
CROWTHEROh, gosh. (laugh) Honestly, I didn't know what to expect when I was 17 years old and joining the Marine Corps. I'm certain glad it did it. If there were another 17-year-old girl who was out there -- my sisters and I have this thing that we say to each other anytime we're facing any sort of adversity or we're about to embark on something new and challenging, we say, you are strong, you are confident, you are beautiful, you are graceful.
CROWTHERAnd so that's what I would say to any young girl trying to do anything in life, whether it be a service to our nation or anything that they're trying to do, is that they can do it. And the only person that's going to say no to them is themselves. And so that's what we've got to get over.
NNAMDIFinally, here's Mark in Ashburn, Virginia. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKHi, Master Sergeant. Thank you so much for your service. I'm a fellow brother musician-in-arms with the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. And I just want to say thank you for keeping our military music traditions alive.
CROWTHEROh, great. Thanks so much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you very much for your call. Before we go, let's hear a little bit more music. This time...
NNAMDIThat's “The Liberty Bell March,” also by John Philip Sousa. Master Sergeant nodding in recognition of it. (laugh) Master Sergeant Stacie Crowther was the first woman to lead The President’s Own Marine Band as the assistant drum major. She is now assigned as the bandmaster at Marine-based Quantico, another first. Thank you so much for joining us, and good luck to you.
CROWTHERThank you very much for having me.
NNAMDIDo you still enjoy playing the flute?
CROWTHEROf course I do, when I get to. (laugh)
NNAMDIThank you for joining us. Our segment about traffic ticketing in D.C. was produced by Kurt Gardinier, and our conversation about breaking gender barriers in The President’s Own Marine Band was produced by Victoria Chamberlin.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow on The Politics Hour, Congressman Don Beyer tells us how he's doing under self-quarantine. Plus, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine on coronavirus scams and the long-fought lawsuit against the digital sign company with ties to former D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans. That all starts tomorrow, at noon, on The Politics Hour. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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