She enlisted in the Iowa National Guard in 1979 as a private. Right away her superiors, including Command Sergeant Major Doyle Norris, say they saw something special in her. She was, he says, the kind of soldier who comes along once in a career. Everything she did, she did well. Whenever the Guard needed a volunteer, her hand was first in the air.
It was in the Guard that she caught the eye of Ed Gabbard. He was 18 years older and her superior the night the two of them were paired up as partners for a night of pool. They never lost a game. Ed says Marilyn loved pool, cards, fishing, cooking, and her car - a fast sporty Mustang convertible.
But what she loved most were Ed, her step-children, her daughter Melissa and the grand-kids. One of his proudest moments was the day that she was promoted to his rank, Command Sergeant Major - making her the highest ranked enlisted woman in Iowa National Guard history.
When she was asked to do a tour in Iraq, she didn't balk. She knew she needed a combat patch, she knew she needed to go over there and see first hand what life was like for enlisted men and women. And within weeks she saw that the enlisted and the officers largely lived in two camps. She changed that, by installing "movie night," a way for the two groups to get together on a friendly basis and get to know and trust each other.
Although she is gone now, movie night lives on. Her grieving husband takes comfort in the letters he's received from folks who met Marilyn overseas or at Walter Reed, where she often went to comforted wounded Iowa soldiers. He is still working up to the day he will be able to break the news of Marilyn's death to her little side-kick, four year old grandson Benjamin. That can't happen, he says, until he has his own emotions better under control...and that will take some time.
What I walk away with, after spending an afternoon with Marilyn's husband and the folks at the Iowa National Guard, is a glimpse at a woman who was in the prime of her life, who was able to take and enjoy what life had to offer....and to turn it around and give it back to others. In the words of her boss in the Guard Doyle Norris, who says he didn't quite believe Marilyn was gone until he attended her funeral, "It'll take us a while to recover from this."