Story By: Mary Ellen Thompson
Photography By: John Wollwerth
Joy Craig. Former Marine, writer, dragon boat coach, gardener, foodie, Leadership Beaufort team, cat rescuer, advocate, activist, advisor. Her list of accomplishments and attributes is growing by the minute. Currently, Joy’s writing is her strongest focus. In addition to working on her memoir, Men Behaving Badly, early in April she attended the “On Point: Women Warriors Writing Workshop” in Tampa, FL led by women veterans to encourage other women veterans to contribute their stories to a larger voice. In mid- April, Joy submitted an op-ed piece to the New York Times, and at the end of the month she travelled to New York because she was chosen as a fellow for “The War Horse” writing seminar at Columbia University. The topic of her writing is an honest, unflinching look at her personal, laudatory, experience in the armed service.
When Joy joined the Marine Corps at age nineteen, it seemed like the safest and sanest thing she could do. Until she was eight, she grew up with her mother and two sisters in Southern California. “My mother,” she says, “was more interested in partying with the Hell’s Angels than she was in raising her girls.” Since her sisters were older, they had each other and more resources. Joy remembers being dragged to parties and when she asked to go home, her mother would tell her to find somewhere to sleep. “An abusive husband,” Joy thinks, “became more important. When I was eight, my mother drove me hundreds of miles and dropped me off at my father’s one bedroom house.” Joy had no recollection of the man, and he didn’t know she was coming. From the first night forward, “He abused me until my friend’s mother figured it out and I was put in foster care when I was sixteen,” eight years later. During the next two years, Joy was in and out of five foster homes. When she graduated from high school, she was dropped from the program.
“I had an apartment with a friend, got a minimum wage job and quickly fell behind in the rent. Having no place else to go, I went back to my dad, who was the reason I was in foster care to begin with, but he failed a drug test and went to rehab. I was homeless. I slept on couches and back seats. Then a friend took me to meet an Air Force recruiter, but he was condescending. As I was leaving the building, I literally smacked into the Marine Corps recruiter and signed a six year contract. I had no idea of what I was getting into; I was only thinking of being safe.
“Some tried to talk me out of it, but they didn’t know my situation. Because of that, boot camp wasn’t as hard for me as it should have been. When I look back, I believe my childhood was good training for the Marine Corps.”
Joy’s career in the Marines was both illustrious and difficult. She served in Aviation Ordnance. She explains, “For every one person in the infantry, there are nine others in support of the infantry. My specialty supplied and maintained the weapons – any explosives, bombs, missiles, rockets, rounds, for the F/A-18’s. Any munitions used we saw from cradle to grave, from the moment it came out of the box until the pilot expended it.”
Progressing through the ranks and becoming an officer, Joy believes, “Some of the best work I did was as a drill instructor and after that when I could mentor. My greatest accomplishments were the success stories of people I mentored who went on to do great things. I keep in touch with many of them.”
In Joy’s bedroom there is a wall with some of her memorabilia from her 23 years in the Marines. She regards her service with much pride but her success came at great personal cost, which is the subject of her memoir and her other writings. “Some men in the Marines have had an unspoken, organizational culture of vitriol against women for decades.
I rocked the boat one too many times, but now they are going to have a hard time shutting me up. If you’re a female in the military, and you are harassed and assaulted, it’s a ‘you’ problem, it’s often a “you” problem. By the nature of the organization, Marines are focused on war fighting; it’s all about the mission. Some are holding onto the ‘good old boys club’ and part of that is trying to keep women from succeeding. These brave women signed a contract to defend the Constitution with their lives, earned the title ‘United States Marine,’ but are unworthy of respect from male counterparts to their immediate left and right. Once you graduate from boot camp, the males think you are there as their sex toy.” In her memoir, Joy discusses the details of her treatment by fellow Marines. She reveals, “Just before my retirement I had to go to a meeting with an NCIS agent concerning a sexual assault. I told my story but didn’t press charges.” That wasn’t the only occasion on which she had been assaulted.
The Marines United scandal has Joy’s fingers flying across the keyboard writing letters, making statements and giving interviews. In an op-ed piece submitted to the New York Times, Joy explains “Marines United, a private Facebook page for current and former Marines, was linked to thousands of nude photos of female Marines, many submitted without their knowledge. For many women who’ve served, this wasn’t news at all. In truth, the real surprise is that the public wasn’t alerted sooner. Marine Corps leadership had knowledge about the site since 2013 and failed to correct it.” Joy is making it her mission to educate and effect change for these very sorts of behaviors.
Although Joy’s career in the Marine Corps was not without personal difficulties, it did bring her to Beaufort. Having been stationed at Parris Island, Joy fell under the spell the Lowcountry inevitably casts and after she retired, and lived for a short period of time in Bluffton, she decided to make her home here. “I first came to Beaufort as a Marine recruit on Parris Island in 1991. I was so eager to leave that I barely looked around. Ten years later I volunteered to become a drill instructor and despite working an average of 100 hours a week, I fell in love with the lowcountry. When I was in the Corps’ 17 years I became an officer and was able to pick my final duty station before retirement. I chose Beaufort so that I could have a ‘do-over’ and really get to see the place and put down roots. I’ve traveled the world and been able to see some unbelievably gorgeous places, but the lowcountry landscape still takes my breath away.”
While Joy is working hard to paddle against the tide to create change, she also paddles for another cause: Dragon Boat Beaufort. For five years Joy has coached the dragon boat team and served on the board of directors. Her sister lives with cancer, and her mother passed away from cancer, so it is a cause she solidly supports. “In the five years I’ve been on the team, we’ve raised and donated thousands of dollars to people in Beaufort County. Anything I can do to help, I will try.” Joy first got involved in dragon boat paddling when she was stationed in Japan. “One of my ‘success stories’ worked for me in Okinawa, and she was on the Navy dragon boat team, she invited me to join them and for the first year I paddled, then I began coaching; it was a very successful team.”
In another way for her to connect with the community, Joy is involved with Leadership Beaufort, having completed the requisite classes this April. She also loves and rescues cats to the point of one rescue where she was bitten so badly that she required 32 rabies shots and surgery on her finger. On another front she confesses, “I was an agriculture geek in high school – I love to garden and would like to see community gardens in this area”. Joy describes herself as a “foodie” and to that end she explains, “Yes ma’am, (I’m a) big epicurean! I’ve actually shepherded my daughters into the fine dining trade so I can live vicariously. I’m a home chef and do grow a little of my own produce (herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers…). I’m a vegetarian (for ethical/environmental reasons) and seek clean, healthy foods that the increasing scale numbers conflict with.”
Creative, not only in her writing, Joy has several small intricately fashioned trees which, she explains, she “sculpted” out of twisted wire; something her dad, who was an electrician, taught her to do with leftover materials. They are amazingly beautiful and complex. Her creativity is passed on to her two daughters, Nevada who is a photographer, and Mariah who is a gifted young chef.
Joy’s voice will be heard over the din, collectively adding to the sound of freedom as she hears it. “I want to be an advocate and an activist for veterans and women’s issues. I piss a lot of people off but I’m willing to put my neck out there to effect the necessary changes.”