Women have been serving in the Marines for 100 years, and the branch’s goal is to have more women join their ranks. Currently, the number of women serving is 8.3 percent, making the Marines the military branch with the lowest number of females in service.

“The Marine Corps is the toughest branch [in the military], but anyone can do it,” says retired Gunnery Sgt. Jaclyn Kirkwood. “It’s a mental game once you get to boot camp. It really wasn’t physical, it was mental.”

Kirkwood says women joining the Marines can expect to get physically and mentally strong. She credits the Marines with teaching her leadership skills, including teamwork and how to work under pressure.

“Every step of the way, they helped me transform into a leader,” says the Illinois native.

Kirkwood served in Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2010. During her time in Afghanistan, she worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

Coming home was a difficult transition for Kirkwood, who had trouble sleeping and getting back to a regular schedule. She took classes to learn balance and exercises for de-stressing.

“I’ve served my country and now I want to serve my community."

In 2014, Kirkwood was forced to fight another battle. While still in the Marines, she was diagnosed with low grade fibromyxoid sarcoma in her left breast, a rare soft tissue tumor that’s typically seen in small children.

She had surgery and calls her cancer diagnosis “a blessing in disguise," as it forced her to seek out support from other female veterans after Kirkwood’s illness reinforced what she already knew about military service.

“When someone is sick in the military, especially the Marine Corps, they don’t know how to show empathy,” she says, explaining that Marines are taught to continue the mission and to bury feelings because they don’t want to be seen as weak.

However, she finally found the empathy she needed in January 2015 when she connected with the Women Veterans Alliance, an organization dedicated to “equip, empower and encourage” female veterans. Kirkwood credits those female veterans with helping her handle her cancer diagnosis and her transition back to civilian life. Many of those women are now her best friends.

After 18 years in the Marines, Kirkwood retired. During her career, she received over 40 military honors.

“I’ve served my country and now I want to serve my community,” says Kirkwood, who works with her local rotary, as well as veteran support organizations including Women Veterans Giving, Inc., which supports female veterans, and the Mission Continues, a non-profit helping veterans transition home.

A proud veteran, Kirkwood says, “I’m a marine forever.”