Out at a bar, Justine Cabulong, a former Marine Corps lieutenant who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, sometimes gets asked, “Wait. They let girls in the Marines?” Usually, Cabulong takes a sip of her G-and-T, patiently nods and replies, “Yep, I’ve shot weapons with these tiny hands.”
As the only female member of her family to join the armed services, Cabulong has always bucked the trend. Overseas, she relied on her sense of humor to defuse confrontations, chaos and self-doubt. But once she returned home, Cabulong realized her military experience didn’t align with Americans’ traditional image of a buff white male soldier. Above, filmed at a recent Got Your 6 Storytellers event, see the audience supervisor for “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” share her story of changing perceptions of veterans and how fighting for the military was sometimes easier than fighting for herself today.
“A lot of times, we become restricted to this list of generalizations because of our military service. ‘You like to take orders and crush things and show up 15 minutes early and carry anything that’s heavy — no matter what it is and what you’re wearing,’” Cabulong says. “But to me, what I believe, is that our military careers don’t define us by any means. But they empower us towards the future and what we’re yet to be.”
In this NationSwell exclusive, Cabulong discusses how civilians can better recognize the humanity in our nation’s soldiers.
What inspired you to serve your country?
To be honest, it was mainly because I didn’t know if I had what it would take to be a U.S. Marine. I came from a family with a military background, but there weren’t any Marines, any women who served, or any officers, and I became all three. The idea of going to college and succeeding was easy to me because I did well in school, but being a U.S. Marine meant that I would work towards being greater than myself. I’m a first generation [American], so this country is mine, but not my parents’. So there’s also a go-big-or-go-home attitude that sort of sticks with me.
What 3 words describe your experience in the service?
In three separate words: challenging, rewarding, inspiring. In three words all together: “Carried heavy things.”
What is one thing people should understand about the Marine Corps?
That we are human. We are men and women from different backgrounds that come in all shapes and sizes, and we are not perfect. We are capable of both mistakes and failures, but also achievements beyond anything we could have imagined. We’re not too different from others that have dedicated themselves to a powerful cause or mission that requires a lot out of you both physically and mentally.
Also that the ‘p’ is silent in Corps.
What is the quality you most admire in a comrade?
Humility, which can be rare when you’re surrounded by a bunch of type-A personalities. But being humble grants you a certain level of awareness and the ability to respect others that is incredibly valuable as a leader. Good hygiene also goes a long way with me, too.
Was there time to laugh when you were deployed overseas?
If there isn’t, then you’re doing something wrong. Deployment really evolves your sense of humor too. Maybe it makes it broader or more crude, but laughing really bonds you in those situations, and it becomes a necessary survival tactic.
Who are your heroes in real life?
‘Heroes’ is a funny concept to me. Especially when you eventually meet one and then they hire you to work on their late-night comedy show. After Jon Stewart [former host of “The Daily Show”], I would really have to say that it’s anyone — whether it be Marines, friends, or writers that have written something that I absolutely needed to read at the moment I read it — that has just made me feel like it’s okay to really be myself. I feel like smaller, more accessible heroes is the best way forward these days.
To you, what does it mean to be a veteran?
It’s a reminder that I once gave a significant portion of my life towards being something great and will be connected to the many others that have done the same thing. It’s a very small percentage of our population that does this. I don’t know if I’ll ever do something as great, and that scares me, but I’ll continue to work hard and keep serving how I can.
What generalizations about veterans have you encountered?
For the most part, people are very kind and helpful and generous, and I think that’s probably the best thing you can expect when it comes to being generalized. I think there are still some preconceived notions about the kind of people who serve, but I mean, it’s not like we make it easy on ourselves with all our different services, traditions, uniforms and rules. I suppose I just wish we could get to a point where when I told someone I was a U.S. Marine, I wouldn’t be automatically asked, “Really?!”
How can civilians get a better sense of the people behind the military uniform?
Watch fewer military movies. The depictions of the armed services still isn’t really where I’d like to see it. I was more inspired toward the military by Disney’s “Mulan” than by “G.I. Jane,” and I think there’s something to be said about that. So yes, just talk to us more. All of us. Not all women who join the military survived some sort tragic childhood or weren’t popular in school. We come from the same place everyone else does. Two people can serve alongside each other and one can be from a rich town and the other from a poor town, but they’re doing the same job and both are out to protect each others’ lives.
Who is your favorite comedian?
This is the hardest question of the whole thing. So I will just say that in this moment, right now, it’s Eddie Izzard because I was listening to him on my way in to work.
Who was the most inspirational person you encountered while serving?
Eric Flanagan. He’s a captain now and was my partner in Afghanistan. He went from being an infantry corporal to a lieutenant and Public Affairs Officer. For me, just being a Marine Public Affairs Officer and a woman, I went through a lot for this journey. Being able to share our perspectives and have someone on my side that understood my experience had a huge impact on my life and how I thought of myself. I still email him the occasional life crisis and inside joke. It helps my sanity.
How can people use humor to get through tough times?
If watching reality tv doesn’t work to make you feel better about yourself, then I would try finding comedians who write or do stand up about things that you can relate to. That’s what I’ve found to help get me through difficult times — finding someone else who has gone through something similar and made the same observations I have. We’re not alone in our struggles, and laughing at sad things is incredibly therapeutic. So is getting a dog.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Since I’ve moved to New York, life has shifted in a way that has given me the opportunity to speak about issues that are important to me as a woman and as a Marine and working in comedy. It’s a way for me to continue to serve and to sort through my own experiences. I’m continually surprised that people are willing to listen, so that feels like a pretty good achievement.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
MORE: 13 Questions with Marine-Turned-Poet Maurice Decaul