The United States had a banner year in 1918: An influenza epidemic swept the nation, World War I ended and for the first time since Congress ordered the formation of the United States Marine Corps in 1798, women joined its ranks.
One hundred years later, women from across the country gathered in Washington, D.C., from Aug. 29 to Sept. 3 for a convention celebrating a century of women’s service in the Marines.
Mady McKim, a French immigrant and retired marine who served a total of 12 years both on active duty and in the reserves, traveled from Newton to D.C. for the convention. She revisited her old stomping grounds where former Commandant Carl Mundy Jr.'s wife, Linda, called her away from her duties to snack on milk and cookies, re-lived the instant camaraderie of Marine Corps life and received recognition for making history during her time in the Marine Corps as the first female mascot handler.
Upon graduating from high school in 1992, McKim joined the Marines, an endeavor she had dreamt of tackling since she spotted a few in uniform when she was 14 years old. After completing basic training at Parris Island, S.C., luck stationed her at 8th & I, the oldest post of the Marine Corps and home to the silent drill team, the drum and bugle corps and the mascot: a wrinkle-faced English bulldog named for Lieutenant General Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller.
“Eighth & I is a prestigious place,” McKim said. “At the time when I went in, there were hardly any females. All the men were marching, and I wanted to be part of that.”
McKim worked in the supply warehouse and served as security for President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, but she wanted to participate in the more ceremonial aspects of the post as well. When she expressed this desire, she was told that she didn’t meet the height requirements, but she kept searching for a position. A captain who worked with the mascot suggested she audition to become the handler.
On the day of the auditions, she flawlessly communicated with the pup. Chesty X, the 10th English bulldog to serve as the Marine Corps mascot, sat and walked on her command. When she was selected from the pool of seven candidates, McKim became the Marine’s first female mascot handler.
“I went and played with the dog. I got the dog to know me, and I practiced with the dog. The other guys didn’t,” McKim shrugged. “They thought they were going to do the march in with the dog and that would be it, but I spent time with the dog.”
The two became fast friends. For three years, they traveled to school programs and parades across the United States and Canada. Ed McMahon and Willard Scott invited McKim, Chesty X and Commandant Mundy on the Today Show for a promotional segment on the Marine Corps. In 1994, McKim and Chesty X appeared together on the cover of Leatherneck in dress blues.
“We went anywhere we could show our faces. It wasn’t me; it was the dog,” McKim laughed. “People see the dog, of course, they want to come over. He’s so adorable — he’s in a uniform, you know — and they all want to pet him.”
When they weren’t on ceremonial duty, McKim brought Chesty X with her to work in the warehouse.
“We have several different uniforms (for the dog). He wore whatever uniform I was wearing,” McKim explained. “I think he knew the behavior he was supposed to have because he had the uniform. Once he got the uniform off, he was at home, he was a typical dog and he wanted to play.”
When the Corps retired Chesty X in 1995, McKim wrestled him out of his uniform one last time, and the Marine Corps gave him to McKim as a gift, another first in Marine Corps history. McKim chose the next mascot, the first female English bulldog, in the long succession.
Chesty X moved with McKim to Iowa when she completed her contract in 1996 and joined American Legion Post 407 with her in their new home. He received a 21-gun salute at his funeral when he died in 2002, and he is buried next to a poodle in a pet cemetery in Centerville.
“He was my first dog ever, but I never got another English bulldog, and I never will,” McKim said. “He was so special. There’s no way that I could get another one that would even come close to him.”
When she attended the convention for Marine women earlier this month, she did, however, enjoy meeting the current Chesty, Chesty XV, another brindled ball of muscle with flop ears. Commandant Robert Neller’s wife, D’Arcy, arranged for McKim to visit with the dog after meeting her and other honorees — including a female sergeant-major who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam — at a VIP dinner.
In addition to the dinner, national president of the Women Marine Association Rhonda Amtower recognized McKim for her achievements with Chesty X during the convention’s opening ceremony.
Throughout the convention, younger women stopped McKim and told her that seeing her and Chesty X peer out from the 1994 cover of Leatherneck inspired them to join the Marines. As she walked through the brick arches at 8th & I 22 years after she last left it, she noticed an increased number women among the ranks.
“When I was there, there were about 1,500 males, and I think there might have been five females. Now, it looks like there were at least 30 to 50; a lot more females. I opened some small doors you could say,” McKim smiled.
McKim, whose fibromyalgia forced her to retire from the Marines in 2004, is an active member of Newton’s American Legion Post 111. She recently became a member of the Pleasantville chapter of the Marie Women Association.
Contact Phoebe Marie Brannock at 641-792-3121 ext. 6547 or firstname.lastname@example.org