Angela Lopez starts her day at 4 a.m. each morning. And from the time she wakes up until she gets home — she's lucky if she makes it home by 9 p.m. — she is molding lives.
When I say Lopez is molding lives, I mean that she is literally taking someone and starting them on a journey that may ultimately lead them to saving a life. For 18 hours a day, she takes women from all walks of life and turns them into Marines.
"I never thought of the Marine Corps," said the daughter of a career Navy man. "It was my best friend who said, 'I'm going to join the Marines,' and I thought, 'Oh, I forgot about that branch.'
"I spoke to a recruiter, and two weeks later I was gone."
That was nearly 13 years ago.
Since then, Lopez has gotten married, had two children (now ages 9 and 5), and risen up in the ranks of her chosen profession. She said she's never looked back.
"I wanted a different lifestyle. I definitely wanted a change," she said. While enrolled in community college, Lopez commuted 45 minutes to classes each day, but left when the drive and her full-time job became too much. "I didn't want to work at the mall the rest of my life."
Lopez knew she always wanted to be a drill instructor, but the timing wasn't right. Not immediately, anyway. Her husband, David, was a drill instructor at the time. Having two parents in that position would be too much. Plus, she and her husband wanted to have another child.
"My goal was always that when my husband was a [drill instructor], I would go. [But] I didn't want to put that gap between my kids. I said, 'I want to have this second baby.' "
Soon after, the family relocated to Okinawa, Japan, during which time she deployed several times, including one six-month tour in Afghanistan.
"I deployed December 2011, left for six months, came back two months, and I had to report to drill instructor school (in Parris Island, South Carolina). While I was at drill instructor school, my husband went on a deployment. That whole year after I got back... I only lived with my family for two months."
In order to attend drill instructor school while her husband was deployed, Lopez had to make what she says was one of the toughest choices of her life. She and her husband decided to relocate their children to California to live temporarily with his brother and sister-in-law.
"It was one of the hardest things I had to do in my Marine Corps career. At one point in DI school, I thought, 'What did I do?' My kids weren't up the street, they were across the country. I think deploying was easier because I guess I was gone and I didn't have to feel that pain. There wasn't the constant reminders [and] saying goodbye each time.
"When I went to visit them for Thanksgiving, I said, 'I have to have my kids back.' "
Once she graduated in December 2012, her sister came to South Carolina to help out with the kids for when they returned in January.
Lopez's husband returned from his deployment in March.
Despite the tough work schedule, Lopez has a purpose for the turn her career has taken.
"I want to make a change for the Marine Corps. There's a lot of recruits that come from all different walks of life. It's a very humbling experience."
A tour of duty for a drill instructor is typically three years, with each "cycle," or new group of recruits, coming in every three months.
According to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Public Affairs Office, a female platoon will have about 60 recruits.
"Most of these kids come in at 18, 19 years old," said Lopez. "We're with them all day long. We're trying to instill discipline. The goal is we want them to be a [better] person. We instill honor, courage and commitment."
With her work schedule, Lopez does what she can to stay connected. Thankfully, her husband works a typical day shift and is there when she can't be.
"My husband, he's a single parent for six months. If I'm lucky, I'm coming home before 9 so I can see my kids awake for 15 minutes. So I can kiss them goodnight and let them know I'm there."
Even, so, she says it's still tough.
"Months go by and it hurts to know that favorite colors can change or that I've missed conferences."
But she does have a ritual that she tries to follow in order to stay connected with her kids.
"To kiss them every time I come home, to sing 'You are my sunshine,' even when I'm so exhausted. It's all about giving them all, like they deserve."
Lopez also stresses that when she is with her family, she's all in.
"We have outside lives. We take off this uniform... I love spending time with my family when I am at home. I would like [my kids] to know that you can have the best of both worlds. And that the family — in my eyes — your family will always come first."
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