On a muggy summer day in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, a Marine Corps instructor stood on a ledge overlooking a swamp. He looked out at his students, and his eyes found Master Sgt. Aretha Boston — the only airman in the platoon.
He called her forward, and Boston walked up to the ledge.
“Just as soon as I extended my hand, he grabbed it,” Boston recalled. “And before I knew it, he was pulling me into the swamp.”
For Boston, 11th Medical Group command staff superintendent, it was another of many surprises at the Marine Corps Staff NCO Academy Advanced Course. The opportunity to attend the course was a surprise in itself.
Most surprising, though, was how well she performed. At graduation time, Boston took home three of the most prestigious awards at the school: the class Gunnery Sergeant Award (voted on by instructors), the Honor Graduate Award (voted on by her classmates), and the Distinguished Graduate Award (for measured academic excellence).
In some ways, though, it was a fitting chapter in a storied career that almost never was.
Coming from a small town in Florida, Boston’s life plan didn’t involve joining the military. Her mother, though, had different ideas. She insisted that her daughter enlist.
Master Sgt. Aretha Boston, 11th Medical Group command staff superintendent, poses for a portrait Oct. 24, 2018, at Joint Base Andrews, Md. Boston.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Noah Sudolcan)
“To be completely honest, in the beginning I was angry,” Boston said. Despite her misgivings, at the age of 17 and straight out of high school, she begrudgingly agreed and enlisted in the Air Force to become a dental technician. Years later, she said she views it as “by far the best decision my parents could have made for me.”
Boston’s first base was 7,479 miles from home: Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. She was away from her family, the only airman basic in the dental clinic and learning a whole new lifestyle. Over those first few months, she learned the technical portion of her job, but she said she struggled with the challenge of conforming to military discipline.
“I acted out a lot,” Boston said. “I didn’t want people to tell me to do something. I was very stubborn.”
After serving a year in Korea, she moved to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Dealing with the culture shock coming from Korea, she said she found it hard to connect with people.
Her first Christmas break in Florida started with a call from her first sergeant asking why she wasn’t at bay orderly — an extra duty to help clean the dorm common areas. Thinking she had the week off, she said it all seemed unfair.
“The first shirt sat me down and told me, ‘Listen, I’ve been told you’re a stellar airman, but you have a terrible attitude,'” she said. When he told her that an unchecked bad attitude could end up getting her kicked out of the military, she said she decided to make some changes.
“That was my turning point,” she said. “From then on, I did the best I could to be the best airman.”
The new attitude paid off. Several years — and promotions — later, everything was going well. But Boston said she craved something different. A new challenge. Something to separate herself from her peers. She was comfortable, standing on the solid ground of a well-constructed military career, but she was contemplating a big jump.
Air Force Master Sgt. Aretha Boston, middle left, poses with her Marine Corps classmates during the Marine Corps Staff NCO Academy Advanced Course in the summer of 2018.
She found out the Air Force offers the chance for master sergeants to attend a sister service academy. She applied. Then she got accepted. The class started in the summer of 2018, and when she arrived, there were only six airmen in a sea of 120 Marines.
“(Marines) operate completely different from (airmen),” Boston explained. “Everything ties into fitness. Leadership, strategy planning — it always goes back to fitness.”
Physical training was every day, which she said was taxing on both her body and mind.
Those challenges culminated when, after a long morning run, the instructor pulled her into the swamp. With Marines cheering from the side, Boston remembers the feeling of being engulfed by the freezing water. After she and the rest of her class swam to the other side, a long obstacle course lay ahead of them.
Like all the other obstacles in Marine Corps senior NCO training, along with the hurdles of her early career, Boston faced them head on.
“It was pretty motivating to think she was an airman coming over to the course, doing something unprecedented,” said Gunnery Sgt. Anthony Walker, Boston’s classmate and Marine Corps Aviation Logistics Squadron 14 warehouse managements division warehouse chief.
Walker said it would be natural to see a decrease in academic productivity in the individual taking on the busy role of class gunnery sergeant. But he said Boston had no such trouble. In fact, she still managed to excel beyond her peers – even the ones wearing Marine Corps insignia.
“She literally did everything you would expect from a Marine, pushing forward, even outside of class.” Walker said. “She carried herself as a professional the entire time and represented the Air Force well.”
This article originally appeared on the United States Air Force. Follow @usairforce on Twitter.