By HEATHER NELLIS
Recorder News Staff
Amsterdam resident Roma Stern was recently inducted to the New York Senate Veterans Hall of Fame, thanks to a nomination from state Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk.
Stern, 93, was one of the first female members of the U.S. Marine Corps, where she quickly rose to the rank of drill sergeant to train the next classes of Women Marines.
Tkaczyk sought nominations from local veterans group for the annual nod, in which each senator chooses someone from their respective districts for entry into the hall.
"It really touched me when I heard Roma's story; she's an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things," Tkaczyk said Monday. "She's a woman who stepped up to take a leadership role in a time when it wasn't often welcomed, and that's heroic in my mind. She helped blaze the trail for other women like her."
An event was held in Albany recently in which all the nominees were honored, but Stern couldn't make it. Tkaczyk said though Stern was still recognized at the event, it was important to Tkaczyk to personally present her with a plaque.
She traveled to Amsterdam Friday and met Stern at the Sarah Jane Sanford Home for Women, also recognizing veterans Virginia Franklin and Kathleen Wysowski, as well as Almina Baker, one of the first women to chair a county political party.
"It utterly amazed me, and for the first time in my life, I was speechless," Stern said of the award Monday.
Stern said she enlisted while living in New York City and enrolled at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Her military career actually started with the Civil Air Patrol. She was just one of two women to sign up, and earned her pilots license.
When W.W. II broke out two years later, she hoped to join the Women's Army Air Corps.
Instead, she enlisted with the Marines, which at the time, had just started to accept women in order to address a personnel shortage.
"My brother was in the service, and my sister was in WAACs. I thought about joining WAACs myself, but when I heard about the Marines, I marched myself down to find out about it," Stern recalled. "Crazy things happened, and all of a sudden, I had my hand up in the air, and I was being inducted. I hadn't even told my parents about it yet."
Stern completed her basic training at Hunter College, and was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. She became a drill sergeant, but that's because she volunteered, Stern said.
"I didn't know any more about it than you," she told a Recorder reporter when asked what the role was like. "One thing I learned from that very first day is don't volunteer for anything unless you really want to do it, because you're likely to be selected. But I learned how to yell, and learned for once in my life how to be strict."
That would come in handy later in life. After leaving the Marines as a staff sergeant, Stern worked as bacteriologist in New York City for five years, then moved to Amsterdam with her husband in 1950.
She became a science teacher at Amsterdam Middle School, where she worked for more than 20 years.
"My students were the only ones to line up single file and march to class," Stern said. "Before I knew it, I was being called Serge, but it was behind my back."