Flying the coop | During high school, M. Stephanie Martin spent a summer in New Jersey with her uncle, a command sergeant major in the Army. “I loved the PX and the commissary,” she says. “And I liked the uniform.” She also wanted to travel. When she graduated, she moved up to Detroit, enlisted in the Army and got a uniform of her own.
Traveling wings | Martin served her first two assignments at Fort Jackson, S.C. Then she went to Fort Bragg, N.C., where she saw her first maroon berets—members of the 82nd Airborne Division. “There was something different about them,” Martin says. “They walked with their chests out.”
Leap of faith | Martin married a paratrooper in 1982 and enlisted in the 82nd in 1983. She trained, endured fortitude tests and took one final physical to be cleared for jump status. That’s when she learned she was pregnant. Two kids later, she tried again. “My first jump was the easiest,” she says. “You just jumped. The second was harder. You’re like, Hmm, I survived that one. Do I really want to do this again?”
Jump status | Martin jumped 52 times in all. How does one fall safely from the sky? “Keep everything tucked and tight, feet and knees together,” she says. As you fall, count to four. If your chute hasn’t opened by then, pull your secondary. Yield to the lower jumper, and land in a roll with five points of contact—feet, calf, thigh, butt and back. (Although usually it’s more like “feet, knees, face, or feet, butt, back-of-the-head,” she says. “It all happens really fast.”)
Around the world | Women paratroopers don’t enter combat. “I was doing HR,” she says. “But, because I was a paratrooper, I got to hang out with some really cool people.” She also got to travel to Korea twice and was a courier to Saudi Arabia during the First Gulf War. (Often she didn’t know her cargo. She got stuck in Spain once because she was carrying Class B explosives.) In 2002, she served in a Joint Special Operations Command force in Uzbekistan.
Boots on the ground | Today, Martin manages the paperwork of student cadets as the human resources assistant for Xavier’s ROTC program. “Sometimes I put my mama hat on, sometimes I put my sergeant’s hat on,” she says. She gives some students their first salute when they become commissioned officers. For that, she pulls on her uniform once again.
Continuing service | In 2011, Martin received the Army’s regional Civilian of the Year award for community service. A mentor for at-risk youth, she is also a caregiver for disabled people and a signer in her church. She stays busy, even with a bad back and knee from jumping out of planes. “There’s a saying: Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” she says. “I haven’t had anything boring in my life. Even now, I’m still having the adventures of a lifetime.”