This column presents “Patriot Profiles” to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.
By Jeanne McKinney
Each time she walks into a room at Bethesda Naval Hospital, she shows a brave, determined face. When she connects with her Marine who may be missing a limb, an eye, struggling to speak or worse, this injured warrior feels like the only person in her sights. Each step forward has purpose, carrying her heavy pack of love and reassurance to provide at his or her bedside. First Lady of the Marine Corps, Bonnie Amos, then says, “I’m here to help you and your family. We’re not going to forget about you.”
Growing up indigent poor in Pensacola, Florida, the home of Naval Aviation, Bonnie Amos set her sights on college. Amos was a business major and became a manager at a small bank offering lower interest on loans. First Lieutenant James Amos was a flight school student at the time and walked into her bank. Bonnie fondly remembers, “He came in to apply for a car loan and I’ve been managing his finances ever since. He promised me we would see the world and go to wonderful and fabulous places and I had the ridiculous uncommon sense to believe him.”
This aspiring hometown girl was swept off her feet by a handsome jet pilot who made her laugh and would later become the 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps. His sky-rocketing career landed them in desolate and remote regions, much to Bonnie’s dismay, but also in grand and glorious duty stations. For her, moving 29 times in 42 years of marriage was more annoyance, than sacrifice.
“I’d jump up and down and say ‘You can’t make me do this ever again.’ Then we’d get to somewhere like Hawaii and I’d say ‘This is terrific – it’s the most amazing place in the world.’”
Bonnie admits her “gypsy life” has not been easy. “When we talk about the people who have sacrificed in the military lifestyle, it’s really our children.” Her daughter’s famous statement is, “Dad, do you have any idea how many boyfriends I’ve left for you?” Yet her daughter admits it has helped form who she is. For Bonnie’s more introverted son, “It made him reach from inside and project out more.”
Home for General and Mrs. Amos is a 16,000-square -foot estate in Washington, DC, occupied by every Commandant in the last 200-plus years. She fills the many rooms with loveliness as a wife, soul mate, and friend to husband, Jim, a busy four-star General, who shoulders immense responsibility. Here, she sleeps by night and plans by day how to better employ herself for the good of the Corps.
When it comes to family support, Bonnie’s been a key player in the Marine Corps evolution.
“When Jim left on his first 13-month deployment to Japan, we did not have family support structures in place,” she says, “We were living in Hawaii and I no longer belonged to that squadron or group of pilots’ wives. I thought I would shrivel up and die. Not having the skills or maturity to cope, I packed up our 1-year-old baby girl and went home to my parents in Pensacola.”
For many years, Bonnie’s been active in needed improvements. As an officer’s wife, she worked with Corps leadership to organize and direct “Volunteer Family Readiness” organizations which assess, educate and provide. She was happy to work with skilled civilian “Family Readiness Officers” hired by the Marine Corps to help struggling families. Passionately immersed in the community, she was able to assist if a washing machine went out, someone had to meet the press or disturbing news came in about a loved one. Support came back at her when trials hit home, like when husband Jim had to eject from a failed aircraft into the frigid Pacific.
When Operation Enduring Freedom I (OIF I) kicked off in 2003, it was the most nerve-wracking time for Bonnie. “As a two-star General, Jim had the Wing — all the airplanes and aircrews and their families west of the Mississippi. Responsibility to educate people during wartime was very strong for me,” remembers Bonnie. Then based at Miramar, she praises San Diego as a loving, supportive community. “My daughter tells of when her dad came home after nine months, a large earthquake that was reported on the West Coast wasn’t really an earthquake. It was her mom taking off her pack.”
During the epic battles for Fallujah and Ramadi in 2004-06, Bonnie retraces what happened. “We had a lot of losses and injuries on the ground side. Our severely wounded were coming back to Bethesda Naval Hospital and those who could rehabilitate were sent to Camp Lejeune or were alone in their Enlisted Bachelor Quarters (BEQs).”
There was no centralized care or follow-up.
Lieutenant Colonel Tim Maxwell was an Operations Officer in a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) battalion when a missile came into his tent. People were killed around him and he sustained a traumatic brain injury, along with other severe injuries. Bonnie and Jim were instrumental when a recovering LtCol. Maxwell and his wife, Shannon, sought help telling them, “We joined the Marine Corps — we’re part of a team. We work, train, and fight as a team, but we don’t rehabilitate as team.”
Bonnie and General Amos started a series of events, gathering resources with the help of Major General Bob Dickerson, Commanding General, Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune. “We were able to create this ‘Wounded Warrior Barracks,’” Bonnie said. “Our wounded began to rehabilitate, train and do therapy together. Doctors and nurses came to them and people were there to manage appointments, medications and therapy.”
It’s been life-changing being part of this life-renewing concept, Bonnie said. General Conway, a previous Commandant, turned the “Wounded Warrior Barracks” into a ‘Wounded Warrior Regiment” that cares for their wounded. Bonnie’s a regular visitor at Bethesda and assures when rehabilitation is complete, they keep tabs on their Marines, even after they leave active duty. Bonnie didn’t stop there.
While at Camp Pendleton, she and two other wives created the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, a charity that helps all Marines, their family members, and service members attached to Marine Corps units in need. Bonnie’s been the driving force helping friends distribute books authored by military spouses that can educate, entertain and edify all ages. She recently created the first “First Lady of the Marine Corps (FLOTMC) Recommended Reading List” and is working hard getting the books and her list into Marine Corps Exchanges, libraries, and online.
First Lady of the Marine Corps Bonnie Amos plants seeds of goodness in a vast military forest. She nurtures young seedlings and cares for broken and needy trees, her love growing them into stalwart giants. With her around, sunlight filters through the forest on even stormy days.
Visit the First Lady of the Marine Corps’ recommended reading list: http://www.marineshop.net/browse.cfm/flotmc/2,1358.html
Next Patriot Profiles – we’ll go with Bonnie to Afghanistan. It’s the first time a Service Chief’s wife has been allowed in the theater. She fought to go and brings home the good news stories we crave.