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Elkridge Young Marine prepares for Memorial Day tribute

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When Danielle Dixon directs the Elkridge Young Marines as they serve as the honor guard at a decades-old Memorial Day celebration on Monday, the Howard High School senior will have mixed emotions.

This will be her final appearance at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, the site since 1967 of a ceremony that honors all Maryland veterans and pays special tribute to the families of those who died the previous year in service to their country.

Upon turning 18 in February, Dixon aged out of the Young Marines unit commanded since 1997 by her father, retired Army sergeant Kim Dixon -- one that she has belonged to since she was 8 years old.

But instead of looking back, Dixon is looking forward.

Supervising the presentation of the American flag and Marine Corps colors, along with other duties at the solemn ceremony, will cap off her recent enlistment in the U.S. Marine Corps.

"I have always seen Marines as the best [military branch] and that's where I have my roots," Dixon said of her decision. "It will be a great honor to serve."

In mid-December Dixon will ship off to boot camp in Parris Island, S.C., a move that didn't come as a surprise to her dad, or to her four older brothers, three of whom also enlisted in the armed forces when they were her age.

"Danielle spoke to me about it," Kim Dixon said, "and her mother [Margaret Dixon] had reservations about it, as she did with our other kids.

"But I was expecting it," he said. "My first love is the Corps, and we're more accustomed to military service than most families."

Kim, who is 51 and works as a special police officer at the Washington Hospital Center, served in the Marines from 1980 to 1986 and then served in the Army National Guard from 1998 to 2012.

He was deployed to Baghdad, Iraq, for 18 months in 2007 with his oldest son, Kassey, 28. Chris Dixon, who is 27 and also works as a special police officer at WHC, was stationed with the Marines in nearby Fallujah, Iraq, at the same time.

Dustin Dixon, who is 26, is still an active Marine with the Fourth Combat Engineers in Baltimore, and Michael Dixon, 24, works as an electrician for a private company. All four sons took part in Elkridge Young Marines.

Kassey, who is a lieutenant in protective and guest services at the Washington Hospital Center, agreed with his dad's assessment of his sister.

"Her whole life has always been about the Marines," he said. "I personally think it's a good career path for her and a good profession. She has the determination to do what she wants."

Angela Terry, a staff member of Elkridge Young Marines since 2012, echoes the Dixons' observations.

"Danielle has served as the unit's first sergeant, leading the youth, for the entire time I've known her," she said. "She's been a positive example to the kids in our unit.

"Danielle is quite mature for her age and very professional. As an Air Force veteran myself, I know she's going to make a fine Marine," Terry said.

Following in her brothers' footsteps only seemed natural, Danielle said.

Yet she acknowledged that it will be a challenge, because only about 7 percent of Marines are women, according to 2012 statistics from the Women Marines Association.

Danielle said she knows what's expected of her and will be prepared for 13 weeks of boot camp and a four-year tour of duty. She has been taking weightlifting at Howard High and running, and will continue her exercise regimen after graduation.

The Marines "are not there to break you down or destroy you, they're there to help you learn," she said.

Oddly enough, she didn't even like Young Marines at first. The Elkridge unit, which has 25 members, is one of 15 across the state and 300 across the country with a combined enrollment of 10,000 youths.

"But as I started to get rank and responsibility, I understood my unit was my family," Dixon said.

As a recruit, or "poolie," as they are nicknamed, she is part of the Marines' Delayed Entry Program, and was assigned a ship date of Dec. 15. Her MOS, or military occupational specialty, will be military intelligence.

"I didn't want to jump into college," Dixon said.

She knows of too many high school graduates who enrolled and then declared an undecided major, and she didn't want to do that, she explained.

Dixon also knows firsthand how Young Marines mirror the Marine Corps in developing character, pointing to the organization's motto of "strengthening the lives of America's youth" and its emphasis on a drug-free lifestyle.

"I look at the kids I work with, and I see how they slowly start to learn and start to grow. They come out of their stubborn teens and really bloom," she said.

But mostly, enlisting just felt right.

"I grew up with it -- and I wanted the title, and I wanted to earn respect," Dixon said.

She even ignored her high score on the ASVAB, the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery, Kim said. Her score was high enough to permit her to directly enter Officer Candidate School, "but she wanted to enlist.

"She told me that as a female she feels she won't be respected if she entered OCS, and that she wants to earn respect by going through boot camp," he said. "She's always testing herself."

Danielle has demonstrated her true colors each year at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, said Jack Mitchell, president and co-owner.

"She is so enthusiastic about the military, which is a trait that runs in her family," he said. "She has played a special role with the Young Marines, and the way she handles herself has made a very favorable impression."

The family of Master-at-Arms 2nd Class Mark A. Mayo of Hagerstown, the only Maryland fatality in the past 12 months, will be recognized on Monday, Mitchell said.

In addition to honoring those fighting the battles of today, the Memorial Day Ceremony will pay tribute to those who gave their lives in Korea, Vietnam and World War II.

After working with the honor guard, which presents the American flag and the Marine Corps colors and guards them throughout the ceremony, Danielle will continue to work in the kitchen at the Elkridge Furnace Inn and wait excitedly to ship out.

"I really respect that I will be a part of something that's larger than me," she said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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