There's a saying in the Marine Corps assault amphibious vehicle community: "You ain't tracks, you ain't s---."
It was in part that sense of bonding and pride that drew 2nd Lt. Mariah Klenke to the career field.
Tuesday morning, the 24-year-old became the first female officer to graduate from the Marines' Assault Amphibian Officer course and the first to earn the military occupational specialty of 1803, qualifying her to command a platoon of AAVs, or Amtracks.
Klenke, whose hometown is St. Rose, Illinois, had to complete a series of physical requirements in addition to the 12-week course: She had to prove she could do a 115-pound clean-and-press and a 150-pound deadlift; she had to lift a MK-19 machine gun, weighing nearly 78 pounds, above her head; and she had to complete a 50-yard "buddy drag" with a 215-pound dummy to simulate a wounded comrade.
That buddy drag proved to be the most physically demanding element of the whole course, said Klenke, who played a variety of team sports while at Illinois' Highland High School, and went to college on a soccer scholarship. She would graduate from the University of Tennessee at Martin with an accounting degree.
Klenke decided at The Basic School that she was interested in pursuing AAVs as a career field.
"Tracks keep the Marine Corps amphibious; I really like that part about them," she said. "And it gives you the ability to work with the infantry and be in the battle if there ever was a battle."
What she didn't realize at the time was that there had never been a female officer in the field.
Since all ground combat jobs opened to women for the first time in 2016, the Marine Corps has welcomed its first female artillery and tanks officers.
Mariah Klenke poses in front of an American flag in this undated Facebook photo.
In late September, the first female Marine graduated the infantry officer's course in a much-anticipated milestone.
There have also been two enlisted female Marines to complete required training and enter the AAV community. But until now, a female officer has not attempted the AAV officers' course.
"Whenever my captain told me that was the MOS I was getting, he said, 'You're 1803 and you're going to be the first female officer.' I was kind of surprised and [it was] a little nerve-wracking being the first female, and it puts more pressure on yourself there," Klenke said.
But, she added, she had no second thoughts. With her competitive sports background, she began to prepare mentally to face the challenge.
The assault amphibian officers course itself proved to be small, with only seven students in total, she said.
Other students would joke about her being the first woman in the course, but Klenke said the atmosphere was friendly, and she never felt singled out or ostracized because she was a woman.
"We were all good friends in the class, so it was just friendly jokes about everything," she said.
She got a taste of the close bonds the tracks community shares during one of the most mentally challenging elements of the course: a week at Camp Pendleton staging AAV missions from the shoreline to inland objectives.
"We were doing three to four missions a day. It involved a lot of planning, and then operating too," she said. "We were working on a couple of hours of sleep a night."
The training made her more confident that she had chosen the right field, she said.
Mariah Klenke. (Facebook)
"You get the sense that it's a very close-knit community and anybody will do anything for you, everyone works hard out there," Klenke said. "Frankly, the Marines in the MOS, they're very hard-working and they'll have your back if they need to."
For the AAV course, graduation is a quiet ceremony where certificates are distributed. In fewer than 48 hours, Klenke expects to be at her new unit: 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, at Camp Pendleton.
And she can't wait.
"After a year of training, I'm finally just excited to get my platoon and start working for them, training them," she said.