Inspired by her grandfather, Mel Wasson, and other relatives, Tamara “Tammy” McKenzie has long known that she will join the military after graduating from Yamhill-Carlton High School.
Two years ago, when she was just a sophomore, her good friend Gareth Haskin suggested she get started early.
He invited the Carlton resident to join him at a meeting of the Naval Sea Cadets Iron Side Division. She went along to the all-day session in Lafayette, where Haskin and other cadets were learning military protocol, practicing drills and taking part in physical challenges.
“It was a lot of fun,” McKenzie recalled. “I liked being around others my age with my same interests.”
A self-described non-athlete, she even loved the exercise, she said. She threw herself into competing to see how many pull-ups and push-ups she could do.
And at the end of that first day, she became a cadet herself. “I joined right then,” she said.
Her sister Bailey, a Y-C eighth-grader, has since joined the cadets as well. McKenzie also has a sister, Cassidy, who’s in sixth-grade at Y-C Intermediate School, and two younger sisters who live in Jefferson.
Her parents, Annie and Lonnie Jackson, were supportive of McKenzie’s decision. And she’s never doubted that it was the right one for her.
“Naval Sea Cadets is good for discipline and learning responsibility,” said McKenzie, who was named Cadet of the Year for 2012.
It’s given her a chance to develop and use her leadership skills. She worked her way up through the ranks and eventually became second in command. Just promoted to the rank of petty officer second class, she’s now LPO, or leading petty officer. As such, she is in charge of the entire unit.
“It’s been a great experience,” McKenzie said. “I’m naturally shy, but it’s made me more open.”
It fits perfectly with her other activities. She is in the leadership class at Y-C High and is senior class president. She’s been involved with church youth groups. Her parents are youth pastors, she said, so she’s learned counseling skills from them.
“A good leader should be assertive, but not aggressive,” she said. “So if someone’s having a problem, I explain to them how to fix it. I try to listen to both sides. I want cadets to be able to come to me.”
McKenzie said she thinks the Naval Sea Cadet program is good for any young person, but it’s especially good for young women. “I get most excited when girls join,” she said. “They need this. They need a chance to be leaders and be strong.”
Her friends respect her decision to be in the cadet program and her plans to join the military, she said. She does get teased gently sometimes, though. “People will say, ‘Don’t mess with her,’” she said.
McKenzie works at the Pet Stop Inn in McMinnville, where she feeds and cleans up after animals and plays with dogs in daycare. “I love animals,” she said. She grew up showing Australian shepherds and showed goats in 4-H one year.
In her spare time, she hangs out with friends, rides quads or goes hunting. Or she works on cars with her dad. She’s proud to say she can take apart a motor and put it back together again.
After graduating from Y-C High in June, McKenzie plans to join the Navy. She’ll go through basic training, then enroll in the ROTC program at Oregon State University.
Her cousin went through ROTC, she said, and he’s given her some advice. “He said, ‘Start working out now,’” she said.
Military service is a natural goal for McKenzie, who has numerous relatives in various branches.
She grew up listening to her grandfather Wasson’s stories of his time as an Army medic and looking at his collection of military paraphernalia. Wasson taught her the value of serving the community, she said. “He was my greatest influence.”
Also influential was her stepdad’s father, Lynn Jackson. She said the Navy veteran taught her about the opportunities the military offers for seeing the world. “I really want to travel,” she said.
In addition to her cousin, who’s currently serving as a Navy medic, she has an uncle who was in the Navy.
McKenzie said being in Naval Sea Cadets also has given her the opportunity to work with great adult leaders.
Among them are Juan Palacios and other members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “I get really excited around veterans. It’s a fantastic honor to get to hear their stories,” she said.
She’s fond of veterans such as one she knows only as “Navy Bob,” who served on a destroyer. He taught her the proper way to keep her shoes shined.
“I take great pride in my uniform,” she said. She even gets teased by her fellow cadets sometimes because she gets upset when her work boots get muddy.
McKenzie said she also appreciates the dedication of the Iron Side Division’s leaders, including commander Angel Uscanga. “He was a sea cadet himself,” she said. “He loves to teach kids the military basics.”
The Iron Side Division leaders and McKenzie’s family members were proud to hear her named called again and again at Sea Cadets’ recent promotion and awards event.
In addition to being named Cadet of the Year for exemplifying “honor, courage and commitment,” she was honored with SAR’s Bronze Good Citizenship Medal and DAR’s Bronze Junior ROTC Medal, which recognize achievement in academics, leadership, discipline and character.
While she enjoyed the awards event, what McKenzie really loves are the Sea Cadets training and community service activities.
Much of the community service involves patriotic activities. Cadets help the VFW with poppy sales, present the colors at events or in parades, and put up flags on the Third Street bridge in McMinnville on patriotic holidays.
McKenzie loves the latter service even though it involves early mornings. “We get there when no one else is awake,” she said. “But to see those flags flying ... it’s a pride thing — pride in our country, honoring our vets, honoring our history.”
Cadet training is similar to that of any military organization. But the swimming, marching and other activities are a bit more relaxed, McKenzie said. “We have fun, make it a little competitive and learn a lot,” she said.
One weekend, the whole division went to Newport to visit the NOAA station. That may be the direction her career takes her, McKenzie said.
Like some of the other cadets, she also has spent time with Coast Guard units on the Oregon and Washington coasts. Last summer, she spent eight days at the Coast Guard station in Winchester Bay for training.
The hardest part, she said, was getting under way at 5 o’clock each morning. But crossing the Umpqua River bar at such an early hour was worth it, she said, because “it’s amazing to go out just when the sun is coming up.”
Her initial trip was “a little rocky at first” as the waves rocked the boat, she said. But she’s never been seasick.
And she loves being on the ocean. “The ocean has always been a cool thing to me. I grew up with ‘Free Willy,’” she joked.
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or email@example.com.