Part One of an ongoing series.
A giant papier-mâché giraffe sculpture stands in the entryway of Evelyn Kandel’s Glen Cove home. “Oh, I made that,” she said with a laugh. “It was a gift for a very close friend of mine.”
Her home is filled with attention-grabbing artwork, most of which she made herself. There are tribal masks and huge abstract works with curved, organic lines that, New York Times art critic Helen Harrison noted, reflect “nostalgia for increasingly threatened natural phenomena.”
None of Kandel’s art, however, suggests that she was ever a member of the Marines.
Kandel, 85, served in the U.S. Women’s Marine Corps for three years during the Korean War. She enlisted when she was 18, right out of high school.
“She is certainly proud to be a Marine,” noted her longtime friend Gaitley Stevenson-Mathews, who described Kandel as an “unusually creative, unusually caring and thoughtful person with a strong, sometimes saucy sense of humor.”
Stevenson-Mathews said he has known Kandel for a long time, as an artist and as an active member of the First Presbyterian Church in Glen Cove before he learned that she was a Marine. “I wasn’t surprised,” he said. “There’s a side to her. Even though she’s gentle and kind, there’s a very present strength in her.”
Before her service, she worked at a newspaper as a clerk typist. Bored with her job and unable to afford college, she took an aunt’s suggestion to go into the service and see the world. Although the U.S. was involved in the Korean War, that suggestion wasn’t as dangerous as it might sound today. In the 1950s, Kandel said, “I was very fortunate women were not in the fighting zones. Only nurses would be.”
She went to boot camp in Parris Island, S.C., where the Southern weather only added to the difficulty of the training. “It was sandy and full of bugs,” she recalled, “and you’d be standing at attention while some bug was crawling up your neck, and they’d say, ‘Don’t move. Don’t move, private.’”
Although the training for male and female Marines was similar, officers were “rougher” on the men, Kandel said. Women went to the firing range, but didn’t fire any guns. They did calisthenics, took classes and were exposed to non-threatening tear gas while “singing the Marine Corps hymn.”
After boot camp, she was stationed in the commandant’s office in Washington, once again a clerk typist, for about a year and a half — a duty she said she didn’t mind, because the office was busy. She was constantly asked to pose for photos, she said, and promotional materials for the Women’s Marine Corps, including an ad displayed in Manhattan’s Times Square. A rendering of her also appears on a postage stamp celebrating women in the armed services.
At one point, she was even on television, talking about her experience in the service. “I was with a group of other service women on really early television,” she said. “We didn’t even own a television set at that point in my house.”
Kandel eventually left Washington and headed to San Francisco to work as an aide to a female lieutenant. She moved up the ranks to sergeant, and the pair toured colleges on the West Coast, encouraging students to join the Marines. “It was a life-changing experience, because I grew up in Yonkers, a small city,” she said. Her father was a house painter and her mother died when she was 7. “We kind of moved from one unheated apartment to another,” Kandel recalled. “So it was not a very pleasant life, and it was lonely.”
“California is not New York,” she added. “It was very exciting. You’d be driving for miles and there’d be nothing. You can’t believe how much space there is out there, and that was really mind-blowing for me.”
After a year and a half of recruiting, she left the service to marry. Back then, women could not be married and also be in the Marines. But her marriage was short-lived, so she enrolled in Columbia University on the G.I. Bill, and graduated in 1958 with a degree in psychology. She was the first person in her family to go to college.
After working at a number of odd jobs, Kandel remarried and started a family. She and her husband, Bob, have been married for 57 years, and have three children and three grandchildren. She earned a master’s in art education from C.W. Post, and taught art at Portledge High School in Locust Valley for 15 years, eventually becoming the head of the art department there.
These days, she said, she is worried about the treatment female veterans receive after they return home from the service. She once suffered from post-service depression. “I don’t know whether it was because of the service versus civilian life, or whether it was facing some childhood problems that got set aside in the excitement of being in the service,” she said. “It was almost like I had awakened from this candy-colored dream about the service to discover a lot of the inequities.”
That was years ago, but, Kandel said, the trend has continued. Female veterans have higher rates of homelessness and suicide than their male counterparts, which concerns her. She said she was shocked to read about how many women veterans are homeless, and wished there were a place locally where they could go for shelter and to get the help they so desperately need. “I mean, they’re coming back traumatized, just like men,” she said.
A couple of years ago she went to a memorial service in Glen Cove. “I was wearing my hat, but it just said Marine Corps Veteran on it,” she said. “One of the men turned to me and said, ‘Oh, when was your husband in?’ I said, ‘No, it was me.’ And he got this weird look like, oh really?”
—Zach Gottehrer-Cohen contributed to this story.