For the first time, a woman is the senior enlisted leader of a Marine expeditionary force.

Sgt. Maj. Joy Kitashima assumed the role of sergeant major of III Marine Expeditionary Force, one of the three main forces in the Marine Corps, on Tuesday, according to a news release.

Kitashima took over from Sgt. Maj. Eric Cook, who will become the sergeant major for Marine Corps Forces Pacific.

Sergeants major serve as the senior enlisted advisers to senior commanders. The III Marine Expeditionary Force commanding general is Lt. Gen. James Bierman Jr.

At full strength, III Marine Expeditionary Force is made up of nearly 19,000 Marines and sailors on Okinawa, Japan, plus approximately 3,200 on mainland Japan and 5,000 in Hawaii, according to the III MEF website. III MEF is becoming increasingly important to Marine Corps strategy as the Pentagon turns its attention toward increased tensions with China.

Kitashima has served as the sergeant major of Marine Air Control Squadron 4, 5th Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, II Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group, Marine Corps Installations Pacific and 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, according to the III MEF news release.

A Bloomington, Indiana, native, she enlisted in 1996 and became a member of the military police before becoming a combat instructor at infantry schools and an enlisted leader for The Basic School, which trains newly commissioned Marine officers.

Kitashima has deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Her awards include the Meritorious Service Medal with three gold stars in lieu of forth award, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with two stars in lieu of third award, Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with two stars in lieu of third award, Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal with six stars in lieu of seventh award and National Defense Medal, according to her bio.

Kitashima is the first female force-level sergeant major in the Marine Corps, but Bertha Peters Billeb became the first sergeant major in the Corps in 1961, according to the Women Marines Association.

Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.

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