Pfc. Jana Randleman plays Subway Surfers on an iPad with Fairview Elementary first-grade students Kaleb Sosa (center) and Jackson St. John.
Pfc. Jana Randleman plays Subway Surfers on an iPad with Fairview Elementary first-grade students Kaleb Sosa (center) and Jackson St. John.
April 2, 2014

LEGO bricks lay scattered across the floor of Jen Arkland's first-grade classroom as Pfc. Jana Randleman, in full blue dress uniform, knelt to help Kaleb Sosa and Jackson St. John build a castle.

The 21-year-old Marine quickly recognized the LEGO bricks as her own - her mother, Judy Randleman, is a teacher's associate in Arkland's classroom and had collected the toys for use during recess.

Randleman was at Fairview Elementary two weeks ago to visit her mother's students, specifically Sosa, who Judy describes as fascinated with all things military. During a recent trip to the library, Sosa had selected a book with photos of the U.S. Marine Corps.

"I thought, 'I can show you the real uniform on a real soldier,'" Judy recalled.

Randleman originally enlisted in the Iowa Air National Guard, completing U.S. Air Force boot camp and nine months of tech training to become a network specialist.

But she realized that she wanted to be active in the military full time. She served in the Air National Guard for about a year and a half before commanders approved her transfer to the Marine Corps.

"It's hard to do," she said. "You're trying to get out of one contract to get into a new one."

Randleman said her time in the Guard counted when she transferred branches, enabling her to enter the Marines at the rank of private first class. She is trained as an aviation mechanic, essentially doing the same job she would have done in the Air Force - working on airplane computer systems.

But it will be nearly two months before Randleman is stationed at an air base. An honor graduate from Marine Corps basic training, Randleman learned that she was in the top 5 percent of her female platoon. She will now join four other women from 4009 November Company and attempt to complete the rigorous 59-day infantry training battalion course at Camp Geigher, N.C. - previously open only to males.

The infantry training course has been opened to top female Marines for one year, part of a study to determine if gender restrictions should be removed from combat positions. Infantry-training graduates endure grueling hikes carrying the Marines' 90-pound combat load and must complete a combat-fitness test and the men's version of the physical-fitness test, which requires a minimum three pull-ups, 50 crunches in two minutes and a maximum 28-minute 3-mile run.

So far, 13 of the 28 women who have attempted the course have completed it, according to the Marine Corps Times.

"The pilot program was opened because females were saying, 'We can do it,'" said Randleman. "We don't want to sit on the sidelines."

A cross-country and track runner in high school, Randleman said she is motivated by a desire to push her limits.

"There are 380 males to 100 females (in the Marines)," she said. "It feels like you have to prove yourself every step of the way. You always have to bring your A-game."

But the hardest part of Marine training has not been the physical challenges - it's the inability to talk to family, Randleman said. Marines are not allowed to call home during basic training.

"If my family is fine, I can do anything," she said.

Judy confirmed that the family is close. Randleman and her two siblings - one brother, who is now a graphic designer in Key West, Fla., and a sister studying criminal justice and captaining a roller derby team - grew up in the country, being tough and playing Army, she said.

Her father died suddenly about two years ago - one of many obstacles Judy commends her daughter for overcoming.

"Isn't she awesome? And she's mine," Judy said with a small shrug, a proud smile stretching across her face.

Randleman, a 2011 Prairie Valley High School graduate originally from Gowrie, said she plans to spend 10 years on active duty and 10 years in the reserves - leaving her eligible to retire at 38 with a career that rolls easily into the civilian economy.

She encourages first-graders to make friends, and everyone else to face their fears.

"Don't be afraid to go for something," she said. "What's the worst that could happen? Just do it."