MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- For Master Sgt. Julia Watson, this year’s Competition-In-Arms Program (CIAP) Western Divisional marksmanship competition aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., was far from her first rodeo.
With more than 20 years of competitive service shooting, Watson has persevered through ubiquitous changes in the CIAP format in mastering everything from the old Corps M14 with iron sights, to the modern M16A4 and Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight.
What has remained untouched is her unyielding desire to be the best marksman that she could possibly be.
“There’s always a hunger to compete. When it’s just you and that weapon on the firing line, it’s just you individually,” said Watson, an instructor for the Marksmanship Training Unit at Marine Forces Reserve New Orleans. “It’s what your eye sees, it’s what your trigger finger does, and nobody can influence your results except for you. For me, the challenge is always in making myself better. There’s a constant hunger for self-improvement.”
As Watson stepped across the stage of the MCB Camp Pendleton theatre March 7, during the conclusion of the CIAP western divisional, she made history by becoming only the fourth double distinguished female Marine in both the rifle and pistol.
In order to earn the title of a distinguished marksman with either the rifle or pistol, a Marine must accumulate 30 points in CIAP sponsored competitions. The top ten percent of competitors bring home medals ranging from bronze to gold. A gold medal rewards the competitor 10 points toward becoming distinguished, and silver and bronze loot eight and six points, respectively.
“I came here to get those final eight points I needed to become distinguished with the pistol, and I accomplished that with a silver medal finish,” said Watson, a native of Provo, Utah. “I’ve only personally met one double distinguished female Marine and have heard of a couple others. When I step on to that stage on Friday and accept my award, it’ll be hard to believe that I am one of a select few female Marines to receive such an honor.”
Watson proclaims her love for shooting blossomed before her days in the Marine Corps. This sole passion was a large factor in her joining the revered institution.
“I started competing in the national championships with the M14 service rifle in 1992, when I was 16 years old. That’s when I was really introduced to the Marine Corps, along with all the other services,” said Watson. “I could only grow so much on the civilian side and that’s one of the reasons why I joined the Marine Corps - to take it to the next level and hopefully gain the opportunity to compete on the Marine Corps shooting team.”
Merely a year before attaining her distinguished rifle badge in 1997, Watson was a “tyro,” - or first-time shooter, at her first CIAP divisional match. There she initiated her perennial journey as a competitive marksman and exceeded everyone’s expectations of a newcomer.
“My first divisional competition was here at the western divisional in 1996. I was the high tyro and took silver, so I was able to go on to the Marine Corps championships,” said Watson. “I didn’t place there, but I shot well enough with the M14 that the team picked me up for the national tournament ... I was given plenty of opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them, so that I’m not only a better shooter, but an instructor as well.”
Watson claims that traveling around the world and being an ambassador of Corps marksmanship during her stints on the Marine Corps Rifle Team has significantly aided her overall development as a Marine.
“When you get to a certain level of national and international competition, you’re an ambassador for the Marine Corps,” said Watson. “When you wear this uniform, people look at you to be that example. They look at the total person - so not only do you need to have the right character and professional skills - you also need to be able to impart your knowledge.”
Before the competition began, and during the mandatory classroom hours for the CIAP participants, Watson gave a quick class on the importance of mental management in which she explained how shooting is just as much psychological as it is physical.
This very class enlightened the victor of the rifle competition Lance Cpl. Brandon King, a Marine based out of Marine Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif. Having beaten her out for first place, Watson said King approached her and thanked her for the mental confidence he needed to win the prestigious competition in only his first attempt.
“The most rewarding feeling is taking a Marine under my wing and mentoring them and then having them beat me,” said Watson. “I get more joy and satisfaction watching somebody that I’ve trained excel than I do going across the stage myself."
As her years as a participant in these CIAP competitions dwindle down, Watson said she had embraced her role as a mentor with open arms.
“I think marksmanship has helped me recognize that people look to me to be that example; it makes me do the best I can to impart my knowledge about shooting to my junior Marines so that I can give back to the Marine Corps the best way that I can,” said Watson. “It’s helped me cue into identifying problems in shooters’ fundamentals and their mental management so that I can help them and make them the best shooters that they can possibly be.”
Giving back to the Marine Corps is a virtue that Watson holds on the highest pedestal. Her guidance goes far beyond adequately preparing Marines for rifle qualifications and shooting competitions; it makes these Marines formidable in the domain in which they have cemented their legacy over the past 238 years.
“If I’m able to impart any Marine here with some sort of skill - something that will take them up a notch as a Marine and warfighter - and they one day use that skill to save their life or the life of a Marine next to them, then I have done my part,” said Watson. “To take that higher knowledge back, it secures our nation and brings people back to their families. That’s what I hope to leave with these Marines.”