When current Iowa House District 63 Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, graduated from the University of Northern Iowa in 1977, she felt an urge to serve her country.
Vietnam had ended just a couple of years before, and military service and veterans were not viewed in the same light as it is today. But that didn’t deter young Sandy Puttmann, as she was known at the time.
“I’ve always been supportive of the military and always saw and always believed in the mission of the military service to defend our nation, defend our people,” Salmon told Waverly Newspapers in a phone interview Monday afternoon, “and I’ve seen we’ve had a great history of that. I’ve always felt a part of that I wanted to serve, wanting to serve our country. I’ve always had a love of our country, and I’ve always wanted to serve.”
Three of her uncles served during World War II, including one in the Marine Corps, while her father also was in the Army, and her grandfather was in World War I.
“We have a history of military service in my family,” she said.
What tipped her toward the Corps was her respect for the pride that branch of the Armed Services has in carrying out their mission and their high standards for Marines.
“I appreciated that and wanted to be a part of that,” she said.
Between her junior and senior years at UNI, Puttmann went to Officer Candidate School, or OCS, in Quantico, Virginia, and then upon her graduation, she was commissioned as a second lieutenant, the lowest officer’s grade in the Marine Corps (as well as the Army and Air Force).
Lt. Puttmann then went back to Quantico to undergo six months of training at Basic Officers’ School.
“You were given more in-depth training to be an officer in the Marine Corps (there),” Salmon recalled. “It was very rigorous training. I was one of the first groups of women officers to go through the same training that the men go through. They were transitioning at that time.
“It was a very rigorous, demanding training. Even though I was probably in the top third of people — of women — who were physically conditioned to go through that kind of rigor, it was still a struggle to keep up. It was a struggle for the women to keep up with the men, as I recall.”
She attributed the difficulties to the physical differences between males and females.
“As hard as you tried, you could not carry as heavy of a pack and go as strong or as fast or as hard,” she recalled. “It was just opened your eyes as to what the rigors of combat would be like. It was very sobering, I’ll say that.
“It really made you appreciate what veterans and many others who go through combat have to endure.”
However, she said it was different for her, because she wasn’t really in a hostile condition. She served in a time four decades before the Pentagon opened up full combat roles for women.
“You have people getting killed on either side of you,” Salmon said. “You don’t have the loud noises, the smoke and all of that, that was part of a battlefield scene. It’s just the physical rigor of it. It was demanding.”
She added that even through she was a woman, she was required to learn the same things that the male Marines had to know.
“You had to work hard,” Salmon said. “You had to do your best. You had to work with others, and you just worked in a professional manner.
“There was a lot of pride taken in being professional and doing your best and adhering to the high standards of the Marine Corps and in seeing that all of your conduct reflected in the high standards of the Marine Corps and the military.
“That was all part of your training. The women were expected to adhere to the training as the men were expected to, and you were expected to treat each other with repect and dignity, and that’s just the way it was.”
However, she said her experiences weren’t as bad as what U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, had expressed during her campaign back in 2014. The Red Oak Republican talked about the sexual harassment she experienced in several media reports before she won her seat, defeating former U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, then of Waterloo.
“I know she had her experiences,” Salmon said of her friend and first-term senator. “She had some some bad experiences, which I really feel bad for that. I didn’t have that. I don’t know of all of she had to do or where she had to go or whatever.
“I just know that I was careful to not get into any compromising situation that I couldn’t get out of, but that said — and I know some people end up in situations they wished they weren’t through no fault of their own — I know I fought to be very careful about it, and I had some close calls that I was very, very careful about that. I wasn’t where I would’ve run into those damaging situations where you might get violated. I was able to get out of them.”
It was during her second stint in Quantico when she met her husband, fellow Marine Matt Salmon. They were in different units, but they came together during a Christian fellowship meeting.
There was one situation where they both happened to be in the same training mission where they had to find their way to certain points in an orienteering exercise. Lt. Puttmann got lost, but it was Lt. Salmon to her rescue.
“It was 16 square miles of the terrain, the brush, the woods, the streams and hills of Virginia,” Sandy Salmon recalled. “One of the first times that I worked with (Matt) was when I had trouble with that exercise, I had trouble finding places in the woods I needed to find, and he helped me out with that, helped with showing me how to use a compass.
“It was kind of complicated. You have to use a compass, you have to measure your steps to know how far you’re supposed to go. I had a lot of trouble with that. He did help me out so that I was able to pass that portion of the course. We got to know each other through the course of having to go through the schooling and the training requirements that we had.”
However, Lts. Puttmann and Salmon had to go their separate ways. Puttmann went first to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to take supply school before being transferred to Twentynine Palms, California, where the support service group for the Corps was located.
The base, which was located within the Mojave Desert, is used to simulate desert combat conditions for training. Artilery and armored units go there to have live-fire drills.
“They could get as real of an experience as possible,” Salmon said of Twentynine Palms.
Meanwhile, Lt. Salmon went to flight school to learn to fly helicopters. Sandy and Matt continued to keep in touch by mailing 45-minute-long cassette tapes back and forth as audio letters.
“He would get that tape about a week later and listen to what (was happening with me),” she said.
She spent a total of 2½ years in the Corps, getting her discharge in 1980. She said attitudes toward veterans back in the late 1970s and early 1980s are night and day compared to how they are treated today.
“When I was in the service, it wasn’t like that,” Salmon said.
She added that when Matt was attending Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, as part of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), those cadets had to go to the ROTC center to change into their uniforms before doing their daily duties.
“They were advised not to be seen in their military uniforms going across campus, because it might spawn an altercation of some kind or some kind of harassment or even a violent outburst of some kind,” Salmon said.
“I wasn’t in ROTC. The recruiters came to the UNI campus. That’s how I found out about serving in the Marine Corps.”
Following her discharge, Puttmann and Salmon got married in 1980, and they eventually raised three sons, Caleb, Peter and Jessie, who were all homeschooled while the family set roots in the Janesville area.
She felt her service in the Corps contributed to how she lived her civilian life prior to entering state politics.
“In the service, you learn a lot about working together,” Salmon said. “You learn a lot about discipline and attention to detail, and working hard and integrity. You do what you say you’re going to do. Your work can be counted on. That was a lot of my growing up. That was also was taught in the military.
“That training, it just carried over into our family life in a large respect. We taught the kids to be honest and to tell the truth and to be dependable, to work hard, all of those things we were taught in the service, and I incorporated all of those things — my husband and I both did — in our home as we were raising our family. All of the things you learn in the military are applicable in your famliy life. You have to work together to get things done. You have to be disciplined if you’re going to be able to do the things you need to do — your schoolwork, your sports or whatever you’re doing. I think the military prepared me well to rase a family.”
Some of those same lessons also came to play as she represents Bremer and northern Black Hawk counties in Des Moines.
“It was an unbelievable amount of hard work,” Salmon said of her first campaign in 2012 running for the then-newly formed district. “It still is. It’s an unbelievable amount of hard work. There’s a lot of discipline. We needed a lot of cooperation of many, many people. It needed a big team of many, many people to get stuff done.
“Sometimes, it’s not easy, because people don’t always like what you do. You just have to keep doing what you said you were going to do, what you told poeple you would do, you have to work hard at it. You have to help people the best you can to resolve any issues you have with different government agencies and vote to the best of your abilities what the people want you to vote for in the Legislature. I would say all of those lessons carry over into that job of being a legislator.”
When asked what advice she would give a young lady looking to enter military service, Salmon would tell her to be prepared to work hard and do her very best.
“Know that you can’t always your own way, but you work as a team, so you have to be prepared to make some sacrifices,” she said. “You have to show integrity, you have to tell the truth, you ahve to be dependable and do what you say you’ll do.
“You have to realize that other people and their lives are going to depend on you. It’s a very serious responsibility you have to take when you go into the military, and you have to treat it that way.”