Ever since junior high, Colleen Judd Sabat knew she wanted to join the United States Marine Corps. So while attending Riverhead High School in the 1980s, she joined the district’s National Junior Reserves Officer Training Corps (NJROTC) program at her father’s suggestion.
She was in the program all four years she was eligible and became cadet commander, the highest-ranking student, her junior year.
“It taught you about leadership more than anything,” she said of her early military experience. “Citizenship was the biggest thing in the NJROTC program. I got tons of volunteer experience. It provided a good foundation on being a good citizen and giving back to your community.”
Lt. Col. Sabat retired from her 20-year career with the Marines June 24.
Her journey began after graduating high school in 1988. She didn’t enlist immediately. She graduated from Russell Sage College in Troy, N.Y., with a bachelor’s degree in history and later earned a master’s in emergency management from Walden University in Minneapolis, Minn.
“I worked in the civilian sector for a while,” said Lt. Col. Sabat, now 47. “I was a bookkeeper and worked in finance. I just wasn’t ready yet.”
Following that she attended Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va., and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1997, thus beginning her distinguished career in the Marine Corps — where her rise through the ranks has earned her the distinction of being the highest ranked female Marine to ever to graduate from Riverhead High School.
“I didn’t realize until they read it in my proclamation [at my retirement ceremony June 24],” she said. “It’s not a big issue. I know a lot of people make a big deal of it … but I try not to make a point of it.”
Lt. Col. Sabat recognized that’s difficult to do, however, because the Marine Corps has the fewest women of all the nation’s armed services. The Marines Corps usually has approximately 6.5 percent women, but a recent recruitment push has brought that number up to around 8 percent, she said.
By comparison, women comprise 14 percent of the Army, 18 percent of the Navy and 19 percent of the Air Force, according to information published in April by Pew Research Center. Overall, according to the center, approximately 17 percent of active duty officers across all branches were female as of 2015, an increase from 12 percent in 1990.
Lt. Col. Sabat held numerous positions during her 20-year career — and was the first woman in many of them. For example, she was the first woman to serve as a Land Domain Chief in the command center at NORAD and USNORTHCOM, where she assessed, developed and instituted tactical options in support of homeland defense.
“She’s a great person,” her sister, Kim Judd Burns, said. “Colleen’s a hard worker and she loves her country.”
In her first assignment after basic training, Lt. Col. Sabat was one of the first women assigned to an engineer battalion. That field had opened up to women only two years earlier. She has been deployed to Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Iraq and has completed exercises in Korea and Okinawa, Japan. She’s also held numerous officer positions at locations in Georgia, Hawaii and Virginia.
Lt. Col. Sabat said one of her most rewarding career experiences was leading recruitment training, which she did at Parris Island, S.C.. She was later appointed executive officer of the Fourth Recruit Training Battalion (4RTBN), where all women who enlist in the Marine Corps are trained.
With her career now concluded, she is retiring to Georgia, where her husband, Lt. Col. Jason Sabat of the United States Army, is stationed. She credits part of her professional success to the sense of community that was instilled in her from a young age.
“I think in Riverhead, there’s such a strong sense of community where I’m from,” she said. “My whole family, they all volunteer a lot of their time and give back so much to the community. All of that kind of prepared me a little bit. The military is about giving back.”
Courtesy photo: U.S. Marines Lt. Col. Colleen Judd Sabat, with her husband, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jason Sabat (left), and U.S. Navy Cmdr. (Ret.) James Roth, former NJROTC instructor at Riverhead High School, at Lt. Col. Sabat’s retirement ceremony on June 24.