Deb Robinson: Woman Marine, Wrestling Coach, Investigator, Mother, Pioneer.

As much as I love the WTA for allowing me to shoot regularly, bust down doors and occasionally blow things up; I love it most because of the people I get to meet. One woman in particular really stands out: Deb Robinson. I had the pleasure of meeting Deb in November 2010 at 5.11’s women’s product development meeting.

For the last 20 years Deb has been an Infant Death Investigation Specialist – although she started out as a Marine. Her role as an Infant Death Investigation Specialist has morphed over time into a very specific area of expertise: sudden pediatric deaths - primarily infants - as they are the largest group of children under the age of 18 who die suddenly and unexpected. Deb has such an interesting journey that ultimately led her to her life-long passion of protecting children.

We train and develop our warrior “mindset” but it takes a very different mindset to deal with the death of babies on a regular basis. Deb says is best in her own words: “As I answer your questions, I suddenly realize the mental toughness it takes to encounter so many children who have died.  While we train to use weapons, building entries, felony stops, etc., - one never trains for the mental solitude one has to go to every time they encounter an infant or child who has died.”

Please enjoy my interview with Deb and I encourage you to comment below. ~ Karen Bartuch

KB: Tell me about your current position.
DR:  My primary function these days is as a sudden infant death investigations instructor for law enforcement, child protection investigators and death investigators from the coroner or medical examiner and EMS/fire.  My most recent contract is with the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.  With a background in law enforcement, trained as a medico-legal death investigator, I collaborated in drafting state and national legislation on infant death scene investigation standards. This landed me post on the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) workgroup on Sudden Infant Deaths which developed the national guidelines for investigations.

What made you become involved with SUIDI and infant death cases? 
DR: Sudden Unexpected Infant Death Investigations (SUIDI) began November 21, 1991;   I was working as a paralegal at the Washington State Bar Association with law school in my future.  The Department of Justice is where I always wanted to work but with a family I had to work and go to school. I came home from a run one morning and found our 3rd son dead in his crib.  As you can imagine it was an extremely painful, surreal and sentinel event for our family.  

Our pain was compounded by a poor investigation. The investigator from the Medical Examiner’s office met us at the hospital which our son had been transported to.  His questions were framed more as statements, asking “your son died while he was sleeping…is that correct?”  I felt our son’s death investigation was substandard and that he was owed more.  I needed to know so much more around the circumstances of his death that to this day I’ll never have.  I felt he deserved to have a professional care enough about his death to ask us some hard questions.  He was given a cause of death of “SIDS”.  What I later learned was that nearly 8000 other babies died suddenly and unexpectedly that year and no one seemed to be too alarmed.  

The injustice of his death investigations and of so many others changed my career path.  I became what some would probably call obsessed at the fact that I strongly believe that every child death deserved a comprehensive, complete and compassionate investigation.  I went back to school not to study law but to St Louis School of Medicine to study death investigations enrolling in both the basic and master course.  I later went on to co-authored a state statute that mandated departments develop pediatric death investigation protocols along with a companion bill for child death review.  I have been honored to be involved with federal legislation known as the SUID and Stillbirth Act introduced by Senator Lautenberg and Representative Pallone from New Jersey.

KB: How did you become involved in police work?
DR: After spending a tour of duty in the Marines, police work just seemed like the natural progression of a career choice.  Things were a bit different 30 years ago which is why I love the mission statement of WTA so much, and yet, some things are still the same 30 years later…which is why I love WTA !  Early in my career, I never imagined it would take so long to make cultural changes in law enforcement and the military.  When I was out on patrol, I was one of only five female deputies the sheriff’s office had at the time.  While I enjoyed the work, I didn’t like being so visible off-duty in my community or how the job played havoc with my family life.  There were few concessions in the 1980’s  for family leave, OB-GYN appointments and the term sexual harassment was foreign - we just thought that was part of our job description!

For the most part, female officers endured a double set of standards, never once thinking that some behavior was just down right illegal. For the most part, many of my male counterparts were pretty accepting of more women and myself out on the road. It seemed a bit easier for me since I had just come out of the Marine Corps.  However, there were those ball busters, who no matter how well you did your job, always seemed to present a double standard between male and female officers.

KB: What was it like being a woman marine?
DR: That’s really a loaded question (no pun intended!)  First I think it’s important to distinguish the Marines from the other branches of the service.  Since its creation in 1775, the Corps' role has expanded significantly. The Marines have a unique mission statement, and, alone among the branches of the U.S. armed forces,  who "shall, at any time, be liable to do duty in the forts and garrisons of the United States, on the seacoast, or any other duty on shore, as the President, at his discretion, shall direct." In this special capacity, charged with carrying out duties given to them directly by the President of the United States, the Marine Corps serves as an all-purpose, fast-response task force, capable of quick action in areas requiring emergency intervention. Marine tactics and doctrine tends to emphasize aggressiveness and the offensive, compared to Army tactics for similar units. The Marines have been central in developing groundbreaking tactics for maneuver warfare; they can be credited with the development of helicopter insertion doctrine and modern amphibious assault. In 1918, the Secretary of Navy allowed women to enroll for clerical duty in the Marine Corps.

Officially, Opha Mae Johnson is credited as the first woman Marine. Johnson enrolled for service on August 13, 1918; during that year some 300 women first entered the Marine Corps to take over stateside clerical duties from battle-ready Marines who were needed overseas. The Marine Corps Women's Reserve was established in February 1943.  June 12th, 1948, Congress passed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act and made women a permanent part of the regular Marine Corps.   In 1950, the Women Reserves were mobilized for the Korean War and 2,787 women served proudly.  At the height of the Vietnam War, there were about 2,700 women Marines served both stateside and overseas.

 By 1975, when I enlisted, the Corps approved the assignment of women to all occupational fields except infantry, artillery, armor and pilot/air crew. Over 1,000 women Marines were deployed in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-1991. Women make up only 6.2% of the Marine Corps. They are integrated into nearly all Military Occupational Specialties in the Marine Corps, with the exception of offensive combat. They serve in every country and proudly carry on the traditions of those first trailblazers as they continue to open doors for future Marines to follow.  The Marines also maintain an operational and training culture dedicated to emphasizing the infantry combat abilities of every Marine. All Marines receive training first and foremost as basic riflemen, and thus the Marine Corps at heart functions as an infantry corps.

The Marine Corps is famous for the saying "Every Marine a rifleman." That was not the policy for women Marines until the late 1970’s and thus ends your history lesson on women Marines!  My active duty time ranged from 1976 to 1980, a unique time when the Corps was expanding the roles of women. I was assigned to Marine Air Group 26, Helicopter Maintenance Squadron 26, a tactical helicopter squadron.  Problem was, they hadn’t implemented policy regarding women deploying with our units.  We had limited living quarters and something as simple as bathroom facilities otherwise known as a head were lacking!  While we were trailblazing the expanding fields of service such as avionics, hydraulics and general aircraft maintenance, we were not allowed shipboard.  When my squadron would deploy, I was left behind and became part of their rear detachment.  Not good for career advancements for women unless you were in the more traditional clerical fields as shipboard experiences were critical for advancement in the aviation specialties.   The Marine Corps was paramount however in developing a work ethic and a “can –do” attitude in this young and moldable 18 year old!  Nothing came easy to us and again the double sets of standards were in place.  Women had to score 30% higher on our aptitude testing than males back in 1975 and we had to be 10 pounds underweight to even leave our home towns prior to recruit training, policies which have since been  challenged in the courts and overturned.  The Marines did help me though in also developing a mental toughness that I carry with me today and as the mother of five, four of whom are boys, it’s come in handy from time to time when the battle of the wills emerges!

KB: Were you treated the same as the men?
DR: Definitely not, especially in the beginning, however I believe the Marine culture has changed significantly in the years since.  I am so grateful for those women who went before me and I hope we made it easier for those serving today.   We had to work very hard to prove we could do the job.  To this date, I still remember and shriek as I recall checking into my duty station and the first question I was asked was how many words a minute I could type!  Not what I knew about aircraft or that I had graduated second in a class with full of male Marines…but could I type!  Really?  You spent all that money training me on aircraft and you want me to type.   

KB: Would you recommend that path to other women?
DR:  I would recommend service in the military, any branch to anyone who has the desire, discipline and commitment to serve.  The military, especially the Marine Corps isn’t for everyone and actually be counterproductive if you haven’t explored all possibilities of what that entails.  The military isn’t geared for independent thinkers or anyone who questions especially authority, no matter what rank you are.   I can only speak from my own experiences.  I went to a naval aviation school after recruit training and realized the other branches of the service, especially the Navy, seemed to have general living situations that were much more conducive to civilian life!  Yet, there is a sense of accomplishment, honor and integrity for those who can claim “The Few, The Proud, The Marines” and as the years past, the hard times fade and are replaced with fond memories such as meeting the man of my dreams whom I’ve been married to for 33 years.

KB: What is/was your involvement with young girls and wrestling?
DR: Wrestling is my passion; it’s my balance to infant and child deaths.  There is no other sport in which two individuals submit to the will of their opponent, to do battle on the mat, no matter what age, gender or abilities of the wrestler.  I ended up really in the sport by default!  My oldest son wrestled in high school where I ended up helping his coach.  The coach left and I inherited the small USA wrestling club he was running out of the high school.  I found myself either folding the club or growing it.  I chose the latter, changed the name of the club and partnered with a young Olympic Gold Medal winner from Texas.  We grew the club to 5 clubs in 3 states.  I never wrestled in high school but learned the sport from some of the finest athletes in the world:  Olympians and NCAA champions. In 2006, I was the first female high school wrestling coach in Washington State. 

One day while I was teaching a class at the police academy I kept hearing an odd noise outside in the hall.  I ended up meeting with the tactical officers at the academy who were all wrestlers themselves and who had modified wrestling, thrown in some Jujitsu, a little weapon retention and whalaa…tactical training for police recruits.  Several of the instructors and I then modified that training and took it out into the community for self-defense or rather situational avoidance classes. In a short period of time, we hope to give women a basic skill set that helped them get away from a potentially adverse situation and learn how to defend from the ground, which as you all know, most fights or assaults end up.     

KB: How do the boys and girls handle having to wrestle each other?   
DB: I’m not a big fan of girls and boys wrestling one another at the high school level but not because it’s an up close and personal sport but rather pound for pound after 103 pounds males just have more muscle mass pound for pound,  and pure biology kicks in putting female wrestlers at a great disadvantage. Wrestlers participate in weight classes at all ages from 5 to 50 (yes there are some serious seniors who still wrestle!)  There are no weight concession for females whose weight tends to fluctuate much more than her male counterparts.  All that being said, I think for the most part that males and females at the high school-college and Olympic levels view their opponents as just that…their opponents and are more concerned with their skills rather than their sex .  Wrestling is one of the most demanding and grueling sports.  Most athletes who can struggle through the weeks of practice have earned their spot on the team and on the mat, no matter what gender they are. 

KB: Or do they separate them? 
DR: Female wrestling is the fastest growing sport with the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA).  Most schools just don’t have the numbers to have an all-female or all male wrestling team but that is changing.  Washington is one of a handful of states who segregate state tournaments which I think has had a positive effect for the sport for women.  However, most junior high and high schools still have male and females wrestling together and most if not all sanctioned clubs have female and male athletes practicing and competing together.

What information would you like to tell the WTA about the work that you do? 
DR: What we know to date about injury prevention and risk reduction of sudden infant deaths hasn’t come from great research but rather from great scene investigators.  We know that this mystery called Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) isn’t quite as mysterious as everyone once thought.  There are things people can do to eliminate or greatly reduce the risk of death in infancy.  Unsafe Sleep is the primary culprit for sudden infant deaths.

The ABC’s of infant safe sleep are simple; we know that a baby is safest when Always on their Backs in the own Crib.   Police are in a unique role, often in the homes of our most at risk families.  Educate yourself on safe infant sleep as deemed by the American Academy of Pediatrics (www.aap.org). Public Health can meet Public Safety as it relates to keeping infants safe.  If you’re responding to a call and notice an infant in the home, ask where they sleep.  If there is no crib, get them one for free (www.cribsforkids.org); start your own cop-n-cribs program with your agency as part of your community policing policies.  It’s easy, it’s cheap and it saves lives…    

And whether you are in Seattle or Chicago or Biloxi, MS, a pediatric death investigation, especially an infant case,  should mirror one another.  We should have standards like we do for other types of investigations.  We can’t keep kids alive unless we fully understand how they are dying (www.childdeathreview.org and www.cdc.gov), we owe that to our children.   For more information on infant death investigations you can visit www.suidi.org.

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Comment by Jackie Kinsella on February 4, 2012 at 2:26pm

I also had the good fortune to meet Deb at 5.11.  I didn't know all of this about her then and after reading this I honestly cant even think of a word powerful enough to describe her.

Comment by Warren L Stahmer on January 9, 2012 at 9:10am

Pretty amazing woman...1st Female High School wrestling coach in the State of Washington!

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