A 9-year-old Mariela Peña and her family were in their car on a California freeway when her mother broke the news that the young girl and her siblings shouldn’t expect much of a Christmas that year.
The family of six had come to live with Peña’s aunt in San Jose, California, earlier in 1986, having fled violence in Nicaragua amid the Sandinista Revolution.
Her father started working as a janitor, while her mother built floppy disks.
They had spent most of their money on tickets to the States and on a car to allow the father to commute to work. That meant Christmas gifts were out of the question.
“That was fine because in Nicaragua, Christmas is just all about being together with the family,” Peña told Marine Corps Times. “When we were in Nicaragua, we got like one toy and a fruit or one toy and a chocolate or something.”
But the week before Christmas, her aunt called up the local Marine Corps Reserve unit, which operated a Toys for Tots toy drive in the area.
Toys for Tots was founded 75 years ago by Marine reservist Maj. Bill Hendricks (with a graphic design assist from Walt Disney himself) and has since distributed more than 627 million toys to more than 281 million economically disadvantaged children, according to its website.
One of them was Peña. Reservists soon showed up to her aunt’s house with a 5-ton truck full of toys.
“That year, I had the biggest Christmas I had ever had in my entire life,” Peña said. “I was really excited.”
Peña selected an oversized stuffed yellow bunny. She had never had such a large stuffed animal before, so it struck her as “luxurious,” she recalled.
But while she kept the toy throughout her childhood and teenage years, the impact the Marines’ visit left was more than material. She saw those Marines taking the time to care for vulnerable families like hers. She saw military service as a way to do good for others.
She knew that one day, like those reservists, she wanted to drive trucks for the Marines.
When Peña was in seventh grade, someone asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She replied that she wanted to be a Marine. The person told her that she couldn’t join the Marines because she was a girl.
That wasn’t true, but it rang true to the young Peña, who had never seen recruitment posters that featured women. So she forgot about it until her later high school years, when a family friend asked her that question again.
“It just popped right out again: I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a Marine,’” Peña said. “They’re like, ‘What?’ No one really believed me.”
After starting college and finding she disliked it, she headed to a recruiter’s office to ask if the Marine Corps let women enlist. It did.
It was October 1996 when Peña started boot camp for the Reserve, and her platoon was one of the first that had women running three miles for the physical fitness test. The pressure was on, not least because the sergeant major of the Marine Corps was there to watch.
Peña came in first in her platoon.
“Then I got a whole 30 seconds to shower by myself,” she said with a laugh.
She went on to serve in the Reserve for her first 12 years in the Marine Corps, which meant she participated in Toys for Tots from the other side. She liked that she could be generous to parents who stopped by the warehouse to ask for toys.
While in the Reserve, Peña got activated twice. The first time was as a staff noncommissioned officer handling logistics for an airfield outside of Ramadi, Iraq. The second time, after she completed Officer Candidates School in 2008, she served as a platoon commander with 2nd Supply Battalion in Afghanistan.
“After that, I was hooked,” Peña said.
She soon transitioned to active duty. Now a major who is a plans officer with I Marine Expeditionary Force’s 1st Marine Logistics Group, she has served in the active force for 14 years, for a total of 26 years as a Marine.
Her decorations include the Meritorious Service Medal, Navy-Marine Corps Commendation Medal with three Gold Stars lieu of a fourth award, Navy-Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Gold Star lieu of a second award, the Korean Service Medal and a Combat Action Ribbon, according to her official biography.
Peña’s story attracted the notice of Good Morning America, which had her on for a segment kicking off Disney’s Toys for Tots drive, and of President Joe Biden, who talked about her, though he didn’t identify her by name, at a Virginia Toys for Tots gift-wrapping event Dec. 12.
“This program gives so much more than just gifts,” Biden said. “It gives hope. You give community. And you are the inspiration that lasts a lifetime.”
Despite the early inspiration that the Reserve Marines gave her, Peña never did get a license to drive trucks for the Corps.
“But I’ve gotten to do so much more than that,” she said. “It’s just incredible how you can think that you’re dreaming something big, but then in reality, it becomes even bigger.”
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.