Aneesah Latise Akbar-Uqdah ’07 Goes from Anassa Kata to Semper Fi
Aneesah Latise Akbar-Uqdah ’07 describes herself in many ways—a leader in crisis circumstances, strategist, global advocate for women and girls, medical anthropologist and, as of January, United States Marine officer.
Akbar has long sought a career that would merge her passion for public health and her appetite for developing solutions to national security issues.
After graduating from Bryn Mawr College, Akbar earned her first master’s degree in Public Health Policy and Management at Emory University. In the ensuing years, she held several public health jobs, ultimately ending up at the Centers for Diseases Control.
While at the CDC, she went to work on a second masters, this one in Global Security and Intelligence Operations from American Public University, and it was at this time that she became inspired to become a Marine officer.
Akbar’s uncle, a retired Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, shared an article about the use of Female Engagement Teams (FETs) in the Corps. FETs gained prominence for their use in Afghanistan to engage the female populace, to assess and counter threats at checkpoints and provide basic medical needs to the victims of rape and severe political and military conflict. FETs have also been embedded in special operating forces to collected intelligence where male military personnel have been forbidden, due to cultural and religious sensitivities.
“After researching the FET Program I was sold on becoming a Marine officer,” Akbar says. “It was the perfect marriage of my background in anthropology and my growing interest in national security issues, and advocating for the peace and security of women and girls is deeply embedded in that."
Akbar completed her degree at APU, thanks in part to funding from The United States Marine Corps Foundation, which honored her as a Bernard M. Rosoff fellow and financially supported the research for her thesis paper, Global Health Security: Female Engagement Teams Bridging Gaps with COIN and Medical Civil-Military Operations. Shortly after completing her studies, Akbar enrolled in the Marine Corps’ ten week Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Quantico, Va.
Although she made it through nine weeks of the grueling training, OCS proved to be too much of a challenge at the time and Akbar was unable to complete the program.
In the summer of 2014, disappointed but undaunted, she returned to work at the CDC and was selected to deploy to West Africa due to the Ebola crisis, putting her plans of becoming a Marine officer on hold. Upon returning to the United States, Akbar joined the CDC’s Division of Global HIV & TB (DGHT) Strategy Policy and Communications Branch to help develop and implement strategies on how to engage and empower key populations to influence and advocate for policies in African states that deliberately discriminated against sex workers, permitted child marriage, and criminalized homosexuality. She was advancing in her career in public health but her dream of leading Marines persisted.
“During my first attempt at OCS, I witnessed and experienced gender, race, religious, and sexuality prejudices. Naturally, there were moments I doubted my ability to succeed, but there were also reservations about joining a culture that seemed to be aggressively against every fiber and thread of my fabric,” recalls Akbar. “I wondered how many other young women were discouraged with similar obstacles. But I reapplied anyway, refusing to give these obstacles power and instead allowing them to fuel my opportunities.”
Akbar reapplied to OCS and enrolled in the summer of 2017. Taking notice of several changes in the design of OCS, increased cultural diversity and leadership styles of the staff, Akbar successfully endured the physically and mentally grueling obstacles, graduating in the top 10 percent of Alpha company. She served as her company’s first Candidate Company Commander and their last Candidate Company Gunnery Sergeant, the first African American female candidate to do so in the history of OCS. While she successfully made it through the tough training, a late injury prevented her from commissioning with her peers.
On January 29, 2018, Colonel Ahmed T. Williamson swore Akbar into office as a 2nd lieutenant and Gunnery Sergeant Nickea Redding provided Akbar her first salute as a commissioned officer. Her official ceremony took place in Georgetown and continued with family and friends at the National Museum of African American Museum History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Akbar will compete for her military occupation specialty (MOS) starting in September at The Basic School in Quantico. Her hope is to become a Ground Intelligence Officer, which will require her to graduate from the Marine Corps’ hardest schools, Infantry Officer School and Intelligence School.
This year marks the centennial of women serving in the United States Marine Corps. According to the most recently available numbers, of the 20,926 active duty Marine officers at the time, only 1,432 were women, 114 of which identified as black women. Akbar is one of only four African American female candidates recruited from the state of Georgia commissioned as a Marine officer in the last eighteen years.
“At the end of my journey I hope to contribute to a legacy of public service that countless other women of color have charted, moving forward as leaders in worse conditions and harsher environments than I’ve ever known,” says Akbar. “Being a member of the world’s elite fighting force and a representation of greatness for African American female officers — a population still very scarce in the Marine Corps — will not be easy but I proudly embrace the challenge.”
In February, Akbar received the Outstanding Georgia Citizen Award for her dedication to engaging communities throughout urban and rural Georgia. She was recently appointed Acting Deputy PEPFAR Coordinator in Nairobi, Kenya and will be serving in this capacity for six months before returning to active duty at Marine Corps Base Quantico in September with her wife Gina Brunson-Akbar and 12 year-old son Joden Brunson. She is a believer in the power of legacies, and her long-term goals include serving as the Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, a general in the Marine Corps, and the President of the United States of America.