CEDAR HILLS — She didn’t even know the value of winning the first time it happened. Julia Carlson was just 16 years old when she picked up a rifle at a shooting competition — an undertaking she insists was largely fueled by a desire to impress a boy — and she aimed, started shooting and won.
“I thought he would like me if I won,” she said. “So I went up to talk to him, because winning is what gave me some nerves, and he walked away from me. He just wouldn’t talk to me, and that feeling I got that I had done something really good — I wanted that feeling again, so I started competing more.”
What had been a hidden talent developed into a passion that soon pointed her toward military service.
“When I went to nationals — that’s where all the military service teams were,” Carlson said. “I wanted someone to see me the way I saw the Marines, and that’s why I joined the Marine Corps.”
Carlson, then Julia Watson, quickly became the one showing the Marines how to shoot.
“I taught competitive marksmanship, civilian and military, and I also taught Marines combat marksmanship,” Carlson said. “I would be a trainer’s trainer and create and help teach coaches and instructors so they could go back to their units and train.”
Carlson proved to be one of the best on shooting ranges that had historically been dominated by men in contests involving targets as far as 1,000 yards away.
“National matches started in 1902,” Carlson explained. “(In 1998) I was the first woman to win the national trophy individual.”
Carlson was named Female Athlete of the Year for the Marine Corps that year, and that was really only the beginning of a storied career.
She went on to claim 15 interservice titles, 40 national titles and 5 international military arms competition titles.
“The men from the other countries were (whispering), ‘Oh, look at this woman,’” Carlson smiled. “They couldn’t believe there was a female Marine that was coming up to get this award.”
Carlson also served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Still, her home that she shares with two children, seven stepchildren and her husband, Dan displays very few reminders of her storied career.
Two trophies hide atop a wall near the front door, and a box engraved with “Semper Fi” and a Marine Corps logo sits near the door.
“If I line my walls with trophies in my house and somebody comes to visit me, they’re going to see the trophies instead of me and my family, and that’s just something I did — not who I am,” Carlson said.
Most of Carlson’s awards are in boxes tucked away in a storage area beneath the basement stairs.
“(It’s) not that I’m not proud of these, but I’m most proud of my family,” Carlson said.
Instead, pictures from numerous family activities crowd Carlson’s walls. They capture achievements by the nine children, including in wrestling, track, baseball and choir.
“I just try to capture whatever I can,” husband Dan said. “There’s a lot of memories and dreams and aspirations that go into this.”
At all times, Carlson seems content to have the spotlight shine on someone else.
Recently, she watched as her daughter, Sara and stepdaughter, Morgan earned medical certifications from Mountainland Technical College ahead of their high school’s graduation.
“I’m really happy,” Carlson beamed. “There’s my trophies right there.”
As she has in her life, she encourages others around her to “take aim” at their goals.
“There’s always a shot that can be more center,” she quipped.
Carlson is also not done achieving. With the help of her husband, she has been working to launch “Doc & Gunny’s,” an organization aimed at supporting military veterans through the arts.
“Healing comes through being creative and building something, and there are a lot of veterans out there that heal and recover through art and music,” Carlson said. “I want to find them and help them and share their stories so that other veterans and first-responders can heal and help others.”
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