When Karen Laino Giannuzzi ’71 arrived at her office at Camp Lejeune in 1977, she found pink curtains hanging from the windows and a sign posted on her door: “Woman Commanding Officer – Do Not Use Bad Language.” Then a captain, she was taking her first command, Lejeune’s Headquarters and Service Company, 2nd Radio Battalion, Fleet Marine Forces Atlantic, at a time when there weren’t many women in the Marine Corps, let alone female officers.
She could lose the froufrou décor, but it wasn’t uncommon for male colleagues to test how tough she was. Not long after she arrived, one young Marine thought it would be funny to drop his trousers in front of her. He did not enjoy the disciplinary process that followed, she said.
“A lot of men hadn’t seen a woman Marine,” recalled Giannuzzi, who was the first female officer in the field of signals intelligence and electronic warfare. “I was first of a lot of things. Every time you went to a duty station, you might be the only woman there, or one of a few.”
That hardly mattered to Giannuzzi, who had wanted to join the Marine Corps from an early age. Her father, a World War II Army veteran, served in the Marine Reserve during the Korean War, and Giannuzzi had learned all three verses of the Marines’ Hymn while she was still a toddler.
She joined the corps on Dec. 12, 1969, and the following summer, just before her senior year, she graduated first in her class from Woman Officer Candidate School. At Mary Washington, the late Professor of Philosophy George Van Sant, a Marine Corps veteran, arranged for Giannuzzi to be commissioned on campus a day before graduation.
Giannuzzi went on to serve a decade in the Marines, working in communications, recruitment, public affairs, and signals intelligence/electronic warfare. She served another 21 years in the U.S. Navy as a cryptologist, accepting intelligence posts in England, Puerto Rico, Germany, the Pentagon, and the National Security Agency (NSA), and was the inspector general of the Naval Security Group.
After retiring as a Navy captain in 2001, Giannuzzi headed the NSA’s Senate liaison team before serving as director of intelligence programs for the National Security Council under National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Giannuzzi next went to Mons, Belgium, to chair the Advisory Committee on Special Intelligence and later served as the director of intelligence for the international military staff at NATO headquarters in Brussels. She returned to the NSA in late 2011 and retired from the federal government in January 2013.
Giannuzzi enjoyed working with people from so many backgrounds – her NATO staff alone represented 23 different nations. She’s visited more than 180 countries for business and pleasure, often with her late husband, Ralph.
Ironically for such a world traveler, when she was preparing for college, Giannuzzi’s parents insisted she remain within a four-hour train ride of their home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Fortunately, Mary Washington, a school she’d fallen in love with after a visit during her freshman year of high school, was within that radius. Giannuzzi, a 2016 recipient of the UMW Distinguished Alumnus Award, majored in German but also studied French, Japanese, geography, and religion.
“I was truly a liberal arts major. I took it all,” said Giannuzzi, who has since served on the Alumni Board, the College of Arts and Sciences Advisory Board, and as class agent since graduation. “Mary Washington gave you such a good education – encouraged independent thinking and self-reliance – that you couldn’t help but think you could do anything.”
– Edie Gross