An Amazing Story of Marine Valor, But First Some Background (And License Plate Data)

A couple of months ago, I wrote a story about the most popular Florida colleges based on the number of Florida residents willing to pay for their school’s vanity plate. You can read my findings here:  This is Florida’s College Football Team, Based on the Data.

After looking into colleges, I decided it would be interesting to see how many people in Florida have military license plates (and which branch has the most). 

I assumed that because of the large number of Air Force and Navy bases in the state – Florida would have many Navy and Air Force License plates. 

I was wrong. Really wrong. 

[By the way, you must pay an annual fee to get a military-affiliated plate. I found no specific language that also requires a person to have served in that military branch. ]

The Marine Corps has, far and away, the most license plates of any military branch in Florida. 

Marine Corps Support Facility – Blount Island is the only facility in Florida owned and operated by The Corps. It has a mix of 120 marines and sailors stationed there. NAS Pensacola has a large contingent of Marines, as do other bases around the state – but something far from what the other branches have in the area. 

To explain how wild that is – some context. The United States Marine Corps is the smallest active-duty military branch – with about 180,000 personnel. In addition to the active service branches, the National Guard and Army Reserve are more significant than the Corps. 

Despite this disparity in active duty personnel numbers, almost 50,000 Marine Corps License plates are issued to Florida drivers. Compare that to Florida’s second most active military license plate, the Army, which has about 10,000 fewer plates on the roads.


a map depicting the most popular military branch license plates in each county.

According to the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles, it’s the ninth-most-popular specialty plate ahead of ‘Veterans of the US Armed Forces’ and right behind ‘Save the Manatee.’

In Okaloosa County – The Air Force has the most plates on cars of any branch, with 1,642 at publishing time. The Marine Corps has 482. 

You can see the whole data set here:

For every active duty Marine, there are about two-and-a-half active duty Army soldiers. Add in the National Guard and the Army Reserve, and you are looking at a ratio closer to 5:1 Soldiers to Marines.

So why are there so many more people with Marine Corps plates in the Sunshine State?

I decided to find out why. After talking to professors on the topic and the Marines themselves, here’s my working hypothesis:

From the Dominican to A Recruiting Poster

When Dora Stewart was three, her native country, the Dominican Republic, fell into a civil war. A CIA-backed plot assassinated the dictator of the country, Rafael Trujillo, who’d ruled the country with an iron fist and amassed a financial as well as a temporal empire in the country, brought instability and then collapse to the country. A short civil war in the Dominican saw 6,000 marines and 12,000 members of the 82nd Airborne Division occupy the capital, Santo Domingo.  

The Caribbean nation on the eastern half of Hispaniola (which the nation shares with Haïti) became a conflict zone, and Dora’s family was in great danger. Her father, a police officer, was a target in the ensuing civil conflict. 

One day, Dora’s father went off to work – at the same time, the opposition advanced on her home. 


a woman in marine corps dress blues in front of the Washington Monument.
Corporal Dora Stewart poses in her dress blues for a Marine Corps recruiting poster. Stewart served 21 years in the corps. As a child, Stewart was saved from violence in a civil war by United States Marines and swore to one day become a member of the Corps.

That’s when United States Marines came into her town, set up defensive positions, and thwarted the attack – allowing time for her family to evacuate the area. 

“I remember that civil war being a pretty big deal, and you know,” Stewart remembers, “our [neighborhood] being bombed, the Marines lining our streets with sandbags. Protective barriers to keep to keep us all safe. At some point, they had to evacuate us. In the middle of the night, it was my mom and us four children because my dad was somewhere else serving with the police department. They carried us to safety.”


It’s one of Dora’s first memories – and a core one. When her family settled in the United States as refugees, Dora told them that she would one day join the ranks of the Marines that had saved them. 

“[I] found out, through looking at the history of the country where I was born, that it was the US Marines that came to our aid,” Stewart remembers, “and one of the first women in the Marine Corps was in the same battalion that helped our family move to the US. So I thought, ‘Well, you know, I would love to be part of that. I would love to give back to a country that helped save our lives.’ So, I joined the Marine Corps and chose it for that exact reason.”

Now, Dora is out of the active duty Corps and lives in Bluewater Bay – after serving 21 years in the ranks. She served primarily as a 4341, a combat correspondent – but also got her 15 minutes of fame in the 1990s as a model for the Marine Corps Recruiting Program. 

The recruiting program has become one of the great public relations campaigns of the 20th and 21st centuries and has bonded many Marines to the Corps for a lifetime. 

All branches could put stirring stories together about the feats of their personnel. After all, people in the military tend to have courage and a general desire to make the world a better place. Besides – military members might not want to spend money on the license plate. 

So why are there so many Marine Corps plates in Florida?

Recruiting Loyalty - The Corps' Use of PR and Marketing To Make The Modern Marine Corps

Heather Venable works at Maxwell Air Force Base’s Air Command Staff College as a professor of Air Power. The school teaches O-4s of various services how to lead well at the staff officer level. Venable, whose father was a marine, became academically curious about her dad’s attachment to the Corps – and decided to research the available data and info for nuggets of information other branches could use. Her study period ended at the First World War, but she says the pattern she found exists today. 

According to her research, the ‘Myth of the Marine Corps as an Elite Organization’ didn’t begin in a pub in 1775 – but in the aftermath of the American Civil War. At that time, the Marines were like the Navy’s appendix (my words, not hers). “They were not a very well-respected branch of the military,” Venable said, “They were even smaller [than they are now]. The Navy did not want them. The Navy wanted them off their ships so they could take care of their own [vessels]. So, the Marines, for whatever reason, wanted to claim they were elite, but they could not do it yet because there was no Instagram. There was not the [information age structure and] culture that there is today.” As a matter of fact, Venable adds that in the lead-up to the Civil War, Marines were more likely than not to refer to themselves as soldiers. “That’s a good way to get yourself punched in the face if you call a Marine a soldier today,” Venable noted with a wry smile. 


Link to Read Heather Venable’s Book On The Marine Corps History With Public Relations. 

But as the times changed after the Civil War – and the idea of public relations and marketing began to take hold – the leadership of the Corps decided to take a gamble and work with PR, Marketing, and Advertising to invent The Corps as an elite organization only the toughest could join. An organization that, as Dora Stewart remembers, “didn’t take applications, only commitments.”

Professor at Air Command Staff College (Maxwell AFB, Alabama) Heather Venable

But as the times changed after the Civil War – and the idea of public relations and marketing began to take hold – the leadership of the Corps decided to take a gamble and work with PR, Marketing, and Advertising to invent The Corps as an elite organization only the toughest could join. An organization that, as Dora Stewart remembers, “didn’t take applications, only commitments.”

The Corps started this mission by dogging its main benefactor, the Navy. Their message: “We’re the real men, we’re out front, risking our lives while [sailors] are in [their] ships, protected,” Venable said, “So there is very much an element of gender and masculinity that [The Corps] used. But the Marine Corps brilliance was that they were the first to want their members to love the institution and not just serve in it. There was an emotional attachment that they began to inculcate in their members.”

By the end of the First World War, the Marine Corps identity was fully formed. They saw themselves as they do today as an elite, mainly expeditionary infantry fighting force that is meant to be outgunned, outmanned – and expects itself and its members to prevail anyway. 

The Corps ability to use available media channels to push its Corps-centered propaganda to a generation readying for war also aided in its recruitment. “One of the clever things [The Corps] did was use newspapers,” Venable said of the Marines PR Machine of the early 20th century, “They would make these draft newspaper articles and then put them out to newspapers across the country. Some of them were even personalized, talking about, ‘Johnny Dean from Portland, Oregon has done better than anyone else in the history of this marksmanship event; isn’t that swell?’ Those kind of personalized connection could go back to local communities and reinforce [their marketing efforts].”

These tactics show up in their marketing – as does their ideal of service for service’s sake and the idea that people can transform themselves into the best version of themselves by serving in The Corps. It worked in the First World War. Venable noted the Corps stopped recruiting for itself at one point in the conflict and turned its eyes to helping the bigger branches recruit because it was so far ahead of its goals – and the other branches were behind on theirs.

The Corps’ recruiting strategy, then and now, contrasts with other branches. 

“I was recently looking at Army, Navy and Air Force Recruiting websites,” Venable recalls, “The Army and the Navy has this big headline that says, “up to sixty thousand dollars, or whatever it is, in bonuses. And then it also has to ‘be a better person.’ ‘This is gonna be an exciting journey.’ ‘You’re gonna challenge yourself and grow.’ But, there is not as much mention of war. The Marine Corps, by contrast, they do not have these big headlines of bonuses, although I’m pretty sure they still give them. They don’t advertise them. And even if you go on their webpage that talks about financial benefits.. they have the loftiest, most idealistic language you could ever imagine: ‘Because you battle for us, we will battle for you.’ ‘your brothers will always be by you.’ It is the most rhetorical discussion of pay and benefits you could possibly imagine.”

When it comes down to it, it helps that The Corps simply has fewer slots to fill as well. “When you don’t need as many recruits as some of the other services, you can use a more consistent message in a way that might not be as appealing to an organization that needs a bigger cross-section of society to fill its ranks to meet its recruiting quotas,” Venable said. 

Results of the Campaign with Evidence and Recruiting Successes: Lessons learned.

The military has a hard time recruiting in modern America. A recent report from NBC News shows that several branches of the military will not make their recruiting goals if the pattern for 2022 continues. The report adds that only about 23% of people between the ages of 18-24 are eligible to join the military. Others are disqualified due to obesity, criminal records, or something else.  

Only the Corps is likely to make their goals – because of a combination of service orientation, elite status, and good ol’ fashioned multimedia marketing campaigns – says Heather Venable with Air Command Staff College. 

“The Marine Corps, even as it was developing its recruiting, was also developing its publicity. So, those went hand in hand,” Venable noted, “It was seeking to increase the extent to which people outside of the Marine Corps identify or celebrate the Marine Corps, as well as attract people to the Corps and then keep them loyal to it.”

For her part – Dora Stewart says the corps’ mission, one that demands much and returns little, brings out a certain kind of person and makes them a raving fan of the corps. “Knowing all those [pieces of Marine Corps lore and history] and feeling like you’re part of something great makes you feel, excuse my language, like you’re a badass. They break you down physically, emotionally, psychologically. You are challenged. And I think that’s what makes us all come out of there feeling like, ‘we all did this, [we] accomplish[ed] something.’ It’s a brotherhood. So I think that’s what it is… Knowing how I felt when I left boot camp and graduated, I felt 10 feet tall.”

In a small way – The Corps is, in a small way, like a fan’s college or professional football team. They are passionate about it – and want everyone to know they are a part of the greater whole because the greater whole means so much to them. 

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