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Bell County's first elected female judge sets her own standard in the courtroom

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Posted: Monday, October 22, 2007 12:00 pm | Updated: 4:53 pm, Wed Aug 15, 2012.

By Justin Cox

Killeen Daily Herald

For 264th District Court Judge Martha Trudo, the courtroom has never drifted far.

The courtroom is the platform on which she has built her career, served her country, raised a family and carved out her existence.

Long before she was elected in November 1994 as the first woman to serve as a judge in Bell County, Trudo made up her mind that she wanted to be a lawyer.

And her inspiration was due, in part, to none other than the smooth-talking, witty sensibilities of television's Perry Mason, the champion of the long shots, of the falsely accused, who Trudo said got her interested in the concepts of the courtroom.

"I always wanted to be a lawyer since I was 12 years old," Trudo said with a sort of fondness for her innocent audacity. "It was in the Perry Mason days. And at the same time, the Sam Sheppard case was going on It was a very current (murder) case, and after I studied and read everything about it, I didn't believe that he had done it.

"I felt I always wanted to be a champion for people's rights. That was the era I grew up in. So that was my goal, and I didn't deviate from it. That's where I was headed."

That same singular vision thrust her through high school, then through her undergraduate studies at the University of Houston, then through her night courses at law school at St. Mary's. It held true to form still, as a child of the 1960s and 1970s, and eventually led to a pursuit to join the fight during the Vietnam Conflict with the same idealistic attitude.

"I wanted to go to Vietnam," Trudo said. "I wanted to help out. I wanted to do something important. I was a crusader, if you will, a rabble rouser, but I wanted to go because I felt I had something to offer."

An officer with the Army's Judge Advocate General's Office starting in 1973 and a military judge from 1993 until retiring from the service in 2003, Trudo has demonstrated a history of doing things her own way, and doing them in a time in the nation's history when gender roles were clearly defined, and certainly not in her favor. Often Trudo found herself to be the only woman in a group, such as at her first posting as the only woman in training at Fort Gordon, Ga., as well as a similar singular role in the JAG offices in Korea, where she served from 1974-77.

But even her entrance into the JAG Corps at the time was indirect, as the career of a lawyer, just as that of a doctor at the time, was a role historically occupied by men.

"Women didn't come in directly to the JAG Corps at that time – all women came in to the Women's Army Corps," Trudo said of the section of the Army disbanded several years later. "That's just the way it was done. Then we were detailed to various other organizations. Back then, women were not really encouraged to go into male-oriented jobs. Women had reputations to become nurses or traditional types of jobs, but I wanted to become a lawyer."

In fact, Trudo's entire life history echoes with breaking traditional barriers, whether societal in being the only female officer in the JAG Corps, or proving her own physical torment and toughness in physical training with her male counterparts during basic training, much of which she did at her first posting while pregnant with her first child, a fact she was forced to hide from her commanding officers.

"The old Army phrase, 'If they wanted you to have a family, the Army would have issued you one,'" Trudo said, able to laugh now about the day after day she woke up sick with morning sickness. Though she had been married to her husband, Bob, since 1971, (they just celebrated their 36th Anniversary in September) for a woman to be caught pregnant on active duty meant her immediate forced exit from service, so she hid her pregnancy of the first of her three daughters on a diet of M&Ms and bananas.

That daughter, now 34, teaches in the Killeen Independent School District system along with her youngest, who is 30. The other daughter, age 32, is a respiratory therapist and full-time mother living in Illinois.

Though winning a close race in 1994, Trudo prevailed in the race, running as a Republican, and became the first woman to hold the district seat. She now has been on the bench for more than 12 years. But even in Bell County, Trudo had to set a new standard and break with tradition.

"I was told by a lot of my lawyer friends that at the time, that Bell County back then would never have elected a woman to be a district judge here," Trudo said. "It was very close. We had a recount."

And then four years later, when she was up against stiff competition in the primary, she prevailed again, and has been unchallenged since.

"It's been quite an honor, being the first woman to be a judge in Bell County," Trudo said, as she often is asked to be a guest speaker during such events as the Women's Expo. "I think it's what I wanted to do way back when I was little, to do something no one else has done, to be the first, the trailblazer, and kind of open new roads and make opportunities for other people, make opportunities for other women, other places to go."

Contact Justin Cox at jcox@kdhnews.com or call (254) 501-7557

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