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Semper Fi: Women in the Marine Corps

At Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, one of the side streets near the intersection of Holcomb and McHugh boulevards – Lucy Brewer Avenue – is named for a woman celebrated by some as the first female Marine.

Lucy Brewer is known to history only through a series of autobiographical pamphlets, published in 1815 and 1816 in New England, recounting the exploits of a Marine sharpshooter – Lucy, disguised as a man and enlisted under the name of George Baker – aboard the USS Constitution during the War of 1812.

There’s no evidence that Lucy was a real person, but fictional or not, she’s celebrated as an embodiment of female Marines’ independence and fighting spirit. It wasn’t until more than a century later that the first woman officially wore the uniform of the United States Marine Corps.

Thousands of women attempted to enlist, but the selection process was stringent. Col. Albert Sydney McLemore, officer in charge of recruiting, referred to those who made the cut as the “100% Girls,” because they had to be perfect for inclusion in the Marine Corps. Of the more than 2,000 women who showed up to the New York recruiting office, only five were accepted.

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the deployment of young men overseas left thousands of stateside positions, most of them office jobs, unfilled. The Marine Corps – the most pugnacious of the service branches, an organization that proudly considers itself the nation’s elite fighting force, with “first to fight” amphibious capabilities – was initially unenthusiastic about filling these positions with women. On Aug. 8, 1918, close to the end of the war, it became the last of the branches to enroll women by creating the enlistment of Marine Reservist (F).

The first was Opha May Johnson, a 39-year-old typist already working at Marine Corps Headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, who enlisted on Aug. 13, 1918. She was assigned as a clerk in the Office of the Quartermaster General, and by war’s end was the Marine Corps’ senior enlisted woman with the rank of sergeant.

Opha May Johnson women in the Marine Corps

Pvt. Opha May Johnson, 40, first enlisted female Marine, sometime after joining the Marine Corps. Johnson enlisted into the reserve in August 1918. U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO

Thousands of women attempted to enlist, but the selection process was stringent. Col. Albert Sydney McLemore, officer in charge of recruiting, referred to those who made the cut as the “100% Girls,” because they had to be perfect for inclusion in the Marine Corps. Of the more than 2,000 women who showed up to the New York recruiting office, only five were accepted.

By the end of World War I, 305 women had enlisted in the Marine Corps, but all served less than a year. Following the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, the armed services immediately began discharging women from active-duty service. The Marine Corps wouldn’t begin recruiting women until it was forced again, by another world war, to look for workers to replace the men called overseas.

women's reserve enlistees women in the Marine Corps

This Marine trio were early enlisters in the first Women’s Reserve that served during World War I. Mary Kelly (left) of New Jersey was secretary to Col. A.S. McLemore, who headed the Reserve. May O’Keefe and Ruth Spike, of New York City, the youngest of 305 enlistees, served as messengers for Maj. Gen. George Barnett, former commandant of the Marine Corps. COURTESY OF THE MARINE HISTORY DIVISION HISTORICAL REFERENCE BRANCH

Gen. Thomas Holcomb, 17th commandant of the Marine Corps, resisted the idea of a Women’s Reserve, but in the fall of 1942, faced with the losses suffered during the Guadalcanal campaign, the service’s manpower needs became critical. Reluctantly, Holcomb recommended women be enlisted for non-combatant billets. On Feb. 13, 1943, the Marine Corps – again the last of the branches to accept women into its ranks – formed the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve.

The Army had its WACs, the Navy its WAVES, and the Coast Guard its SPARs, but Holcomb resisted the use of a catchy acronym. “They are Marines,” he said in a 1944 interview with Life magazine. “They don’t have a nickname and they don’t need one.” In practice, the women were typically referred to as Women’s Reservists, or WRs.

To direct the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, Holcomb chose 47-year-old Ruth Cheney Streeter, mother of four servicemen and a trained pilot who had tried five times to join the Women’s Air Force Serving Pilots (WASPs), but had been denied because of her age. Commissioned a major in January 1943, Streeter would retire a full colonel in December 1945, three months after the end of the war.

The slogan “Free a Marine to Fight” was a powerful lure for recruits to the new Women’s Reserve, who found the Marine Corps still maintained strict standards for eligibility and training. While the Marine Corps worked on building its women’s training grounds at Camp Lejeune, officer candidates trained at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, while enlisted women trained alongside their WAVE counterparts at Hunter College in the Bronx, New York. The Marine Corps opened its own schools for officer candidate and recruit training at Camp Lejeune in July 1943.

WWII mechanics march women in the Marine Corps

Women mechanics march to their work area at Naval Air Station Norfolk, Virginia, circa 1944-45. This group appears to include both Navy WAVES and Women Marines. U.S. NAVY HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND

The slogan “Free a Marine to Fight” was a powerful lure for recruits to the new Women’s Reserve, who found the Marine Corps still maintained strict standards for eligibility and training.

The Marine Corps set out to select, train, classify, and assign 18,000 new WRs at a rate of more than 1,000 a month, and over the course of the war it surpassed this goal: A total of 23,145 women enlisted and 965 held commissions. More than half of all WRs were engaged in clerical work, but at Streeter’s insistence, female Marines were increasingly offered opportunities to become more than uniformed stenographers. Her philosophy was that WRs should be able to perform “anything except heavy lifting and combat.”

The work of women reservists expanded during World War II to include more than 225 different specialties, including automotive mechanics, welders, parachute riggers, chemists, drivers, and control tower operators. Women filled 85 percent of enlisted jobs at Marine Corps Headquarters and comprised one-half to two-thirds of the personnel at the Corps’ stateside posts. World War II changed forever, both within the Marine Corps and throughout American society, traditional ideas about the appropriate scope of women’s work. By war’s end, nearly 40 percent of WRs held jobs in aviation, the Corps’ fastest-growing unit.

WWII mechanics women in the Marine Corps

Cpl. Essie Lucas, left, and Pfc. Betty Jean Ayers get a reconditioned engine back in place in a Marine Corps bus. Both women were graduates of Motor Transport School and attached to the post garage at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. DOD PHOTO

While performing all these tasks, women reservists were encouraged to look good: The Marine Corps’ grooming standards required WRs to wear lipstick and fingernail polish, but only in shades of red that matched the trim on their forest green uniforms. To help with this, cosmetics magnate Elizabeth Arden visited Camp Lejeune in 1943 and came up with the “Montezuma Red” shade that coordinated with the women’s scarlet cap cords and chevrons.

After the war was over, the Marine Corps enacted an aggressive demobilization policy, and by August 1946 there were about 300 women remaining in the Marine Corps, though the WR had officially disbanded. For the next two years, these women – asked specifically to stay on – served the Marine Corps in an undetermined status. They had proven to be not merely useful but indispensible to their superiors, many of whom, like Holcomb, had been opposed to female Marines. “Like most Marines, when the matter first came up I didn’t believe women could serve any useful purpose in the Marine Corps,” Holcomb said. “Since then I’ve changed my mind.”

The Women Marines, 1946-1977

A vocal contingent continued to doubt the usefulness of female Marines – including Brig. Gen. Gerald C. Thomas, director of the Marine Corps’ Division of Plans and Policies. In an October 1945 memo, Thomas wrote: “The opinion generally held by the Marine Corps is that women have no proper place or function in the regular service in peace-time … The American tradition is that a woman’s place is in the home.”

While she didn’t agree with the latter part of Thomas’s assertion, Col. Streeter supported Thomas’s idea of forming an inactive reserve of women who could be called to duty if the need arose. During 1946 and 1947, the Marines continued to work with reserve women in small numbers, under the leadership of Col. Katherine Towle, while the Corps planned the future of the Women’s Reserve.

By June 1950, the Women Marines were authorized to comprise 100 officers, 10 warrant officers, and 1,000 enlistees.

These plans were dramatically altered by the Armed Forces Integration Act of 1948, which authorized women as permanent regular and reserve members of all armed service branches. Under the law, which provided for a director of the Women Marines – a job that fell to Towle – female members of the Marine Corps became known as Women Marines, or WMs.

By June 1950, the Women Marines were authorized to comprise 100 officers, 10 warrant officers, and 1,000 enlistees. Officers were trained at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, while enlisted women were trained at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina. In August of that year, the Women Marines and reserve units were mobilized to support the war effort on the Korean Peninsula. At the peak of this mobilization, 2,787 Women Marines stepped into leadership and administrative roles to free male Marines for combat duty.

weapons demo women in the Marine Corps

Though Women Marine Regulars would perform duties in the administration field, special weapons demonstrations were given in order to acquaint them with the finer points of the basic and specialized weapons used by Marines in warfare. U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO

In the 1950s and 1960s, enlisted Women Marines could serve in most of the Marine Corps’ occupational fields, but the vast majority served in administrative or clerical fields, such as personnel administration, supply, payroll, data processing, post exchange, and public information. Opportunities for WM officers were even more limited, existing primarily in personnel, accounting, and administration. WM numbers remained small throughout these two decades, but opportunities slowly began to emerge in the 1960s, partly as a result of a report from the Woman Marine Program Study Group, led by retired Lt. Gen. Robert H. Pepper and commonly known as the Pepper Board. The board’s recommendations led to better housing, changes in basic training, and expanded duty stations and military occupational status (MOS) codes for Women Marines.

control tower women in the Marine Corps

In the control tower, Women Marines give landing and take-off instructions, check plane locations, and coordinate local traffic control. Pictures are Col. Donna Hatfield, Sgt. Lyndell Weldy, and Sgt. Joy L. Derry. DOD PHOTO

Women Marines were largely assigned stateside. A handful served in Europe, and the only overseas station in the Pacific available to them was Hawaii, but in March 1967, Master Sgt. Barbara Dulinsky, after requesting duty in Vietnam, arrived in Saigon and became the first Woman Marine to serve in a combat zone. Her introductory briefing was different from anything she’d encountered in the States, with its focus on day-to-day security: how to recognize booby traps, for example, or making sure, upon entering a taxi cab, that the doors had handles on the inside. Twenty-eight enlisted Women Marines and eight officers volunteered to serve in Vietnam between 1967 and 1973, most of them filling desk billets with the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), in Saigon.

drill period women in the Marine Corps

Women Officer Candidates during a drill period at Quantico, Virginia, 1967. DOD PHOTO

Just months after Dulinsky reported to Saigon, President Lyndon Johnson signed Public Law 90-130, which lifted restrictions on the rank of female military officers and on the percentage of women in the armed forces – 2 – that had been established in 1948. The law kept in place restrictions on combat roles.

The 1970s introduced at least two developments that compelled the military to consider ways it might both recruit and retain more women: In March 1972, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution, a proposal designed to guarantee equal rights for all citizens regardless of gender. While never ratified by the states, its approval in Congress signaled the strength of a movement determined to open more opportunities for women. After the Nixon administration abolished the military draft and introduced the all-volunteer force in 1973, it was clear the service branches would have to work harder to attract quality recruits.

In 1975, under the leadership of Gen. Louis Wilson, 26th commandant, the Marine Corps began to prepare its equal opportunity plans for Women Marines. The Corps authorized women to be assigned to all occupations except those in combat-related fields: infantry, artillery, armor, and flight crews. In small numbers, Women Marines began to move into formerly male-dominated positions, such as military police, and the number of the Women Marines grew by nearly a third during the mid-1970s.

The Corps authorized women to be assigned to all occupations except those in combat-related fields: infantry, artillery, armor, and flight crews.

Public Law 90-130 allowed for the promotion of women to flag rank, and in 1978, Margaret Brewer, the seventh director of the Women Marines, became the first woman Marine to attain this rank when she was promoted to brigadier general. The increasing integration of Women Marines into the enlisted and officer ranks had led the Marine Corps to do away with it as a separate organization, with its own distinct lines of command. In 1977, 243 men and 22 women, newly commissioned and appointed officers, went through The Basic School at Camp Barrett, Quantico, a 21-week course in the basics of being an officer in the Marines. A Washington Post article from February of that year described the scene: “For the first time, newly commissioned female marine officers are being trained in the field alongside male officers in patrolling, amphibious operations, the use of terrain, offensive and defensive weapons, and under-fire tactics.”

The Basic School 1977 women in the Marine Corps

Female members of the 2nd Platoon, “C” Company, The Basic School, off-load an amtrac during the Basic School Exercise, April 20, 1977. U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO

The Women Marines was disestablished as a formal organization on June 30, 1977. From that point on – officially, at least – there would be no distinction between male and female Marines.

Becoming Warriors

When the Marine Corps’ Officer Candidates School (OCS) at Quantico was gender-integrated in 1977, its first female platoon commander was 1st Lt. Nancy Anderson, who led the first three gender-integrated OCS companies.

Anderson would later command the Headquarters and Service Battalion at Headquarters Marine Corps, Arlington, Virginia, before retiring from the Marine Corps as a colonel in 2002. Her career neatly encompassed the time between one historical event – the dissolution of the separate Women Marines – to another, the 2001 terrorist attacks that launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was arguably the most transformational period in the history of female Marines, as Anderson has documented in her book The Very Few, The Proud: Women in the Marine Corps, 1977-2001.

Despite all the progress made in the post-World War II era, female Marines were still overwhelmingly uniformed clerical workers as the 1970s drew to a close. Given the service’s renown as the nation’s elite forward-deployed fighting force, it seemed fair to ask: What kind of Marine could you be if you weren’t allowed to serve in an MOS for which you were qualified?

Two events, Anderson said, compelled the Marine Corps to reconsider how it viewed and trained women. On Nov. 21, 1979, mobs of angry protestors attacked several American posts in Pakistan, including the American Consulate in Karachi. The six Marine Security Guards (MSGs) at the consulate that day, already armed with standard-issue .38-caliber pistols, changed into their combat utility uniforms, armed themselves with emergency gear – body armor, helmets, gas masks, gas grenades, and shotguns – and, with the help of a Pakistani army platoon, repelled a large crowd of protestors.

Two of the Marines dressed for combat that day were women: Lance Cpl. Betty Rankin and Cpl. Vicki Gaglia. They were part of a pilot program, launched just months earlier, integrating women into the Marine units charged with protecting American lives and property at overseas State Department facilities.

Despite all the progress made in the post-World War II era, female Marines were still overwhelmingly uniformed clerical workers as the 1970s drew to a close.

The Marine Corps’ immediate reaction was to pull women MSGs out of the Middle East and transfer them to less risky locales; Rankin and Gaglia were sent to Brussels. The MSG women’s pilot was promptly terminated by Gen. Robert Barrow, 27th commandant – who also, due to concerns about exposing women to the risk of combat, re-closed 33 specialties that had been opened to women by Wilson.

Even as he reduced opportunities for female Marines, Barrow appeared to understand the dilemma facing an all-volunteer service with a growing number of women in its ranks: Simply calling a Marine’s job “non-combat” wouldn’t protect her from attack – and if she were attacked, she should know how to fight. In 1980, Barrow announced his own pilot program of defensive combat training for female recruits, and the Marine Corps revised its recruit training program for women to include field exercises, defensive combat training, and “weapons familiarization” – women were shown how weapons worked, but didn’t use the weapons themselves.

A second milestone, Anderson said, was the appointment of Gen. Alfred M. Gray as 39th commandant. Gray was a strong proponent of the Marine Corps mantra “Every Marine a Rifleman,” and he implemented a program of Marine Battle Skills Training designed to produce a combat-ready Marine regardless of gender. There were still some differences in the training of men and women, said Anderson, “But the women were still provided training the Marine Corps considered sufficient and rewarding for female recruits.” By the end of the 1980s, training for female recruits had evolved into a 12-week program that included a three-day field exercise and marksmanship training in which female recruits, for the first time, fired the M16A2 service rifle for score.

first all female platoon women in the Marine Corps

The Marine Corps’ first all-female drill platoon stands at attention in formation with M16A1 rifles. The platoon was commanded by 1st Lt. Marie G. Juliano. DOD PHOTO

As the Marine Corps moved to develop combat proficiency among female recruits, the Department of Defense (DOD) moved to protect women from having to put these skills into practice. In 1988, the Pentagon adopted what became known as the “Risk Rule,” which essentially barred women from serving in non-combat units if they were likely to be fired upon or captured.

In 1990 and 1991, Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm featured the largest deployments of military women up to that point. More than 40,000 women were deployed; 15 were killed; and two were taken prisoner by Iraqi forces. Media coverage of the war revealed how completely U.S. servicewomen had been integrated into military units – and the increasingly dubious notion of distinguishing between “support” and “combat” service.

Under pressure to allow women to serve in more challenging, if more dangerous, roles in the military, Congress lifted the restriction on women in combat aircraft in 1991, and a White House follow-on effort, the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces, made recommendations for expanding women’s opportunities. The commission, however, recommended the continued prohibition on women in close ground combat.

One of Defense Secretary Les Aspin’s last acts, before stepping down in 1994, was to rescind the Risk Rule. The Pentagon, while allowing women to serve on combat ships and aircraft, adopted a new “Direct Combat Exclusion Rule” that opened up more positions for women but directed that “women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.”

Media coverage of the war revealed how completely U.S. servicewomen had been integrated into military units – and the increasingly dubious notion of distinguishing between “support” and “combat” service.

It seemed a small opening, but female Marines took advantage of it. Second Lt. Sarah Deal, already a licensed pilot, requested a lateral transfer from her training as an air traffic controller and became the first female Marine selected for naval aviation training in 1993. Two years later she became the Marine Corps’ first female aviator, flying a CH-53E Super Stallion transport helicopter for Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 466, then based at Marine Corps Air Station Tustin, California.

Sarah Deal aviator women in the Marine Corps

Lt. Col. Sarah M. Deal became the first female Marine Corps aviator in 1995, flying the CH-53E Super Stallion. U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO BY LANCE CPL. GLEN E. SANTY

“At this point,” said Anderson, “recruit training became almost identical. The female Marine recruits were not restricted just to defensive instruction.” After changes directed by Gen. Charles Krulak, 31st commandant, female recruit training transitioned into a full combat training program; for the first time, female recruit training platoons went through The Crucible – the culminating 54-hour rite of passage involving sleep deprivation, more than 45 miles of marching, and day and night team competitions that simulated combat conditions.

Carol Mutter women in the Marine Corps

Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Carol A. Mutter, May 1994. In September 1996, she became the first woman in the armed forces to attain the three-star rank of lieutenant general. U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO BY SGT. F.W. MCCORKLE

One of the most conspicuous differences between Marine Corps recruit training and that of the other branches is that the Corps’ program was – and remains – segregated by gender, with men and women using separate barracks and mess halls on Parris Island. The decision to keep male and female recruits separate was the result of intensive study by Marine Corps leadership, and in line with the recommendations of the Federal Advisory Committee on Gender-Integrated Training and Related Issues, appointed in 1997 by Defense Secretary William Cohen and chaired by Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, R-Kan.

The 21st Century: Female Marines on the Offensive

The wars fought in Afghanistan and Iraq beginning in 2001 all but erased the distinction between combat and non-combat roles, and between forward and rear operations. Women in “support” roles, many of them Marines, found themselves in active engagements: Lance Cpl. Juana Navarro Arellano, for example, a bulk fuel specialist with the 9th Engineer Support Battalion, 3rd Marine Logistics Group, was killed by small arms fire as she guarded her fuel convoy in April 2006 in Iraq’s Anbar province. In December 2008, then-2nd Lt. Rebecca Turpin, a combat logistics specialist with Combat Logistics Battalion 3, became one of a handful of women to earn the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with a “V,” or valor device, after she led her 18-vehicle convoy through a 56-hour ordeal in Afghanistan’s Helmand province: pulling her scattered convoy into a defensive formation, directing return fire, and calling in air support while insurgents, in successive attacks, hit the convoy with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), a rocket-propelled grenade, small-arms fire, and multiple grenades.

As the conflicts strained manpower resources, the Army and Marine Corps sidestepped the Direct Combat Exclusion Rule by “attaching,” rather than assigning, women to infantry and special operations units. In what began as the Lioness Program in Iraq, female soldiers and Marines accompanied units to engage local women and protect their privacy as they were searched for contraband and explosives; in Afghanistan, Female Engagement Teams performed similar roles. It was dangerous duty, and several female Marines were killed by suicide or roadside bombings.

As the conflicts strained manpower resources, the Army and Marine Corps sidestepped the Direct Combat Exclusion Rule by “attaching,” rather than assigning, women to infantry and special operations units.

Former Capt. Kate Hendricks Thomas, who served with the Marine Corps’ Second Military Police Battalion, was deployed to Iraq in 2005 as a convoy security specialist, training female Marines in the handling of bomb-sniffing dogs. Stationed in Fallujah, Thomas’s highly specialized unit traveled to security checkpoints all over Anbar province. “We trained women who thought they were joining the Marine Corps to be an adjutant,” said Thomas. “We had to train them to go out and search for bombs at entry control points. A lot of the women who were doing the Female Engagement Team work were logisticians. They didn’t expect for their specialty to involve direct ground combat. But it did.”

female engagement team women in the Marine Corps

Sergeants Jessica Lugo (left) and Autumn Sekely of Female Engagement Team 6, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), walk into a village leader’s compound, Dec. 7, 2007, in Sangin district, Helmand province. Sekely, of Pittsburgh, and Lugo, of San Pedro, California, were assigned to support 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, throughout their deployment in Afghanistan. The Marines with FET engage with the local women and children, building trust and rapport between Afghan National Security Forces and coalition forces and the locals. DOD PHOTO BY CPL. KATHLEEN KELEHER

According to the Service Women’s Action Network, a nonprofit advocacy group, more than 300,000 women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, with 166 women killed in combat operations and more than 1,000 wounded. The military’s inability to adhere to its own rule regarding women in combat led to much debate within the Department of Defense, and gradually the last obstacles fell: In 2013, DOD repealed the ground combat exclusion policy, and after two years of study and input from each of the branches, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced, effective Jan. 1, 2016, his decision “to proceed with opening all these remaining occupations and positions to women. There will be no exceptions … as long as they qualify and meet the standards, women will now be able to contribute to our mission in ways they could not before.”

The Marine Corps had argued against this move, citing its study of an experimental mixed-gender infantry unit that scored lower than all-male units on several combat-related tasks – but critics of the study claimed it unfairly compared inexperienced young women with seasoned male Marines. When Carter’s announcement made the study’s findings essentially moot, Gen. Robert Neller, 37th commandant, responded that the Marine Corps was “stepping smartly” in implementing its new Force Integration Implementation Plan, and that “possible reductions in combat effectiveness can be addressed by effective leadership and gender-neutral standards.”

With the last barriers to combat occupations removed, several female Marines – many of whom had received infantry training as part of the Corps’ experimental program – requested lateral transfers to infantry units. In 2016, the Corps welcomed its first female rifleman and first female machine gunner. In the spring of 2017, Pfc. Maria Daume became the first woman Marine to join the infantry through traditional entry-level training. A few months later, in September, the Marine Corps celebrated the first woman to graduate from its grueling 13-week Infantry Officer Course (the new officer asked for her identity to be withheld from public release). Just days after this announcement, on Oct. 3, 2017, 2nd Lt. Mariah Klenke became the first woman to graduate from Camp Pendleton’s assault amphibian school. Klenke will command a platoon composed of 12-14 amphibious assault vehicles, and the Marines who operate and maintain them, for the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion.

Yolanda Vigil women in the Marine Corps

Pfc. Yolanda Vigil after graduating from the Infantry Training Battalion aboard Camp Geiger on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, Dec. 7, 2017. Vigil is a native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the recruiting station’s first female to become an infantryman. U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO BY CPL. JUAN MADRIGAL

To earn a spot in one of these previously all-male combat jobs, female Marines must complete a course of training that includes gender-neutral physical tests. The Marine Corps reported in August 2017 that women comprised fewer than 1 percent of the recruits showing up to boot camp with contracts to train for combat arms career fields. In 2016, six out of 24 female recruits – 25 percent – passed the MOS Classification Standard for ground combat jobs, compared with 4,577 of 4,754, or 96 percent, of male recruits.

These numbers get to the heart of an issue the Marine Corps continues to wrestle with: the standards necessary to accommodate modern warfare’s requirements. It may be, given the physical differences between male and female bodies, that the percentage of female Marines qualifying for combat jobs will remain significantly lower than that of men who perform the same gender-neutral physical tests. But there remains a vocal contingent within the Marine Corps arguing that the scarcity of female Marines in these male-dominated roles isn’t due strictly to their failure to meet the same standards as men; it’s at least partly because women continue to be treated differently, particularly as recruits.

At almost every level within the Marine Corps, men and women alike come down on both sides of the issue. Nancy Anderson, who raised three children through adolescence, believes it’s too much of a distraction to bring raw teenagers together for initial training – and, as she points out, the immediate follow-on enlisted training is co-ed for graduates of MCRD Parris Island. Male Marines trained at MCRD San Diego, however, do not serve with female Marines until their first operational unit, which has led to acceptance problems for female Marines.

Kate Hendricks Thomas, who has been to war with men and women, believes Marines are at a disadvantage when they’re thrown together as strangers in operational units. In a piece written for the Vox website last year, Thomas detailed the sexual harassment she endured in Iraq. She believes there’s a connection between these behaviors in the Marine Corps – which, according to a 2014 Pentagon study, has the highest rate of sexual assault and other “unwanted sexual contact” among the U.S. armed forces – and the sense of “otherness” instilled in gender-segregated recruits.

With the last barriers to combat occupations removed, several female Marines – many of whom had received infantry training as part of the Corps’ experimental program – requested lateral transfers to infantry units.

Thomas, now a professor and director of the Public Health Program at Charleston Southern University, has researched and written extensively about the mental health of returning veterans. Male Marines who worked closely with women in Iraq and Afghanistan, she said, watched women add value and watched them sacrifice. “When you segregate, the way we currently do at Parris Island,” Thomas said, “you set up this disparity that breeds the ‘othering’ of women: ‘Did they really jump over the same wall I jumped over? Maybe they’re not the same type of Marine that I am.’ I think that does contribute to the harm continuum – misogyny and disrespect can turn into harassment and sexual assault.”

There is one thing about the future of women in combat, however, on which every Marine agrees: The military isn’t a democracy, and the issue isn’t one of equal rights. In one of the last interviews he gave before retiring from the Marine Corps and joining the Trump administration as a civilian, Gen. John Kelly, former commander of U.S. Southern Command, said the test for any change affecting women in the armed services should be whether it makes a unit more lethal.

Thomas agrees. “My take isn’t about the ethics of inclusion,” she said. “It’s about what the Marine Corps must do if it’s going to use women operationally. You need to prepare them, challenge them, and make sure they’re walking into an institution where there’s unit cohesion and respect for what they bring to the fight. In my limited experience in the Middle East, I saw that women were operationally necessary, and I firmly believe you don’t want a mail clerk out there to search women at control points – you want a combat-trained, ready female Marine at that ECP, running that convoy, manning that .50-cal.”


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...