PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. — From the moment they step off the bus, bleary-eyed and frightened, recruits arriving at Parris Island, S.C., are ushered into a world where political correctness is the enemy.
At this swampy, primeval training ground, men march only with men, women with women. In the US military, the elite and tradition-bound Marine Corps stands alone in how it trains recruits - segregated by gender.
"We want to make sure each sex has the opportunity to achieve its goal - becoming a United States marine," says Lt. Col. Angie Salinas, commander of a women's training battalion at Parris Island.
As a swirl of sex scandals convulses the military, affecting everyone from epaulet-laden brass to bewildered recruits, America's armed forces are desperate to keep soldiers' focus on aiming high - and off sexual entanglements. Amid all the introspection, the Marines' hard-nosed, single-sex approach is garnering great attention.
In Congress, one bill would put an end to co-ed training in all branches of the military.
And Defense Secretary William Cohen, who supports gender-mixed training, says he will appoint a panel to review two-sex boot camp.
But people inside and outside the Marines caution that separating the sexes is no silver bullet - and that while it works for a few good men and women, it may not work for everyone.
"We're looking at what's the best way to make marines," says Salinas.
What's best, she explains, is encouraging both men and women to develop marine role models of their own gender.
And the separation during the 12 weeks of basic training is designed to allow each recruit to avoid the typical distractions of young adulthood, and to focus on the rigors of firing M16s and jumping fully clothed into swimming pools.
For a growing list of critics, the sex scandal at the Army's Aberdeen, Md., training ground is evidence that the Marines may be right. Even though the incidents of rape or consensual sex at Aberdeen involved advanced trainees, the debate has filtered down to the basic-training level.
At few places in the military is the balance of power as skewed as in basic training, where drill sergeants rule every facet of recruit life. And while the vast majority of Army drill sergeants are never accused of sexual misconduct, some believe the temptation should be eliminated altogether.
To others, a return to separate training companies for recruits is unthinkable. Tom Wall, a recently retired lieutenant colonel who commanded an Army basic training battalion, says it would be akin to "trying to stuff the genie back in the bottle."
"It would be a serious reversal," Mr. Wall says, citing the Army's philosophy that it will "fight like it trains." Wall acknowledges a gender-integrated environment is more difficult to manage. And he admits, the Army and other services "probably haven't spent enough time trying to figure out how to minimize" sexual misconduct.
But Wall says that sexual improprieties occurred before the Army put men and women in the same training units, and that regardless of the level of vigilance, "nature will find its way."
Henry Hamilton, a Columbia, S.C., attorney who often defends soldiers against sexual misconduct charges, has seen plenty of sexual misbehavior before and after the Army integrated training.
But he believes the Marine Corps has the right idea.
Co-ed training "is a mission distractor in two ways. One, it provides a breakdown of superior-subordinate relationships. Secondly, there is all kinds of sex going on between trainees."
He cites an example of a trainee recently charged with raping another. Hamilton says it was hard to get witnesses to corroborate events, because "a guy and a girl were having sex in the next tent at the same time."
"Why do we do training this way? Because it's a sop to the feminist agenda," Hamilton says. "It's a politically correct reason,"
Critics believe putting men and women together in training units often waters down training, because men typically can lift more weight and are faster, and are sometimes slowed down by the presence of women.
Benefits of co-ed training
But the Army's own studies of co-ed training reveal other tangible benefits.
First, it helps debunk many misconceptions male recruits have about women. Second, women tend to perform better in mixed units, often without a noticeable decline in the performance of the men.
"You gotta practice like you play," Wall says, adding, "we're going to fight as an integrated team on the battlefield."
But few who've studied gender relations in the military believe there are simple solutions. Discussing gender issues is difficult and can even be "a career killer," wrote Stephanie Gutmann in an article for the New Republic.
And it could be that no one policy is workable for each branch of the military, especially given their significantly different philosophies.
"I don't think any of us are so naive as to believe segregated training eliminates sexual misconduct. What we are doing is giving them tools to recognize it and know how to deal with it," says Salinas.
The Marines' philosophy is to spend 12 weeks building self-esteem, confidence, and lifelong "core values," she says.
Basic training provides men and women with military skills, maturity, and the ability to respect others as they adopt a new Marine Corps ethos.
Putting men and women together, Marine Corps leaders would argue, distracts from that goal.
"This is something that has worked for us. I'm not saying it's the only way to do business," Salinas says.