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Marines' controversial path to integrating combat women

Modes of thought

The Marine Corps has decided to keep men and women separate during boot camp. The Marines say it's common sense. Advocates for women say it's part of a deeper recalcitrance toward integration. 

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    Navy Secretary Ray Mabus speaks to Marines regarding women in combat during a speech at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base Tuesday in California.
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When Lt. Col. Kate Germano arrived to take command of her all-female basic training battalion for new recruits in Parris Island, South Carolina, she found a place that was both “amazing” and “peculiar.”

The battalion of women had “never once” met the averages of the men in the three other basic training battalions — not in physical fitness scores, not in academics, and not on the rifle range. 

In ruck marches, the women were routinely clocking fewer miles and carrying less weight, she says. When they finished the iconic Crucible hike, female recruits found a row of chairs waiting for them on the parade ground. Not so for the men. 

“I took the chairs away immediately and, I’ll tell you what, I had company staff who were terrified that the women were going to fall and break their hip,” she adds. “The women weren’t as strong as they should have been, but they’re not fragile.”

That lack of strength points to the soft bigotry of low expectations, she and others suggest, and an announcement that the Marines Corps will continue to separate women from men in boot camp is a sign that not enough has yet changed.

This week, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced that, on the heels of much lobbying by the Marines, the corps can keep basic training gender-segregated. The move, Secretary Mabus said, was a common sense way to “gradually move into integration.”

But advocates for women in the military argue that the move violates the spirit – and perhaps even the letter – of the decision to open combat jobs to women. They add that it fits a pattern that raises questions about whether the Marines are moving toward gender integration advisedly or kicking and screaming.

The decision amounts to “a de facto exception” to the women-in-combat rule, says retired Army Col. Ellen Haring, a senior fellow with Women in International Security, where she directs the Combat Integration Initiative project.

“I’m not sure how a service secretary can countermand the directive of the secretary of Defense, but that appears to be what has happened,” she adds. 

Not 'all at once'

Since before Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced an official end to the ban on women in combat in December, Marine Corps officers have been engaged in a public tussle with Pentagon civilian leadership. 

The Marines were the only force to ask Secretary Carter to be allowed to keep the ban on women in combat, a request he denied last year. 

Though stressing that they will salute smartly and carry out the orders of their civilian superiors, some top Marine Corps officers have been skeptical, making no secret that they believe opening combat jobs to women could hurt America’s ability to win wars.

“I have concerns about retention. I have concerns about injury rates,” Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps, told lawmakers in February. “We will see where the chips fall. Our hope is that everyone is successful. But,” he added, “hope is not a course of action on the battlefield.”

For his part, Mabus publicly called out the Marine Corps last year for foot-dragging and a generally pessimistic approach to the matter, which could, he added, have consequences for successful integration. 

On Tuesday, during a trip to Camp Pendleton, Calif., Mabus seemed to take a softer line, saying General Neller “made a good point.” 

He and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Ronald Green “came to me with a path ahead and said that they thought it worked better to be gender-divided early in boot camp and then gradually move into integration,” Mabus said.

“So while we’re going to move in that direction, we’re not going to do it all at once,” he told a crowd of Marines. “We’re going to figure out how to better integrate and do it over time, in a way that doesn’t disrupt training and doesn’t disrupt the way you become Marines.” 

The Marine Corps welcomed the news. 

“Portions of our recruit training are gender-specific by design. Our experience shows that our current recruit training construct creates a highly structured and professional environment, absent of diversions, that enables recruits the opportunity to focus on training and develop a strong foundation for Marine Corps standards, behavior, and values,” Maj. Christian Devine, a Marine Corps spokesman, said in a statement. 

What’s more, he added, “Providing strong, positive, same-gender role models that impressionable young men and women recruits can immediately relate to and strive to emulate is fundamentally important, especially in the first phase of recruit training.” 

'Yes, she earned this'

The “impressionable young men and women” part is the key, say critics.

“Isolating our women during recruit training unfairly implies that our female recruits need to be sheltered and protected,” one lieutenant colonel wrote in The Marine Corps Times.

A former commander of a recruit training battalion, retired Lt. Col. David Morgan, told the publication that he doesn’t support coed training, but he did see a pervasive negative attitude toward female Marines among men in the Corps, which he believes starts with boot camp.

“We basically, in 12 weeks, imprint on them what the future of the Corps going to be,” he told Marine Corps Times last year. “I’m living out here in society today and nobody’s looking at females as not equal. We’re calling fire on our own position, to some extent.” 

When she commanded her all-female basic training battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Germano set to work raising scores and expectations.

On the rifle range at Parris Island, low expectations of women were the norm, with male instructors visibly annoyed when they were assigned to female platoons, she says. “It was ‘Great, here we go.’ That was the attitude prevalent when I got there.”

The female recruits began hiking farther, carrying more weight, and scores improved on the rifle range. There were complaints, however. The Marine Corps said her leadership style was abusive and relieved her of her command last June.

Germano, who retired from the Marine Corps earlier this month, said she was punished for forcefully expressing her opinion in a male-dominated command.  The Defense Department inspector general’s office recently took over the investigation.

While she met with resistance, Germano also encountered support from some of her peers, including the commander of the 1st Recruit Training Battalion. As Germano pushed her recruits to improve their performance, “He was saying things like, ‘It’s crazy – over the past eight months, I’ve seen a change in how your recruits carry themselves, how they walk,’ ” she says.

“I had 18 years in the service, and I knew the perception of females in the Marine Corps,” she says. “Having us on our own isolated compound creates the perception that it’s easier to be a female Marine – and it was. It really was.”

By holding women to the same standards as the men, “We leveled the playing field and allowed them to see that the women were being held to the same standards,” she adds. “If males see women as hiking as far, carrying the same weight, the perception out of boot camps is, ‘Yes, she earned this just like I did.’ ” 

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