Women warriors: A Marine Corps bootcamp struggles to integrate

Lolita Baldor/AP/File
Female Marines go through one of the obstacles in the so-called confidence course at Parris Island Recruit Depot, South Carolina, on May 27, 2020. The Marine Corps has struggled to integrate women into all-male combat units.

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The Marine Corps has until 2025 to integrate women fully into its training of new recruits on Parris Island, a century-old bootcamp on South Carolina’s coast. That deadline was set by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump. 

Female Marines have trained for decades at the camp – but not at platoon level. In the past, women have been deployed in support roles while combat units remained all-male. That is changing across the U.S. military as more women go to war. But change has been much slower in the Marines, as Corps commanders say integrated units are less effective at some battlefield tasks. 

Why We Wrote This

The Marine Corps has been a laggard on gender integration in combat units. Its attachment to traditions at its bootcamp in South Carolina may be at odds with its commitment to integration.

Another reason for holding back at Parris Island, an inhospitable spit of land, is Corps norms of masculinity, such as the idea that women would upset male bonding. The top brass “are listening to the culture and traditions of the service in their heads,” says Richard Kohn, a military historian. 

But that isn’t the whole story, says Nora Bensahel, an expert on defense policy at  Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She notes: “There is a whole history of military leaders being wrong in their predictions about what happens when there is some sort of change that is seen as undermining the culture.”

For more than a century, the U.S. Marine Corps has trained new recruits on Parris Island, an inhospitable spit of land on the South Carolina coastline. Nearly all of those recruits were men, but since World War II female Marines have also trained there.

Now the fate of the bootcamp that forged generations of Marines may depend on the Corps’ ability to integrate women into its combat platoons. The clock is ticking on a Congressional requirement for the Marines to do what other military services have already done: train women alongside men to go to war. 

Faced with this challenge, Marine Corps leaders have mulled scrapping both Parris Island and its San Diego camps in order to start over in a new, fully integrated basic training center. It might be simpler and cheaper.

Why We Wrote This

The Marine Corps has been a laggard on gender integration in combat units. Its attachment to traditions at its bootcamp in South Carolina may be at odds with its commitment to integration.

But old traditions die hard, especially in the male-centric Marine Corps, which is now “the last institution of American society that seems to believe that separate is somehow equal,” says Nora Bensahel, who studies defense policy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Last week, six South Carolina Republicans introduced a bill into Congress that would block the use of federal funds to close the Marines’ camp on Parris Island. A similar bill was tabled in October after local officials warned about the potential economic fallout. 

That push and pull has put Parris Island – and the danger and discomforts it represents – at the center of a debate not just about changing norms of masculinity, but how a fully integrated Corps could forge a new approach toward victory in war.

“The Marines are struggling” with gender integration, says Richard Kohn, an emeritus professor of military history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It’s a very complex wrestling match with conflicting values, conflicting worries, and none of it is binary. The fact is, you fight the way you train. So how are you going to parse these conflicts?”

Integrating all-male platoons 

The Marines, as a fast-moving expeditionary force that relies on grunts to carry lots of gear to the front line, sees itself as an odd fit for gender integration.

Training of men and women recruits has until recently been completely separate, and the residential squad bays on Parris Island are still segregated. While every Marine who completes training is a rifleman, women largely fill support roles. Only 9% of Marines are women, the lowest share among the service branches.

The 2017 Marines United scandal in which male Marines distributed and critiqued nude photos of female Marines showed the depth of cultural resistance to inclusion.

“[The Marines] are deeply invested in boot camp,” says Professor Bensahel, while Marine commanders have said that having women there would “wreck everything.” That said, “there is a whole history of military leaders being wrong in their predictions about what happens when there is some sort of change that is seen as undermining the culture.”

After being ordered in 2015 by then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to open all units and specialties to women, the Marine Corps spent over a year studying how integrated recruit platoons performed versus male ones. The Corps found that the all-male platoons performed far better on raw battlefield tasks like pulling a wounded Marine from a turret.

As a result, the Marines asked for a waiver from the order. It was denied, and three years later President Donald Trump signed into law a Congressional mandate that tied Corps funding to gender integration.

Bruce Smith/AP/File
Female recruits battle with pugil sticks during training at the Marine Corps Training Depot on Parris Island, S.C. Feb. 21, 2013. Women Marines have trained on Parris Island since World War II.

But the 2016 study also found that integrated platoons suffered no dips in morale, and that, freed from tradition, Marines improvised new operational standards during simulations.

Marine Maj. Jane Blair helped run those simulations. She watched integrated four-person rifle companies bunk platonically down in the same tents. For male Marines this represented a sea change from past trainings that emphasized how to keep a distance from all-female units.

For Major Blair, it was a glimpse into an organization where there was less focus on gender and more on setting specific performance standards for each job, or specialty.

“When you look at society as a whole, you’re not segregating populations based on race or sex,” says Major Blair, author of “Hesitation Kills: A Female Marine Officer’s Combat Experience in Iraq.” As a result, “it solidifies things better when you’ve got different opinions, different perspectives and different abilities. Those are force multipliers, whatever problem you’re dealing with.”

Joining “a boys’ club” 

When Jackie Huber signed up in the 1980s, few women expressed a desire to fight alongside men. “I wasn’t trying to break any walls down or change how things worked. I understood that I joined a boys’ club,” says the Virginia-based photographer.

Today, more women are serving in combat roles in the U.S. military and that includes the Marines: In 2019, the number of women serving in previously all-male combat units rose 60%.

In that way, deciding what to do with Parris Island “is about understanding that the space of battle has changed, literally the face of battle has changed, and the people who serve in those capacities have changed ... and we need to celebrate that,” says retired Lt. Col. Kate Germano, a former Parris Island training commander.

The service has until 2025 to fully integrate Parris Island. Its hallowed tradition may be an obstacle, because, as Professor Kohn puts it, “the top people in uniform are listening to the culture and traditions of the service in their heads.”

In 2012, Marine Maj. Gen. Bill Mullen, who oversees training at Parris Island, circulated privately a memo suggesting that women combat troops would “destroy the Marine Corps, simple as that, something no enemy has been able to do in over 200 years.”

Last year, General Mullen told Task & Purpose, which obtained the memo, that he has since changed his mind, calling female ground combat troops “a good thing.”

A brand new bootcamp?

Last October, Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger floated the idea of closing Parris Island, along with its San Diego counterpart, which is required to integrate by 2028, and combining West and East Coast Marines at a new facility, probably in the American heartland. “Nothing, the way we’re organized right now, lends itself to integrated recruit training,” General Berger told a symposium.

From her own experiences and watching a new generation of Marines at work, Major Blair remains hopeful that, within a decade, male and female Marines will train and fight together, regardless of which location recruits are sent to. 

In her view, Parris Island will likely have some part in that transformation, if only as a reminder of what it takes to step on the famous yellow footprints that mean you graduated from recruit to Marine.

“You can’t erase Marine culture, and you can’t erase Parris Island by any means,” she says. “Yes, it’s a miserable place, but it ... is ingrained in the Marine Corps culture that you’re forged in Parris Island. It’s where you were born.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the title of Nora Bensahel. She is an expert on defense policy at  Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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