For 70 years, women arriving at Marine Corps boot camp have learned to fire rifles, slide down ropes and sprint through obstacle courses while separated from male counterparts. But now, for the first time, a platoon of women has been integrated into one of the all-male training groups.
The platoon of 50 women, training at Marine Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina, will still perform most exercises apart from the men, but they will join together for larger training missions.
It's a small step -- and one that would be a step backward for other military branches -- but is a notable advance in integration for the Marine Corps, which has the lowest percentage of women of any military branch and for years has resisted efforts to integrate its fighting forces.
The rest of the military is already completely integrated when it comes to basic training. In Army infantry training, for example, women and men have been tramping through the woods in mixed squads for nearly two years. But the Marines have said that too much mixing would distract recruits, and perhaps intimidate female Marines.
Women in the integrated battalion -- a group of five or six platoons -- will still have female drill instructors and will live on a separate assigned floor in the barracks. Except for battalion exercises, including a final endurance test known as the Crucible, they are likely to have little other interaction.
"We train our recruits by platoons," Gen. Robert B. Neller, the Marine Corps commandant, told reporters in a televised briefing last spring. "And I am not considering having recruits fall out and go from one platoon to another."
In a news release, the Marine Corps said the continued separation of platoons by gender "enables appropriate acclimation to the training environment, development of relationships with drill instructors, and focus during the transformation of young women and men into United States Marines."
But the move to integrate was not so much an effort toward greater equality as a move to create efficiency, according to one Marine official, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly. A lack of female recruits during the winter training cycle made it more practical to shut down the all-female battalion at Parris Island and roll the remaining 50 women into a male battalion, the official said.
Even so, it's an important step, said Kate Germano, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel.
"This may seem small, but it's huge. It will be difficult for the Marines to go backward after this," said Germano, who commanded the segregated women's training battalion at Parris Island from 2014 to 2015. She was removed after criticizing how female recruits were trained. The Marine Corps said at the time that her leadership did not "promote a climate based on respect and trust."
Germano said women were given lower training standards, and often made the butt of men's jokes -- an attitude she said Marines carried with them after they left boot camp.
Integrating men and women at the beginning of their Marine Corps careers was critical, she said, adding: "That's where we have a chance to shape perceptions or stereotypes. It's where we can teach respect for women and their accomplishments."
The low number of women driving the integration at Parris Island speaks to a larger problem, Germano said: The Marine Corps sets recruiting quotas for women so low that few women enlist, and there is little push for broader integration. In part because of these low numbers, the Marines' West Coast recruit depot in San Diego is still men-only.
"The Marines are a very conservative culture," she said.
Officials at Parris Island and the Pentagon declined to answer questions about the decision.
The latest step at Parris Island is part of a broader effort toward including women in more parts of the corps, which began when Ashton Carter, then the defense secretary, opened all military occupations to women in 2016.
In 2017, the Marines let women into the infantry for the first time, and the first woman graduated from the corps' notoriously tough Infantry Officer Course. In 2017, the first female lieutenant took command of an infantry platoon.
As important, Germano said, women are now being issued dress uniforms that do away with the bowtie-like necktab of the former uniform, in favor of an iconic jacket with a mandarin collar, like the male version.
"It sends a message that we are all the same," she said.
A Section on 01/06/2019
Print Headline: Women's platoon integrates training at Marine boot camp