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Making History: First Female Marine Recruits Train In San Diego

Video and images by Mike Damron and Matt Bowler

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Photo by Mike Damron

Female Marine recruits climb across ropes during the confidence building stage of their boot camp training at Camp Pendleton, March 9, 2021.

For the first time in the 100-year history of Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) San Diego, female recruits will be training alongside men.

In this digital series, KPBS will follow the female platoon of 60 women as they and their 390 male counterparts who make up Lima Company go through 13 weeks of training.

The Marines Corps is the last branch of the military to incorporate co-ed training. Previously, female Marine recruits were only trained at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina, separate from their male counterparts.

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Photo caption:

Photo by Mike Damron

Male and female recruits getting into formation at Marine Recruit Depot San Diego, Feb. 9, 2021. It's the first time in 100 years that the training class will be co-ed at MCRD.

The first co-ed training battalion graduated from Parris Island at the end of March 2019.

Though the men and women will train together, female recruits will reside in their own barracks with their drill instructors, who are also women.

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Photo by Mike Damron

Marine Corps drill instructor Sgt. Ayesha Zantt speaks to recruits at Marine Corps Depot San Diego, Feb. 11, 2021.

“This is the first female platoon, so they are going to be going against all their brothers inside of that whole company, Lima Company. They have to show everyone that they are worthy to be here.”

— Drill Instructor Sgt. Ayesha Zantt

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Photo by Mike Damron

Marine recruit Teia Chutaro at Marine Recruit Depot, San Diego, Feb. 9, 201.

“I joined the Marines Corps for pride of belonging and to prove those wrong that I could do it … I’ve always put myself to a higher standard and I have to go for the best of the best.”

— Marine recruit Teia Chutaro, Honolulu, HI

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Photo caption:

Photo by Alexander Nguyen

Female Marine recruits hold the push-up position during the confidence building stage of their boot camp training at Camp Pendleton, March 9, 2021.

With this being the first female recruiting class at MCRD San Diego, officials are especially sensitive to the issue of sexual assaults. Recent reports from the Department of Defense show that sexual assaults in the military have steadily gone up since 2006 with a 13% jump in 2018 and 3% in 2019. Data for 2020 is not yet available. At MCRD San Diego, an official told KPBS they are “addressing the issue from every angle,” which includes sexual harassment training.

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Photo by Mike Damron

Marine recruits in their newly issued uniform for basic training, Feb. 9, 2021.

Quarantine

Before boot camp got underway, Marine recruits were quarantined for two weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic. Men and women were housed on separate floors in a hotel at an undisclosed location.

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Photo by Alexander Nguyen

Water bottles left on a stool in front of the door of Marine recruits under quarantine, Feb. 5, 2021.

For the duration of the quarantine, recruits were not allowed to leave their rooms. They were only allowed to interact with other recruits for 30 minutes a day at the threshold of their doors. Food and water was delivered and left outside of their rooms.

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Photo caption:

Photo by Alexander Nguyen

Female Marine recruits in front of their hotel rooms where they are under quarantine before starting basic training at Marine Recruit Depot San Diego, Feb. 5, 2021.

Phones and other electronic devices were taken away. Recruits were allowed only one phone call per week. If they want to get in touch with loved ones, they have to do it the old fashion way — by writing letters.

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Photo by Mike Damron

A female Marine recruit goring through her assigned work while under quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic at an undisclosed hotel, Feb. 5, 2021.

Despite being under quarantine, recruits kept busy, completing 140 hours of activities. That included having to study because they were quizzed daily on topics ranging from the core values of the Marine Corps to military history.

When their heads weren't in the books, recruits also exercised and meditated.

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Photo caption:

Photo by Alexander Nguyen

Female Marine recruits being quizzed on the work they were assigned while under quarantine, Feb. 5, 2021.

The recruits range in age from high school graduates to college students. Each has their own reason for joining the Marines. For some, it's about seeing the world. For others, it's about family tradition or breaking barriers or simply the challenge of becoming a Marine.

“I'm going to be super proud of myself for overcoming one of the biggest obstacles in my life. I am looking forward to earning the title of the United States Marines, especially being one of the first females to ever be here.” — Marine recruit Gabrielle Ashford, 19, Valparaiso, IN

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Photo by Mike Damron

Marine recruits being bussed to Marine Recruit Depot San Diego, Feb. 9, 2021.

Yellow footprints

After two weeks in quarantine, recruits started basic training. Once stepping off the bus, their journey from civilian to Marine officially begins.

Commands were shouted, orders were given, and the recruits filed off the bus onto what is famously known to Marines as the "yellow footprints."

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VIDEO: Female Marine Recruits At MCRD San Diego: Yellow Footprints

In this moment, the women of Lima Company made history.

They are the first female recruits to stand on the yellow footprints at MCRD San Diego.

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Photo by Mike Damron

Recruits preparing to go through the silver double door at Marine Recruit Depot San Diego as a symbolic transition from civilian life to military life, Feb. 9, 2021.

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Photo by Mike Damron

Recruits emptying their bags as Marine drill instructors check for contrabands, Feb. 9, 2021.

After entering through the "portal," recruits emptied their bags so drill instructors could check for contraband.

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Photo by Mike Damron

Marine recruits calling home one last time before starting boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, Feb. 9, 2021.

Recruits were given one last chance to call home. Moving forward, they can only correspond by letter.

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Photo by Mike Damron

A male Maine recruits getting his first haircut during receiving at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, Feb. 9, 2021.

Next, the male recruits got haircuts while female recruits were allowed to keep theirs, just as long as it complied with Marine grooming standards.

Finally, all recruits were issued uniforms for basic training.

“I think it’s a privilege. I wouldn’t trade this for the world. I was originally supposed to go to Parris Island. This is definitely a step up.” — Marine recruit Jhsmyn Banks, 19, Moreno Valley, CA

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Photo by Mike Damron

Female Marine recruits climb across a rope obstacle during the confidence course portion of basic training, March 9, 2021.

Confidence course

Four weeks into boot camp, one of the female recruits tested positive for COVID-19, placing the entire female platoon under another two-week quarantine.

However, KPBS was allowed to continue observing their training from a safe distance, but was not allowed to interact with the recruits. MCRD San Diego officials said the COVID-19 exposure did not have a major effect on training.

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Photo by Mike Damron

A female Marine recruit climbing down the rope in the Slide for Life obstacle course at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, March 9, 2021.

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Female Marine Recruits Slide For Life

Slide for Life animated gif

This GIF shows female Marine recruits tackling the Slide for Life obstacle course at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego on March 9, 2021

The Confidence Course is all about one thing: building confidence. Here, recruits learn to overcome self-doubt in a series of challenges that test their mental and physical strength.

That includes:

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Photo by Mike Damron

A female Marine recruit practicing close-combat fighting at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, March 9, 2021.

Hand-to-hand combat training.

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Photo by Mike Damron

Female Marine recruits brandish rifles during the confidence course of their basic training, March 9, 2021.

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Photo by Mike Damron

Marine recruits learn how to rope climb during the confidence course, March 9, 2021.

Rope climbing.

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Photo by Mike Damron

A Marine recruit climbs over a wooden obstacle during the confidence course, March 9, 2021.

Navigating obstacles.

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Photo by Mike Damron

A Marine recruit helps a fellow recruit climb an obstacle during the confidence course, March 9, 2021.

And team building.

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VIDEO: Female Marine Recruits At MCRD San Diego: Confidence Course

Video by Mike Damron

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Photo caption:

Photo by Mike Damron

A female Marine recruit floats in a training pool during the water survival portion of boot camp, March 9, 2021.

Water survival training

Marines are amphibious by nature. Naturally, being able to swim is an important skill.

During Combat Water Survival training, recruits are required to swim 25 meters in shallow water, jump from a 15-foot platform to simulate abandoning a ship, swim a short distance and tread water in uniform for four minutes.

Like the obstacle course, recruits once again have to overcome any self-doubt.

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VIDEO: Female Marine Recruits Water Training

Video by Mike Damron

Recruits learn how to turn their clothing into a flotation device. After quickly removing their boots, they inflate their pants and blouse, keeping afloat in the event of an emergency at sea.

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Photo by Mike Damron

A Marine recruit from Lima Company strikes tires at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, as a drill instructor looks on, March 23, 2021.

Bayonet assault course

Thirty-one days into their training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, the men and women of Lima Company are training side-by-side on the Bayonet Assault Course. Here, they are graded on how well they work and communicate as a team.

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Photo by Mike Damron

Lima Company Marine recruits taking notes during a simulated mission briefing at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego before starting on the Bayonet Assault Course, March 23, 2021.

The recruits start off with a simulated mission briefing where they are given a layout of the course and what needs to be done to complete the mission.

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Photo by Mike Damron

A Marine recruit from Lima Company on the Bayonet Assault Course at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, March 23, 2021.

To get the recruits accustomed to the chaos of battle, speakers blare the loud sounds of explosions, machine gun fire and aircraft. The obstacles on the course are designed to simulate the different terrains Marines may encounter in combat.

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Female Marine Recruits At MCRD San Diego: Confidence Course

Video by Mike Damron

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Photo caption:

Photo by Alexander Nguyen

A Marine recruit crawling through a tunnel on the Bayonet Assault Course at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, March 23, 2021.

Recruits crawl through tunnels.

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Photo by Alexander Nguyen

A Marine recruit from Lima Company crosses a rope bridge during the Bayonet Assault Course at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, March 23, 2021.

Balance their way across rope bridges.

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Photo by Mike Damron

A Marine recruit from Lima Company crawls under barbed wire during the Bayonet Assault Course at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, March 23, 2021.

And crawl beneath barbed wire.

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Photo by Mike Damron

Marine recruits from Lima Company sparring with pugil sticks at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, March 23, 2021.

The morning training ended with recruits practicing close-quarters combat using pugil sticks.

Designed to simulate fighting with a bayonet, each end of the stick is padded with a different color — red and black. The red end represents the bayonet.

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Photo by Matthew Bowler

A female Marine recruit takes aim at a target on the Bravo shooting range on Camp Pendleton, April 7, 2021.

Rifle range pre-qualification

Six weeks into boot camp, the men and women of Lima Company have moved north from MCRD to Camp Pendleton to continue their training.

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Photo by Alexander Nguyen

A combat marksmanship coach is evaluating a Marine recruit's shots on the Bravo shooting range on Camp Pendleton, April 7, 2021.

This week, they are on the Bravo shooting range, training for their Marine Corps rifle prequalification. For the majority of recruits, this is their first experience with a firearm.

To learn how to become proficient, recruits are paired with a combat marksmanship coach.

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Photo by Matthew Bowler

A combat marksmanship coach watches as a recruit takes a shot on the Bravo shooting range on Camp Pendleton, April 7, 2021.

In previous weeks, before being allowed on the range, recruits were taught gun safety, to familiarize themselves with their weapon and the four standard Marine shooting positions — standing, kneeling, sitting and prone. On the course, they practice these shots from the 200-, 300- and 500-yard range.

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Photo by Matthew Bowler

A Marine recruit's Rifle Training Databook alongside some M-16 ammunition in a cap at the Bravo shooting range on Camp Pendleton, April 7, 2021.

The point of the training is not only to get recruits comfortable with firing their weapons but also to improve their marksmanship. Recruits were each given a notebook to plot where they’re going to shoot, mark where the shot landed and make any necessary adjustments.

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Photo by Mike Damron

Drill instructor Staff Sgt. Carmen Medinaponce with Marine recruits at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, March 8, 2021.

Mid-point perspective: Drill instructors

At the mid-way point of training, KPBS sat down with three of the drill instructors of Platoon 3241, the all-female platoon of Lima Company, to get their perspective on how the training is going so far.

The drill instructors say the women of this recruiting class seem to know the microscope they are under and are more motivated and pushing themselves harder.

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Photo by Matthew Bowler

Drill instructor Sgt. Ikea Kaufman in one of the barracks at Camp Pendleton, April 7, 2021.

“There is a big difference (between training male and female recruits). The female recruits … they’re quicker on their feet. They understand better. They move faster. They just give so much more and maybe, maybe it’s because this group of young ladies knows that they have something to prove. So they’re going at 1000% at all times.”

— Drill Instructor Sgt. Ikea Kaufman, one of the first female drill instructors to graduate from Drill Instructor Course at MCRD, San Diego.

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Photo by Matthew Bowler

Marine Corps recruits' patrol hats on footlockers inside a barrack at Camp Pendleton, April 7, 2021.

The 60-strong platoon has since had their numbers reduced by four because of injuries. One recruit was badly injured in a freak accident and another had COVID-19 and was not able to continue.

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Photo caption:

Photo by Alexander Nguyen

The final drill, initial and final physical fitness test trophies won by the all-female platoon of Lima Company, the first co-ed recruiting class at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, April 7, 2021.

After coming in last during their initial drill, the female platoon has been outperforming their male counterparts, taking first place on the final drill, initial physical fitness test (PFT) and final physical fitness test.

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Photo caption:

Photo by Alexander Nguyen

Senior drill instructor Staff Sgt. Amber Staroscik on Camp Pendleton, April 7, 2021.

“I think that they’ve been pushed physically harder than I have (when I went through boot camp) because we feel like we have something to prove. And it’s created this higher bar so they don’t feel like they’re meeting this higher bar but in reality, they’re exceeding the bar.”

— Senior drill instructor Staff Sgt. Amber Staroscik, who was brought in from Parris Island to oversee the first group of female recruits in San Diego.

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Photo by Matthew Bowler

Marine Corps drill instructor Sgt. Stephanie Fahl in the barracks at Camp Pendleton, April 7, 2021.

Halfway through boot camp and drill instructors have already seen a difference in the recruits.

“One girl, when she got here … she had a problem with conforming. She wouldn’t move quickly, wouldn’t really sound off for us. She gave attitude and after a while — and I’ve said this to my team — but she’s one of the most improved. Now the way she is, she takes initiative, which is great. She motivates other recruits. She’s always helping other recruits selflessly … she wasn’t doing any of that before.”

— Drill instructor Sgt. Stephanie Fahl, one of the first female drill instructors to graduate from Drill Instructor Course at MCRD, San Diego.

This is an ongoing digital series and we will update accordingly as Lima Company progresses through boot camp.

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