First Class Of Female Recruits In San Diego History May Be The Last For Now
Wednesday, May 5, 2021
Photo by Steve Walsh
Female recruits went through Marine boot camp in San Diego for the first time this spring. As they are set to graduate Thursday, these new Marines and their instructors say the time has come for women to keep training on the West Coast.
Though isolated, the first group of female recruits to train in San Diego understood people were watching. Some were cheering them on, while others were more negative — like Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who called efforts to accommodate female troops "a mockery of the U.S. military."
“They’re not oblivious to what happens on social media,” said Senior Drill Instructor Amber Staroscik. “They know what’s being said … I think it became more of a challenge for them, to push them harder.”
Video cameras often followed the women as they ran, swam, climbed obstacles and crawled through the California dirt. The low point came midway through the 13 weeks, says Drill Instructor Stephanie Fahl.
“At an initial drill, they messed up a lot and we actually tied for last,” Fahl said.
Drill is synchronized marching. The women came in at the bottom with the five male platoons. The men were loud as they moved their weapons in unison from shoulder to shoulder. Fahl says women are meticulous, with better attention to detail, but they weren’t confident.
Then came Final Drill, says recruit Marie Ann Parra.
“I think we all woke up and said 'why do we put ourselves down. Everyone else is bringing us back down. We’re the ones who are supposed to be building ourselves back up.'”
Parra, 21, is older than the average recruit. She dropped out of college in her junior year, when she ran out of money. She was homeless for a time. Her parents didn’t want their honor-student daughter to join the Marines.
“You could tell the moment we hit that parade deck, there was just passion. All of us remembered why we wanted to be a Marine,” Parra said.
They won — beating the five other platoons.
“We made our statement. And it felt good,” Parra said. “And there were a lot of tears when they announced that platoon 3241 won drill. There were a lot of tears.”
There were more tears to come. Unlike the Marines' traditional training site for women in flat and swampy Parris Island, South Carolina, the West Coast boot camp culminates with scaling "the Reaper" a summit that looms over training at Camp Pendleton.
“You see the Reaper. You can see it out of the chow hall,” Parra said. “And us girls, I’ve even overheard the male recruits. You see it and you just tremble.”
But they reached the top, where they held the traditional ceremony. Each new Marine received an eagle globe and anchor pin — the symbol of the Corps. Parra, muddy and sleep deprived, held it in her palm.
“It meant so much more to me than I thought it would,” she said.
Graduates of West Coast boot camp are dubbed "Hollywood Marines"— and these women are the first female Hollywood Marines in the 100 history of San Diego boot camp.
“Looking down at this, I didn’t think I was strong enough to be here,” Parra said.
"Every single day I was scared to be here. I was scared today, waking up thinking I wasn’t going to finish. It shows to everyone that I actually can. It shows to myself that I’m bigger than I am.”
The Marines are the last service to integrate women into basic training. They are under a Congressional mandate to open boot camp in San Diego to women, but the deadline is 2028. For now, another cycle of women isn't scheduled for San Diego. Senior Drill Instructor Staroscik doesn’t want it to end.
“We’re on a high right now. Right now the perfect thing for this high would be to continue pushing forward,” Staroscik said.
Along with Final Drill, the female recruits won the physical fitness test and the combat fitness test, where they carry another recruit on their backs, navigate an obstacle course with ammo cans and crawl through live fire. Even so, for now, Staroscik expects to rotate out to another assignment.
“Can they conquer the hills of camp Pendlton? Yes,” she said. “They can do everything that is done out here. They’ve proved that. The foundation has been set. That shows. And it’s been documented now, pretty thoroughly, that yes they can. And actually they can do it really well.”
Though, unless something changes, these 53 women are the first, and at least for a while, the last female Hollywood Marines.
This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.
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