Marines Still Under The Gun To Integrate Women Despite Success Of First Boot Camp Class
Monday, May 17, 2021
Photo by Steve Walsh
Now that one group of female Marines has graduated boot camp in San Diego, the Corps is still under a Congressional deadline to end gender segregation.
The young, female recruits are moving faster than their leaders.
Pfc. Emily Zamudio, 19, of Madera, California is part of the first female platoon to graduate Marine boot camp in San Diego. The female platoon had the top scores in physical fitness and combat fitness — over five male platoons in their company.
“I’m just one step closer to being a better Marine, a better leader. This is just step one,” said Zamudio, crying with joy after being hugged by her mother and grandmother moments after her graduation at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego.
Female Marines call themselves "The Fewer, The Prouder," a play on the tag line for one of the most famous Marine recruiting slogans, “The Few, The Proud, The Marines.” Even after all combat roles in the U.S. military were opened in 2015, there are still few women in the infantry. Zamudio signed up to be one of them.
“I love challenges. And finding out the infantry was a bigger challenge, I was like, 'give it to me. I want it,'” she said.
Zamudio said the women felt accepted by their fellow male recruits in San Diego. She could not point to an incident where she felt they were being rejected, even while she led a squad of male recruits during training. Zamudio will soon head into an even more male-dominated environment. All the more reason, she said, to integrate Marines before they graduate out of boot camp.
“I think getting us exposed as much as possible with each other would be beneficial when we get to the fleet,” she said. “Which is another reason I think putting females in San Diego is a good start because the males that train here on the West Coast don’t have any exposure to working with females.”
In 2020, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, put a provision into the National Defense Authorization Act requiring the Marines to integrate boot camp by 2025 on the East Coast, at Parris Island, South Carolina, and integrate traditionally all-male San Diego MCRD by 2028.
“I think the new younger generation gets it. It’s the baby boomers who are still stuck in this mindset that is 50 to 75 years old,” Speier said.
That means ending separate platoons the way the other services did years ago, she said.
The Marines continue to push back. They are experimenting with putting the male and female platoons together more often during training. Their platoons were side-by-side and sometimes integrated during the final grueling days of boot camp in San Diego, known as the crucible.
Leadership also talks about having a “secret sauce” for building Marines, with traditions built up over decades. Traditions that also have kept women from overseeing platoons of male recruits.
Sgt. Ikea Kaufman was once told she would never be a drill instructor in all-male San Diego.
“From before the time I was in the Marine Corps, I’ve always wanted to be a drill instructor,” Kaufman said.
Last fall, facing a Congressional mandate, the Corps decided to experiment with having a platoon of women train on the West Coast ahead of the deadline. Kaufman and two other women were sent to drill instructor school on the West Coast. Their only option before the women arrived was to oversee a male platoon.
“This is completely normal to me. I’ve been a part of sports all my life. Track, basketball and that was all men and women," she said. "I’m one of nine, so I have five brothers, so this is nothing new to me, sir. I didn’t treat them any differently and they didn’t treat me any differently.”
Col. Matthew Palma is in charge of training as the commander of MCRD San Diego.
“I think the biggest lesson we learned is, it can absolutely be done,” he said.
They changed very little for the women, beyond adding some supplies to the commissary and frosting the windows of their squad bay. Most of the issues were minor. Palma stressed the standards are the same as they would be for the men, but the Marines draw the line at ending gender segregation entirely.
“There is something about our indoctrination process that is unique to us," he said. "I do think that keeping the squad bay the way it is, is going to be our position,”
Keeping the squad bay the way it is means female-only platoons.
Despite the success of this recent class, female recruits are again on hold in San Diego. There were only minor problems. Two experienced female drill instructors were brought in from Parris Island, which is where all Marine women went through basic training until this class. They had to adapt their training schedule in real-time to the dry, mountainous environment in California, to stay in line with how training is conducted at boot camp on the West Coast.
The law still says the Marine Corps must fully integrate by 2028. Senior Drill Instructor Amber Straoscik doesn’t want to wait any longer.
“There are people who don’t want to break away from tradition, but this isn’t breaking away from tradition,” she said. “It’s introducing something to the tradition. It’s allowing us to be part of that, which ultimately could have been done a long time ago.”
The Marines are paying the University of Pittsburgh to study how to end segregated boot camps. The Marines hired the same university to study the impact of allowing women in combat roles. The Marines used the findings as part of their objection to open up all ground combat positions to women. In 2015, Defense Secretary Ash Carter ordered the Marines to fall in line with the other services.
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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