PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. — Stretched above the main boulevard on this historic training base in the Mid-Atlantic marsh is a white and black-lettered sign: WE MAKE MARINES.
The sign has been there for years, often serving as a snapshot backdrop for families arriving to watch their recruits graduate from boot camp after 13 weeks of mentally and physically exhausting training.
But in recent months, as lawmakers have pushed the Marine Corps to combine men and women in the same training platoons, just how the Corps will make Marines is the latest struggle for its identity.
The proposal to place men and women in the same platoons at boot camp, already well-practiced in other military branches but long resisted by the Marines, is only one part of the service’s move toward gender integration and follows the opening of combat arms schools and units to women.
The status quo at Parris Island and the Marines’ other recruit depot, in San Diego, has for years been a sort of psychic Alamo in the Corps.
Preserving what some Marines see as the sanctity of gender-segregated indoctrination is a final stand: an attempt to keep at bay a changing American society that threatens the very fabric of a force that regards itself as the nation’s toughest.
“This works,” Brig. Gen. James F. Glynn, the commanding officer of Parris Island, said of gender-segregated platoons in February, just weeks before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus temporarily paused a shipment of recruits to the island and left much of the military trying to combat the illness. “Anything outside of this is unknown.”
At Parris Island in the cold waning days of February, Jacob James, a 19-year-old recruit, eyed the rope bridge in front of him. It was the first day of the Crucible, the final 54-hour field exercise that signified the transition from recruit to Marine. For this obstacle, Jordan’s Crossing, named for a Silver Star recipient from the beginning of the Iraq War, James was in charge of 15 of his peers, both men and women. Their goal: move half a dozen 30-pound ammunition cans across the bridge.
It was the first time the roughly 330 men and women in Bravo Company were forced to work and speak to one another with a shared aim of completing a goal. About 11 weeks of training had already passed.
The recruits had participated in other exercises, sometimes feet apart, practicing martial arts or on separate firing lines at the rifle range. But the proximity, aside from maybe a quiet greeting or question, meant little with their Smokey Bear hat-wearing drill instructors in constant orbit around them.
Now, for the Crucible, the recruits of Bravo Company were no longer in their platoons but were instead smashed into smaller units of both genders from the company.
James and his peers had been awake since 2 a.m. and had already hiked more than 12 miles. It was raining, windy and ferociously cold for a South Carolinian winter day. James laid out his plan to move the ammo cans: They would take a strand of cord connected to the cans, hang it over their necks and shuffle across the rope bridge.
Katelin Bradley, 19, standing in the huddled mass of her peers, raised her eyebrows. This did not sound like a good idea. She suggested attaching the cord connected to the cans to the rope bridge itself and pushing the load to the other side.
James pondered the idea and dismissed it. “The men are strong enough and can do it,” he said.
Bradley fell back into formation, taking her post on the edge of the obstacle, providing security from any possible, albeit fake, enemies.
The Marine Corps path to the brief disagreement between James and Bradley during the climactic event of their three months at boot camp has taken decades. Only a few years ago, as male and female recruits began training in closer proximity, cadres of drill instructors ensured that the recruits were forbidden to speak to one another under almost any circumstances.
In the early 2000s, male platoons were often told to turn around when a female platoon walked past to avoid looking at them. Urban legends of male recruits being kicked out of training for passing notes to a nearby woman during church were rampant.
Much has changed. Last year, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., inserted a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act that was intended to ensure by law that the Marine Corps would integrate recruit training, down to the platoon level. But the vague language — “training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina, may not be segregated based on gender” — left enough room for the Marine Corps to interpret the directive in its own manner.
That was made abundantly clear in testimony by Gen. David H. Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, submitted in March.
“I would remind those Marines that the Corps has conducted gender-integrated training at Officer Candidates School for more than two decades, with outstanding results,” Berger wrote in his testimony. “I have every reason to believe that we can replicate that model in our enlisted recruit depots.”
The Officer Candidates School model, however, means a female platoon is still separate from male platoons, though they are in the same company — something that Parris Island started experimenting with last year. Marine Officer Candidates School remains the only officer training in the United States military that is not fully integrated.
In a meeting with lawmakers earlier this year, according to a person present, Marine officials said they did not think the law required platoon-level integration, though they added that they could not speak for the commandant. Staff for Speier said the bill explicitly prohibited gender-separate training, and therefore all activities would have to be combined at the smallest possible unit level.
Currently, women only train at Parris Island, but the recent congressional provision aims to open the recruit depot in California to women in the years to come.
Berger’s sentiments, apparently well-meaning, were shared more clearly and in private last year by his predecessor, Gen. Robert B. Neller, who asserted that he would not be the Marine leader known for “altering the recipe.”
“We’ve been successful making Marines, so why should we change?” Neller said, according to those who were present during one of the discussions over gender integration.
Marine officials are quick to say that single-gender platoons have nothing to do with the idea of men and women training together. Instead, their insistence revolves around the concept of platoon identity, the notion that waking, sleeping and training together is an integral part of building what makes a Marine. The squad bays, where platoons sleep, are ecosystems themselves. Changing that, Marine officials say, by having men and women sleep in separate areas but joining in the morning as a platoon, would undoubtedly break that model.
James’ team was struggling. The male recruits, ammo cans draped across their necks, were nearly vibrating off the rope bridge, struggling to handle the 30-pound pull of dead weight dangling well below their soaked boots. They were barely moving and running out of time. From the edge of the obstacle, Bradley watched, growing quietly frustrated by the Sisyphean effort her colleagues had opted to undertake.
At first, she tried to motion with her hands, then by commands.
“Just tie them instead,” she yelled. No response.
Finally, she broke ranks. Her helmet soaked by rain and her mud-covered M16 rifle dangling, Bradley rushed to the bridge, grabbed one of the remaining rusty green ammo cans and tied its cord to the bridge. She started easily pushing the containers to the other side. James and the rest of the team watched with interest.
She had cracked the code. James was the first to follow suit, and the rest of the team soon fell in behind Bradley.
If the Marine Corps was peeled apart piece by piece, at its beating core would be Parris Island. Its swampy marshes, drill fields and the sharp slap of rifle butts colliding with cement in perfect unison are images stamped in the heads of almost every Marine.
And there is the sometimes dark underbelly: the deaths of six recruits in 1956 during a forced march into Ribbon Creek, the 2016 death of a recruit, Raheel Siddiqui, and several investigations into abusive drill instructors and commanders are relevant, too. The incidents were damning for the Marine Corps but similarly laced with an aura that has only made the island more ominous to new recruits and the distant public.
The Marine Corps has made gradual changes to this formula, both in how it trains drill instructors and how male and female recruits interact, readily apparent in Bradley and James and their attempt at Jordan’s Crossing.
The slow adjustments on Parris Island, current and former military officials said, mirror the Marine Corps when it comes to incorporating women: a misguided journey often stunted by a leadership unable to cope with societal changes and reality. It is a military branch, they say, that feels entitled to its history and a culture famously rooted in a selective recollection of what came before: famous battles, heroes and traditions.
“Marine leaders have an antiquated view of gender,” said Erin Kirk-Cuomo, a former Marine sergeant who left the service in 2010. “You end up using the term ‘OK boomer,’ because that’s what you’re up against. They kick and scream because they don’t want to make a change, because they think it will make the Marine Corps weaker.”
“You’re dealing with a fighting force that’s inherently young,” Kirk-Cuomo said. “These ideas of gender separation are not even a thing for them. If most of the people in the Marine Corps are going to be under the age of 25, then why are their leaders fighting it?”
In 2015, as the U.S. military moved to open all combat jobs to women, the Marine Corps was the only service to look for exceptions to the rule, creating a study and a monthslong experiment to show Pentagon officials that women were not fit for the roles. The effort failed.
About 9% of the 185,000 Marines in the Corps are women. It is the lowest percentage of any military branch, and that ratio is further limited by the number of women who can go through training at any given time. As of late 2019, at least 231 female Marines were in previously restricted combat jobs, according to a quarterly Pentagon report released in December.
In 2017, the service was rocked by the Marines United scandal, where a private Facebook group of thousands of members shared nude photos of female Marines and those in other services. A 2018 Pentagon report showed a 20% increase in reported sexual assaults in the Marine Corps, the highest in any of the armed forces.
On a cool Saturday morning, James and Bradley became full-fledged Marines, having been handed the emblem of the Corps — the eagle, globe and anchor — at sunrise by their drill instructors in a tearful ceremony.
Afterward, they spoke briefly about their time together at the Crucible and at Jordan’s Crossing. Pvt. 1st Class Bradley noted bluntly and with a tinge of humor that while the men could sometimes lift heavier things, “the females can sometimes think.” She added that the separate platoons made the women work harder to best the men during physical training.
Pvt. 1st Class James, standing awkwardly and visibly relieved that boot camp was nearly over, said that earlier in training he could not have imagined doing the Crucible with men and women together. But when it happened, he had to act and think differently, and “you end up having to work more as a team with females, because being a male you only work with males doing team-building exercises.”
“It’s weird, almost, but a good weird,” James said. “Us coming together at the very end was like a wake-up call.”