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I Tried To Make Women Marines Tougher. It Was The Hardest Fight Of My Career
This is an excerpt from “Fight Like A Girl: The Truth Behind How Female Marines Are Trained” by retired Marine Lt. Col. Kate Germano and Kelly S. Kennedy.
As I prepared to take command of the Marine Corps’ Fourth Recruit Training Battalion, I told myself I would have to stop cussing so damned much.
I would have to reconstruct my “resting bitch face” into a countenance brimming with sunshine and light.
I told myself, “I’m going to be happy all of the time. I’m going to smile all of the time. I’m never going to use foul language”—which, by the way, isn’t the easiest thing for a Marine to do. I figured, “You know what? If the drill instructors aren’t allowed to use foul language with the recruits, then I’m not going to use foul language with the drill instructors or my company staff. I don’t want them to think it’s okay for me to do it but not for them to do it.”
I would work to encourage a culture of compassionate listening, and I would try not to yell.
It was, after all, the Marine Corps.
This job seemed perfect for me. Parris Island is the only place in the Marine Corps where female Marines are made, and I wanted to ensure that every day of their thirteen weeks of training counted, so they could graduate tougher, faster, and smarter.
I hoped to take the lessons I had learned as a Marine— but also as a female Marine—and build up women so they understood just how capable they were. I wanted to prepare them to succeed in a Marine Corps that might not always be supportive or understanding of their goals; and I wanted them to leave with a strong vision of themselves and their abilities.
I wanted it for my drill instructors. I wanted it for my officers. And I wanted it for my recruits.
In my previous command assignment at a recruiting station, I had pushed to make good changes for my Marines to make sure they had more time off and less stressful jobs. I wanted to see fewer divorces, fewer drunk-driving cases, and fewer suicide attempts. But to do that, I shoved my curvier peg into the Marines’ extraordinarily square hole. I cursed. I yelled. I was extremely strict. Even though we were able to reach our goals and life got better, a lot of my Marines didn’t like me much, and it was my fault. I constantly fought not to be “other,” by acting the way male Marines acted. But the things I did to fit in? The yelling and cursing? They only made me stick out worse. Even in the Marine Corps, those are not the traits expected of a woman—unless that woman is “mean” or “a bitch.” Worse, none of those attributes matched my personal leadership style.
I was less than authentic.
'There were men at the highest levels of the Marine Corps who expected—even wanted—the women to fail.'
So a few years later as I took charge of women’s boot camp for the Marine Corps overseeing some of the world’s fiercest drill instructors, I decided to be true to myself.
I thought, “How awesome would it be to leave a command at the end of my tour as commanding officer and not have any regrets like, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have said this?’ or ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have yelled about that?’”
I went to Parris Island thinking, “This is my redemption tour. I’m going to retire after twenty years in the Marine Corps, and this tour is going to allow me to feel good about leaving the service.”
We all see how that worked out.
To say it was a tumultuous year would be like calling the Titanic disaster a “bad day at sea.” Despite the significant obstacles I faced, I never lost sight of the feeling of absolute pride I felt in my Marines as they proved women recruits could perform better if they were simply expected to shoot well and run faster. But no matter how we worked to overcome decades of apathy and low standards for performance, there were men at the highest levels of the Marine Corps who expected—even wanted—the women to fail.
U.S. Marine Corps recruit Bianca A. Jimenez participates in the Crucible, the grueling 54-hour culminating event of Marine boot camp.U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Joseph Jacob
And there were women in my battalion who fell so fully in line with the status quo that it never occurred to them to try to find out what the female recruits could really achieve.
Before I arrived at Parris Island, my predecessor warned me, “They’re either baking you cupcakes or on your couch in tears.”
In hindsight, I see that her comment perfectly encapsulated the perception of the battalion throughout the depot and the Marine Corps. Everyone had the expectation that Fourth Battalion, my battalion, was incapable. It could achieve enough to get by, but there was not an established tradition of excellence—a stated need to be better and best. Derided as the “Fourth Dimension” by many male Marines on the depot, the battalion operated in a different world with different expectations from any other place in the Marine Corps. There was always an undercurrent of women being emotional and cruel—to each other and to the recruits—and, because the expectation existed, that’s how some of the women behaved.
On top of all of that, the culture within Fourth Battalion was often petty and mean, riddled with rumors and false claims. Many “old school” leaders encouraged gossip and arbitrarily enforced Marine Corps standards. This led to a miserable climate within the battalion, but it also reinforced the idea within the male battalions that women could not operate without “drama.”
The problems ran deep. Female drill instructors were sleeping with female recruits, and with each other. Drill instructors abused the recruits. Drill instructors abused other drill instructors.
I would have to work through inappropriate sexual relationships, screaming as an accepted form of communication, and even fist fights. The issues with drill instructors sleeping with recruits had long been brushed under the rug. A lot of the issues with recruits being abused? Those were brushed under the rug, too.
It was a big rug.
I had to quickly get everyone focused on good order and discipline, and then deal with the gender-related issues.
The abusive drill instructors didn’t want to change, because they felt that new recruits—and new drill instructors—should have to pay their dues, just as they had. They also did not want to be held accountable for bad behavior.
And since the enlisted Marines—the drill instructors—had run the show for so many years, the officers—the Marines in charge of the drill instructors—essentially had no control over their Marines. Some of the officers rebelled when forced to take control, because it meant more work.
I was walking into a minefield, but because I had never encountered anything like Fourth Battalion, I went in blind. I needed to hold my officers and drill instructors accountable; I needed to reward excellence and eliminate bad behavior; and I needed to help my Marines and recruits understand that they were capable of meeting much higher standards. And I needed to be perceived as nice.
And I knew that without senior leadership supporting the changes, my job would impossible.
During my first month in South Carolina, my boss invited me to talk about my goals and to give me a rundown of his command philosophy. The colonel didn’t seem too interested in what I had to say, but I wrote down the words he emphasized: “I prize harmony among my staff above all else.”
In other words, he didn’t want to deal with any turbulence. He just wanted everyone to get along.
That stuck with me.
Germano oversees training at the rifle range at Parris Island. She pushed her raise the standards for shooting and fitness among women recruits.Courtesy
The same month, I had my first conversation with Brigadier General Loretta Reynolds, who was the first female Marine to serve as commanding general of the recruit depot at Parris Island.
I wrote down what she said, too: “Go with your gut, and never back down if you think something is right.”
They gave me two perspectives completely at odds regarding how I should go into this command tour. If I had chosen the first, there would be no story to tell.
I chose to take Reynolds’s advice.
My gut was telling me everything was subpar for the women. Everything. Their living quarters. Their standards. Their training. And it led to lower scores for female recruits across the board: academics, physical fitness, shooting, drill—everything. Because the women were set apart from the men, they seemed to be forgotten.
Many of the female recruits were barely able to meet the standards. They fell out of hikes and runs. They struggled to qualify with their rifles at the range. They broke themselves because they hadn’t been physically and mentally prepared to succeed in boot camp.
The slowest member of the platoons set the running pace for everybody else during physical fitness training. Rifle range coaches told the recruits that their arms were too short to fire weapons properly and that girls couldn’t shoot. Because the female company staff hadn’t measured the route properly, the female recruits didn’t even march the same distance as the men for the Crucible hike—the proud culmination of a recruit’s training.
From the moment I arrived, it was obvious that the Marine Corps was locked in an era of tight girdles and smelling salts when it came to how women were recruited and trained.
I’m not exaggerating.
At the Marine emblem ceremony following the Crucible hike, a row of chairs provided a safety net behind the newly minted female Marines. Why? In case any of them felt faint.
There were no chairs behind the male formation.
Over the next 12 months, as I removed those chairs and we worked to improve rifle scores, reduce injuries, and build up the recruits’ physical strength, we encountered incredibly out dated ideas about gender. My team and I realized if we were going to change perceptions about women, we had to start with ourselves. All of us would be accountable for pushing to be better—from running to leadership to shooting. My officers, drill instructors, and recruits needed to know that I expected them to excel.
'If we were going to change perceptions about women, we had to start with ourselves. All of us would be accountable for pushing to be better.'
But we also needed to make life better for my Marines. We did not have enough women on our staff—a product of the small population of women in the Marines in general, as well as senior leadership stealing women away for collateral duty assignments and drill instructors getting pregnant. That meant longer work hours for the women, more 24-hour duty shifts, and more stress.
The stress, combined with the culture of hazing in the battalion, led to bad behavior, including scaring recruits until they peed their pants and not allowing new drill instructors to drink water during training events. We worked to address the bad behavior but we also combated the stress with everything from reorganized duty schedules to yoga classes.
However, change is hard. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize that change is good; sometimes people simply become set in their ways; and, sometimes, people believe everybody should be subjected to the same kind of nonsense they dealt with coming up through the ranks.
Not all of my Marines wanted change.
And I clashed with my boss. He didn’t want the friction that comes with forcing change.
I thought making female Marines stronger would make the Corps stronger, and I assumed that I would have support up and down and sideways through the chain of command.
I was wrong.
A year into my command tour, after complaints from disgruntled Marines, a horrible command climate survey, and an investigation into my leadership, it started to sink in that I was going to be relieved. As I prepared for what I knew was coming, I agonized about the end of my career. I am so proud to be a Marine, and I love the institution. I love the people I served with. I love what I learned about myself. I loved the challenges I faced and obstacles I had overcome. I still bought into the motto Semper Fidelis. Always faithful.
But on June 29, 2015, I got a call from my boss telling me I needed to be at the commanding general’s office at 7:30 the next morning. At that point, I knew I was going to be fired. I tried not to hear the glee in his voice.
When I walked into the commanding general’s office the next day, my boss was there to lead me to the hangman’s tower.
And I had removed the fainting chairs.
Kate Germano is a 20-year veteran of the Marine Corps. She is a vocal advocate for an end to gender bias and lowered expectations for female performance and conduct. She is married with three cats and three chickens. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the United States government.
Kelly Kennedy is an Army veteran who served in Desert Storm and Somalia. She covered the military and veterans issues for Military Times and USA TODAY, and is the author of the best-selling book "They Fought for Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq." In her spare time, she dances ballet and completely loses her military bearing.
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