A recent AP story portrayed the Marine Corps as drastically changing its recruiting strategy for women to focus on high school athletes. While this is a step in the right direction, it only represents half of the solution. For too long, the Marine Corps has turned a blind eye to female screening and preparation, resulting in extraordinarily high attrition at boot camp and the perception that female recruits are physiologically and mentally incapable of achieving more than the bare minimum. If the Marine Corps is truly committed to increasing the number of women in the service, it will need a more robust recruiting strategy centered on screening and accountability for the mental and physical preparation of these women, rather than just an increase in recruiter prospecting at female high school sports events.
In 2014–2015, I was the commanding officer of the 4th Recruit Training Battalion, the only place in the Marine Corps where female recruits are trained. When I arrived, I was disappointed to find that despite having an average of four months in the delayed-entry program, the majority of female recruits reporting for training were unable to do pull ups or run a 1.5 miles in than 13 minutes. Worse, our attrition rate was historically almost double that of the male battalions, and female recruits suffered an inordinate number of lower extremity injuries and mental health issues.
Initially I assumed that the high attrition and drop rates were due to a lack of knowledge within the recruiting force, a deficit I worked to fix. I made it a priority to increase communication between my battalion and the recruiting stations. My Marines and I routinely addressed training issues with visiting recruiters and I spoke daily with recruiting station commanders whose female recruits demonstrated red flags for performance or conduct. Some commanders thanked me, but many more expressed indignation that I would have the audacity to tell them what they needed to improve. In my conversations, these commanders frequently acted surprised to hear that their recruits were struggling, despite clear indications that the recruiters had demonstrated a pattern of neglect. A common refrain was, “He is one of my best recruiters.” It quickly became apparent that the root cause of female attrition was one of a reluctance to change, not a shortage of knowledge.
Time and again, the same scenarios played out. Many struggling female recruits had been left to languish on their own by their recruiters. Countless recruits told me that the only real interaction they had with their recruiters was right before they were to ship out to boot camp. The majority of the women we discharged were in their mid 20s rather than fresh out of high school, had recently dropped out of college, and had never played team sports. Most stated that they joined the Marines because they felt that they had no other options.
Many of these women were also overweight when they arrived at training, and were barely able to pass the gender-normed initial physical fitness test. Sadly, many of these young women also disclosed pre-existing mental health issues that should have disqualified them from enlisting in the first place. Most significantly, the majority of the recruits we discharged disclosed that they had not been required to attend weekly physical fitness sessions with their recruiters or demonstrate progress in their physical preparedness. I presented these quality-control findings to my chain of command and was told that I needed to “stay in my lane” and out of recruiting command’s business.
Interestingly, my observations and recommendations were not without precedent. In 2013, the Marine Corps commissioned a Center for Naval Analysis study that involved the analysis of years of enlistment and recruit training data to identify the risk factors that make women more likely to attrit. The study indicated that for years, the attrition rate for female recruits had consistently remained nearly double that of male recruits due to the very same high risk factors I routinely uncovered with my struggling recruits. Although the researchers provided a clear and convincing case for the enlistment of physically fit female high school graduates and rigorous preparation by their recruiters, recruiting command did little to implement more stringent recruiting and training methods for women.
Regardless of gender, the highest caliber applicants have always come from our high schools. Every time the Marine Corps has struggled to make mission, it is generally because recruiters have been allowed to neglect their high school class talks and area canvassing activities on campuses. But high school students who are properly screened and held them accountable for improving their physical fitness are exponentially more likely to graduate from boot camp, proving that simply enlisting more seniors is not enough. This is especially true when it comes to women.
Leadership at every level is essential. Recruiters must be held accountable for ensuring they are doing their utmost to physically and mentally prepare all of their applicants to excel. They must communicate high expectations and demand progress of their enlistees, regardless of gender. While it would be nice to have women assigned to all recruiting offices, the reality is that women comprise less than 8% of the Marine Corps. Expecting female recruiters to take a greater role leading and mentoring females they did not enlist, simply because they themselves are women, sets a negative and unrealistic precedent for what those applicants should expect as Marines. Clearly, women can’t fix this problem alone — the men must be actively engaged and accountable for results. The Marine Corps’ high attrition rate for female Marines isn’t a woman problem, it’s an accountability problem.
But it’s a problem that can readily be solved. At Parris Island, I met and communicated with many male recruiting station commanders who better understood the need for more selective recruiting practices for their female (and male) applicants than their very few female counterparts. These commanders implemented innovative screening, training, and incentive programs to improve the performance of their female recruits. Their words and deeds reflected that reducing female attrition was a top priority — exactly what we would expect of good leaders. They clearly grasped that regardless of gender, recruits will perform to their leadership’s level of expectation, and they demanded more of their applicants, even the women. It’s time for the rest of the Marine Corps to do the same.