U.S. Marines with 4th Recruit Training Battalion, Recruit Training Regiment, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, stand at the position of attention during the 4th Battalion relief and appointment ceremony aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., July 18, 2014. The relief and appointment ceremony represents the transfer of responsibility, authority and accountability from the outgoing sergeant major to the incoming sergeant major. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Allison Lotz MCRD Parris Island Combat Camera/Released)
After retired Marine Lt. Col. Kate Germano took command of the Fourth Recruit Training Battalion at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in 2014, she sought to reform the Corps’ recruit training practices.
“This job seemed perfect for me,” Germano wrote in Task & Purpose in 2018. “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.”
According to the Marine Corps Times, “Range qualification scores improved dramatically within 4th RTB during Germano’s tenure. From 2014-2015, average first-time rifle qualification rates for the depot’s three male battalions improved from 93 percent to 96 percent,” Parris Island’s chief of staff told the publication in July 2015. “During the same timeframe, rifle qual rates for the female battalion soared from 79 percent to 91 percent.”
For her trouble, Germano was quickly shown the door. After she was fired amid complaints of a toxic leadership environment, she fought back, claiming her leaders at Parris Island were hostile toward her efforts to establish equal standards for male and female Marines.
“What she did when she came is she changed the mentality of the Marines in the battalion and the recruits to not expect a historically lower performance than the male recruits at the battalion,” a female Marine officer told the Marine Corps Times in 2015. “Almost all the categories performed better during her tenure, just by challenging the training protocol of performing separately.”
“The segregated training environment perpetuates dangerous ideas about women and breeds contempt for them,” Germano told Coffee or Die over email. “The only way to root out these ideas is to prove to young men right from the start that the women who train alongside them are fully capable and competent. You’d be surprised at how having a woman in your unit outrun or outshoot you on the range can radically alter perceptions, and integration is where it starts.”
While Germano’s brief tenure at 4th RTB effectively ended her career, many of the cultural and training reforms she fought for are now being implemented by the Corps. The service recently provided an update on its progress toward meeting a Congressional mandate to end the service’s policy of gender segregation in recruit training, and the Corps is committed to a future where every male who attends boot camp will train alongside women in the same company, according to an update Marine leaders sent to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) July 30.
The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act requires the Marine Corps to stop separating trainees by gender at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina within five years and in San Diego within eight.
“It is good to see the system work in this case — specifically that Congress was aware of the issue due to the advocacy of many women and some men on the subject, and they acted as they should after seeing the Marine Corps wasn’t going to make the change independently,” Germano said. “With that said, I am saddened that it had to come to that, particularly because the Marine Corps is supposed to be the service with the highest moral and ethical standards, and segregated training is wrong on so many fundamental levels.”
The first-ever coed company graduated from Parris Island last year, according to Military.com. The 50-person company included one female platoon and five male platoons. The male and female platoons lived in separate squad bays but otherwise completed much of their training together. Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger said the first company performed “very well.”
Eight more coed companies have followed, but the coronavirus pandemic and restrictive social distancing requirements have slowed integration efforts, officials wrote in the update to DACOWITS.
“The limiting factor for gender integration remains facilities,” they added. “In order for both MCRDs to conduct gender integrated recruit training, while simultaneously meeting the throughput requirements required by Title 10, modifications will have to be made at each installation. Planning is underway between Training and Education Command and Marine Corps Installations Command to identify the requirements, shortfalls, and cost estimates to meet the NDAA requirements.”
Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, which currently only trains men, needs new facilities for female recruits and women drill instructors.
“Once the infrastructure conditions have been set at MCRD San Diego for integrated training, then MCRD SD Drill Instructor School will begin training female Drill Instructors,” the update says.
“The ratio of female to male DIs is proportionate to the number of female and male recruits,” the memo states. “The Marine Corps focuses on the importance of having four DIs assigned to each platoon. […] Platoons and the assigned DIs are gender specific.”
The Marine Corps plans to partner with an academic institution “to conduct a study to determine alternatives, if any, to the Marine Corps’ approaches to gender integrated recruit training,” officials said in the update. “The findings will be published in a peer-reviewed journal.”
The study will examine alternative boot camp training models, costs for those alternatives, costs for the traditional model of separating male and female recruits, and how perceptions about coed training influences a person’s decision to join the service. The Marines plan to select a research institution by Oct. 1 and expect to complete the study by October 2021.
Germano said she has significant concerns about the study.
“The results the researchers come up with will be directly based upon the level of bias in the questions asked to prospective applicants about how they feel regarding integration,” Germano said. “We need Congress to be wary of the potential for the Marine Corps to try to push back yet again based on the results of a flawed study. It’s critical that they not allow any excuses and they hold the Marine Corps accountable to comply. There are no other checks and balances available to ensure this change happens.”
According to Military.com, the Marine Corps originally wanted the study back by Feb. 1, 2021, but no one applied to the original solicitation to complete the review. Maj. Gen. Bill Mullen, the former head of Training and Education Command who recently retired, said he directed the study to see if the service had their entry-level training model right.
“We think we have it right … but how much of that is our own biases?” Mullen told Military.com in a 2019 interview. “How much of that is a ‘we invented it here’ kind of thing? … If an independent study, not affiliated with the Marine Corps, comes in and takes a hard, honest look at things in an unbiased way, how do you argue with that?”
For now, Germano is cautiously optimistic and looks forward to future progress.
“I’d love to see the Marine Corps really embrace this change, despite being mandated to make it,” she said. “We’ve seen them embrace cultural changes like this in the past when the service was required to integrate African American and black men into formerly white units. Once they were forced to, the Marine Corps stepped off smartly to make the change successful. My hope is we see them do the same thing with integrating bootcamp.”
Ethan E. Rocke is a contributor and former senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine, a New York Times bestselling author, and award-winning photographer and filmmaker. He is a veteran of the US Army and Marine Corps. His work has been published in Maxim Magazine, American Legion Magazine, and many others. He is co-author of The Last Punisher: A SEAL Team THREE Sniper’s True Account of the Battle of Ramadi.