‘On Parris Island, We Felt Isolated From the Rest of the World’

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Last week, the Marine Corps announced that it would integrate a platoon of female recruits into an all-male training battalion at Parris Island, S.C., the swampy, sand-flea-ridden East Coast training hub for enlisted Marines.

It was big news. Headlines, including from The New York Times, heralded that the Marine Corps was finally integrating female and male Marines at boot camp — a move that comes years after the Army, Navy and Air Force had fully integrated their basic training for recruits. But the initiative wasn’t a permanent one. The Marine Corps said that the change was a one-time thing and that it had no further plans to repeat the process with future battalions. Enlisted female Marines are normally assigned to their own training battalion at Parris Island. Because there were fewer recruits than usual this winter, Marine officials thought it would be smart to attach the incoming platoon of 50 women to a male battalion for efficiency’s sake.

A recruit’s world at Marine Corps boot camp is relegated to his or her assigned platoon, so this temporary change does not have female recruits living alongside their male counterparts in the barracks — much like basic training in the Army. They are still being kept separate, housed on their own floor with their own female drill instructors.

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But that’s not to say this is not a big deal for the Marine Corps. It’s an organization steeped in old habits and tradition and surrounded by a rampant group of veterans who are quick to criticize any change to their “old corps.” The corps has the lowest percentage of women of any military branch and for years has resisted integration of its fighting forces.

In the winter of 2007, at age 19, I was in Platoon 3028, India Company, Third Recruit Training Battalion, the same company and battalion that this female platoon will soon join. Back then, Third Battalion was located on the other side of the base, far away from the other two male battalions. There were rows of barracks that housed each company of recruits — India, Kilo, Mike and, later that year, Lima — with an old parade ground, built in the middle of the 20th century, surrounded by tree lines. On Parris Island, we felt isolated from the rest of the world and at Third Battalion even more so.

Our interaction with female recruits was not just limited but was explicitly forbidden by our drill instructors. On Sundays, we would see them at church, assigned to their own rows of seats in the auditorium. One story circulated that a male recruit was passing notes to a female recruit in church, and his drill instructors found out. We all pictured him getting hazed until 2 in the morning and to within an inch of his death. Who knows what really happened, and who knows if that’s really changed.

Elsewhere in the Marine Corps, women have slowly started to appear in the combat jobs that the Obama administration opened in 2015 — a change the Marine Corps leadership strongly opposed at the time. Of the roughly 15,000 women in the Marines (less than 10 percent of the force), around 100 are serving in the once-restricted roles, and only one has led an infantry platoon. In 2018, I profiled First Lt. Marina A. Hierl, who is the first woman in the Marine Corps to lead an infantry platoon. In the beginning, she faced skepticism from her superiors, but months later, she was seen no differently than anyone else in her 1,000-strong battalion.

TIMES EVENT: Civilian Casualties of the War on Terror

Tuesday, February 5, 2019 | New York City

A rare convergence of experts on the human costs of war will discuss the often-ignored outgrowth of the global war on terror: two decades of civilian casualties. Times journalist and Marine Corps infantry veteran C. J. Chivers, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his 2016 story about an Afghan war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, will moderate the discussion. The panelists are Alissa J. Rubin, the Times Paris bureau chief who won a Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting on Afghanistan in 2015; Azmat Khan, an investigative reporter and New York Times Magazine contributor, who uncovered civilian casualties among nearly 150 airstrike sites across northern Iraq; and writer Brian Castner, a veteran of the Iraq war and weapons expert for Amnesty International’s crisis team, who also investigates war crimes and human rights violations.

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Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a reporter in the Washington bureau and a former Marine infantryman. @tmgneff

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