Female Marine recruits at boot camp strive to meet the same standards as men

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Last night, we introduced you to three female pioneers, young women who are trying to enter the newly opened combat positions in the U.S. Marine Corps.

These roles had been blocked to women for generations, but not anymore.

The question now, will they meet the same rigorous standards as men to serve on the front lines?

Producer Dan Sagalyn and correspondent William Brangham continue our story.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Eighteen-year-old Rebekah Wolff is three weeks into Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. She’s one of the few young women who want to enter the combat positions that for years have been shut to women. She wants to be an air defense gunner, to shoot Stinger missiles.

But, first, it’s the basics of knife-fighting.

MAN: Hey, we see how slashing that partner right down the center of their chest, right?

MARINE RECRUITS: Yes, sir!

MAN: Vertical slash!

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: These early weeks of boot camp are tough. Recruits are still getting used to the rigors of Marine training. They don’t sleep much, and many haven’t been away from home for this long.

Recruit Wolff admits she’s having a hard time.

I know it’s still early in your training. How do you feel like you’re doing?

REBEKAH WOLFF, Marine Recruit: I feel like I could do better. I was a lot better at home, probably because I get a lot more sleep and I eat a lot more than what I do here.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: What have you been telling mom and dad back home?

REBEKAH WOLFF: In all honesty, I tell my mom and dad that I want to come home and that I can’t wait to see them.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: If you could choose, would you go home right now?

REBEKAH WOLFF: No, sir. I came here to become a Marine. And I’m going to leave as a Marine.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We met two other female recruits who also want to go into these newly opened combat positions.

Twenty-one-year-old Victoria Golab-Meyer wants to be a combat engineer.

VICTORIA GOLAB-MEYER, Marine Recruit: And the fact that there’s so many women now that are excited to try it and know that women have a place somewhere, it’s worth fighting for, to say the least.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And 18-year-old Lacey Elkins wants to operate a tank or an amphibious assault vehicle.

LACEY ELKINS, Marine Recruit: I like to experience new things, and I don’t like being comfortable. Comfortable just kind of sets you nowhere.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As we reported previously, the Marines didn’t want women serving in certain combat positions, arguing it would make them a less effective fighting force. But they were overruled by the secretary of defense.

So, the Marines say orders are orders, and they’re now working hard to integrate women. One thing they have done is to establish physical standards for each combat position, and they are the same for men and women, one standard that everyone has to meet.

GEN. ROBERT NELLER, Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps: This is physically demanding stuff. You know, we’re talking carrying heavy loads. We’re not riding around. We’re walking. The Marine Corps infantry is light infantry. And the load is heavy.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: General Robert Neller is the commandant of the Marine Corps, the service’s highest military officer. He says equal standards for men and women is an important step to making integration work.

GEN. ROBERT NELLER: It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, how much money you have got, the color of your skin, your religion. Nobody cares. There’s two types of people in combat, those that can, and those that you worry about. That’s it.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And if women pass those standards and meet all those requirements, you’re not worried about them?

GEN. ROBERT NELLER: No. They’re Marines. Do your job.

SGT. CODY MORRIS, Basic Warrior Training Chief: How quickly you move directly translates to their survivability.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Combat veteran Sergeant Cody Morris oversees basic warrior training at Parris Island. He says equal standards are crucial, but he worries they won’t last. He echoed a concern we heard from many, that if enough women don’t pass these standards, they will be lowered.

SGT. CODY MORRIS: I guarantee the transition and them being able to mesh together would be a lot easier if we knew that, oh, you completed a 20-mile hike with this much weight and this much time? So did I. And that’s what matters most to the people that I know.

It isn’t so much that you’re a male and I’m a female and you’re this and you’re that. It’s that the mission is hard, and I need everybody to be able to accomplish it, and not just to meet some diversity criteria.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We talked with some current Marines and some former Marines who say, OK, these jobs are now open to women, and that somewhere down the road there’s going to be some pressure brought to bear on the Corps to lower those standards to guarantee that more women get into these jobs.

Is that going to happen?

GEN. ROBERT NELLER: Not on my watch.

I have heard the secretary of defense and the secretary of the Navy say, we’re not going to lower the standard. We have established the standards. They know what the standards are. And if any standard we set was causing high attrition or high injury rate of anybody, then that’s probably something you want to look at. But, right now, that’s not the case.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So far, of the 12,000 women who’ve enlisted in the Marines in the last three years, only 150 have chosen to apply for these combat jobs. And of those, only 53 about, one in three, passed these tougher standards. The rest failed, dropped out or are still in training. More broadly, women also get injured more often than men at boot camp, and they drop out at double the rate of men.

To some, this is all evidence that putting women into combat roles is a bad idea.

Retired Colonel Mary Reinwald spent 27 years in the Marines. She now edits “Leatherneck” magazine, a magazine for the Marine community.

COL. MARY REINWALD (RETIRED), Editor, Leatherneck Magazine: Women break, physically break down at a much greater level than our male counterparts. That’s just reality. Can a — women carry the same load as a man? And loads in Iraq and Afghanistan were as much as 70, 80 pounds, if not more, depending on what the mission was.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s the full battle gear.

COL. MARY REINWALD: That’s the full battle gear, and more in some cases.

You know, how long would I have lasted with something like that, again, as much heart as I may have had? But that’s really not the issue. It’s, when did my body start to break down?

LT. COL. KATE GERMANO (RETIRED), Former Commander, 4th Recruit Training Battalion: I would say that if there’s one woman out of 1,000 who can make that move and move into the ground combat job, then why should she be denied that opportunity?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Retired Lieutenant Colonel Kate Germano commanded the female battalion at Parris Island, but she was fired in 2015 for creating a — quote — “hostile command climate.”

She says she was pushing to improve recruit training. She says the reason so many women drop out and so many fail to pass the new combat standards is that the Marines haven’t raised the bar high enough for women.

So, you would argue that it’s lowered expectations of women over the years that has driven this disparity, not some inherent inability on behalf of women?

LT. COL. KATE GERMANO: Absolutely, absolutely lowered expectations for females.

And what I would say is that there is a lot of data to support that conclusion.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As proof, Germano says she was able to dramatically improve female marksmanship at Parris Island.

LT. COL. KATE GERMANO: We were able to take an initial qualification rate of 67 percent for the women, compared to high 80s and 90 percent for male workers. We were able to take that low percentage and bring it to right under 92 percent in less than a year.

And that was not through any extra training. It wasn’t through any pre-recruit training, screening. It was strictly through changing the expectation that women could shoot and that they should be expected to shoot well.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Germano says those high expectations should trickle down to better conditioning of recruits before boot camp, like we saw Rebekah Wolff doing here this summer, as well as recruiting stronger women to begin with.

SGT. MAJ. ANGELA MANESS, U.S. Marine Corps: We have to look for a better product. America has to look and give us what we’re looking for here, and that’s a college athlete.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Sergeant Major Angela Maness, the highest ranking enlisted officer at Parris Island, says the Marines are setting high standards and have started a new initiative to recruit stronger women.

SGT. MAJ. ANGELA MANESS: So, when we have a solid foundation coming here already, with muscle already attached to her body, it’s not going to be that difficult to get her trained to the level that we need her.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: A few weeks after we first met the three recruits, we checked back at boot camp.

So, something is different since the last time I saw you.

LACEY ELKINS: Yes, I became a United States Marine.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Congratulations.

LACEY ELKINS: Thank you.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Private 1st Class Lacey Elkins passed her combat fitness test with flying colors. She got some of the highest scores of her platoon. She will now train to operate amphibious assault vehicles.

And after completing the grueling two-day crucible at the end of boot camp, Private Victoria Golab-Meyer received her Marine insignia. In this emotional ceremony, she officially becomes a U.S. Marine. She also passed her combat fitness test and will move on to be a combat engineer.

But recruit Rebekah Wolff still had to pass her test, and today is the make-or-break day. To get into her chosen combat job, she has to run half-a-mile in a certain period of time, press a 30-pound ammunition can over her head at least 60 times in two minutes.

Right after, there’s a timed course that involves crawling on all fours, running with 60 pounds of weight in her hands, and carrying another recruit on her back, all this against the clock.

Wolff didn’t make it. Her scores were close, but not good enough.

Three weeks later, Wolff still graduated and became a U.S. Marine, but she’s now been assigned to a different non-combat position. Instead of shooting Stinger missiles, she will be coordinating the movement of equipment, supplies and people.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m William Brangham in Parris Island, South Carolina.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And William joins me now.

William, a remarkable story here.

Let’s talk about Rebekah Wolff. She goes through boot camp. She finishes. She graduates. But she doesn’t qualify for combat. How disappointed was she?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Initially, she was very, very disappointed. The day that she failed, she was crushed.

Now she says she’s not so crushed. It’s important to say Rebekah missed this test by just a hair. In those drills that we saw her doing, that ammo can lift, where she has to lift the weight over her head, she missed it by one. That long, extended race at the end, she missed that by 22 seconds.

So, and then also, 10 days hater, after that test, she was back home, out of boot camp. She was diagnosed with bronchitis and said she had been feeling sick all along.

So, she was disappointed initially, but now she’s a Marine. She’s proud to have gotten through boot camp, which is no small feat in and of itself. And she is going to go on and is being trained in North Carolina right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the Marines don’t care if you’re sick, right?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The Marine ethos is, suck it up. Basically, if you’re feeling crummy, you’re not feeling so good, life is hard, boot camp is hard, tough it out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So this entire exercise, allowing women to qualify for combat in the Marines, this was ordered by the secretary of defense under President Obama.

We know very well that Donald Trump has expressed a different point of view. His incoming defense secretary, General James Mattis, is not a believer in women in combat. What is expected here? I mean, how much could this whole thing change?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s the $64,000 question. I think all the women who are in the Marine Corps and the Marine community more broadly are looking very closely at what is going to happen.

As you said, the secretaries of defense under Obama pushed this order, and they pushed it against the resistance of the Marine Corps. But now we have a new secretary of secretary of defense. And what one orders, another one can just simply do away with.

And, as you know, General James Mattis is himself going to be a former Marine. He has been very strongly against this position. He thinks it is weakening the Marine Corps. He likened it to asking a football team to suddenly take on 10, 15, 20 percent female players and go ahead and play.

And he says you could imagine everyone would laugh at that idea, but that’s what you’re asking the Marine Corps to do.

So, he’s very strongly against it. And whether he overturns or not, it’s still not clear, but he is not a fan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, you talked to so many women who were going through boot camp, William. What do you think their reaction would be if the Defense Department says, we’re going to undo the — or the Marines, if the Marines undo this?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I think there would be an enormous amount of disappointment amongst the female recruits and now the female Marines that we spoke to.

I think they went into it. They want to serve their country. They saw this as a final barrier that was breaking. And they were deeply proud to take on these jobs.

People who are outside of the Marine Corps, for instance, Lieutenant Colonel Kate Germano, who we talked to in our report, she said, if they were to do this — and they’re not sure that they’re going to — it would be a huge blow to the morale of women. It would reinforce the idea, she says, that exists in some corners of the Marine Corps that women are second-class citizens.

Others think they’re probably not going to want to take this fight on, they will simply let the standards stay high, and that not that many women will make it through, and that the policy will just continue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s just been a remarkable look inside something that we really almost never get a chance to see. And I know we’re going to continue to follow this.

William Brangham, thank you.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Thank you.

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