These women dreamed of military combat — now they’re training for it

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HARI SREENIVASAN: For decades, women have played important roles in the U.S. military, but, until recently, they were blocked from front-line combat positions.

But under orders from the secretary of defense, women can now try out for all combat jobs in all services.

Over the past several months, we have followed three female pioneers striving for these positions within the U.S. Marine Corps, considered the toughest of the services.

Producer Dan Sagalyn and correspondent William Brangham have the first of two reports.

MAN: You should be standing at the division of attention. That means your heels are touching, feet at a 45-degree angle.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Eighteen-year-old Rebekah Wolff’s life is about to turn upside-down. She and a group of fellow recruits have just arrived at Parris Island, South Carolina. It’s day one of Marine Corps boot camp.

MAN: Your mouth is shut!

RECRUITS: Aye, sir!

MAN: I said, do you understand me?.

RECRUITS: Aye, sir!

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: They now start thirteen weeks of grueling, disorienting, physically stressful training.

Rebekah Wolff is one of the young female recruits who wants to join the fight to go into one of the jobs that for generations had been blocked to women, until now.

Low-altitude air defense is what she wants to do. It’s basically shooting shoulder-fired Stinger missiles at enemy aircraft.

That’s what you want to be doing, shooting Stinger missiles?

REBEKAH WOLFF, Marine Corps Recruit: Yes.


REBEKAH WOLFF: Because it’d be cool.


REBEKAH WOLFF: Not a lot of females have had that opportunity until now, really, so that’s exciting.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Of course, that’s a long way off. For now, she’s not only got to prove herself at boot camp, but she will have to pass tougher physical standards than females have ever had to meet before. On the first night, after filling out some paperwork, recruits are required to make one phone call home.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: They’re instructed to shout five scripted lines into the phone, nothing more.

WOMAN: Thank you for your support! Goodbye for now!

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Drill instructors intentionally create this sense of chaos, a miniature fog of war. They want to see how the recruits respond, and to shake their civilian mind-set.

WOMAN: So we need to break them down mentally. We need to break down these individualities that they come with of self and me and I. We need to break them down to basically nothing, so we can build them back up, not as one, but as one team, one element to join our Marine Corps. It’s not my Marine Corps. It’s not his Marine Corps. It’s our Marine Corps.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We first caught up with Rebekah Wolff earlier this summer back home in rural Maryland. At the time, she was living with her parents. Her mom and dad didn’t like it that she was joining the Marine Corps, but they were not surprised.

From an early age, Rebekah wanted to break the traditional girl mold.

LORRIE WOLFF, Mother: When she was young, she said she was always going to drive motorcycles, drink beer, smoke cigarettes, and get tattoos.


LORRIE WOLFF: I can remember her telling me that, oh, my goodness.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: How do you feel about the idea that your daughter might end up in a combat unit, maybe on the front lines somewhere?

SCOTT WOLFF, Father: I don’t think any parent wants their kid, boy or girl, to go to combat. I surely don’t. I feel that they shouldn’t be on the front lines.

LORRIE WOLFF: I don’t know that she fully understands what she’s getting into, though, too, sometimes. So, I mean, we have explained. She’s like, well, I will be able to shoot helicopters.

Well, they do shoot back. I don’t know that she comprehends that.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Turns out the Marine Corps didn’t want women in certain combat jobs either. In 2013, the secretary of defense ordered that all combat positions be opened to women. But after a period of deliberations, the Marines asked for an exemption. They argued that putting women into the infantry and to other combat jobs would make the Marine Corps a less effective fighting force.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: General Robert Neller is the commandant of the Marine Corps, the highest uniformed officer. He says the Corps’ resistance came from a test the Marines ran back in 2014. It took all-male units and units that mixed men and women, and then compared their performance in a series of combat drills.

GEN. ROBERT NELLER, Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps: And then we ran them through a very physically demanding test. I mean, it was hard. And there was data in there that showed, in the aggregate, that, in certain things, mostly in load-bearing and the most physically demanding tasks, that the teams that have females integrated in them didn’t perform at the same levels as the all-male team.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The results showed that male-only teams moved faster, especially with heavy loads, they fired at the enemy more often, hit their targets more often, and evacuated casualties faster. Integrated units, with men and women, also suffered more injuries. Commandant Neller acknowledges integrated teams did have some advantages.

GEN. ROBERT NELLER: We found that integrated teams did better in problem-solving. That’s why, as part of a team, if we have differences, any of us have differences, it can mitigated because the team figures out, OK, you’re good at this, you do this. You’re better at this, you focus on this.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The test was criticized by many, including the commandant’s boss, the secretary of the Navy, because it compared highly experienced, combat-hardened men with far less experienced women.

MAN: Hit him in the face!

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But, still, there are many who say you don’t need a study to prove that men and women, physically, are different.

COL. MARY REINWALD (RET.), Editor, Leatherneck Magazine: You know, the Marine Corps, we’re not idealists. We’re realists. And we know that there are differences between men and women.

When I came in the Marine Corps, I was 5’3”, I was 110 pounds. And to be able to do the same thing as my counterpart, who was 6’1”, you know, 180 pounds, lean, mean fighting machine-type thing, was just unrealistic, no matter how good of shape I was in at the time.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Retired Colonel Mary Reinwald spent 27 years in the Marine Corps. She now edits “Leatherneck” magazine, which is geared to the Marine community. She thinks women just don’t belong in certain combat jobs because they’re too physically demanding.

COL. MARY REINWALD: I have no problem saying I’m not as physically strong as my male counterpart. But I will also say that I bring other things to the table that he doesn’t. We can wish all we want. But that doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to be the same.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The Marines’ attempt to keep women from certain combat jobs was rejected by the defense secretary last December, and so now women can apply for all combat positions in the Marine Corps, women like 18-year-old Lacey Elkins.

She’s from Hays, Kansas, and she’s just three weeks from finishing boot camp. She’s applied to operate tanks or amphibious assault vehicles.

LACEY ELKINS, Marine Corps Recruit: College sounded boring. The Marine Corps offered me a bigger challenge. My brother is a Marine. He’s in Africa right now. It just offered me a bigger challenge that I was willing to accept and push me outside my comfort zone. And that’s what I was looking for.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I don’t know a lot of 18-year-olds who ever say, I want to get pushed out of my comfort zone.

You were really looking for a challenge like this?

LACEY ELKINS: Yes, sir. Having the opportunity to be a part of that generation for women was something that I wanted to do.

My dad, I think I nearly gave him a heart attack, because he started screaming on the phone.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Screaming in a good way or a bad way?

LACEY ELKINS: No, he was like, no, no, don’t even think about it..

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Twenty-one-year-old Victoria Golab-Meyer comes from Sheridan, Wyoming, and she too wants to serve in combat as a combat engineer. We caught up with her as she was on the Crucible, the grueling two-day 45-mile course that’s the last major training event for every Marine recruit.

VICTORIA GOLAB-MEYER, Marine Corps Recruit: I want to be here. I want to be fighting for my country. I want to learn how to be honorable. I want to learn to fight. I want to advance my career and be in a place that feels like family. You know that they have your back.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Part of what sets the Marines apart is how it trains recruits. At the rappel tower, at the shooting range, in mock combat, even in the classrooms, the sexes are divided. Women train with women, men with men.

The Marines are the only service that does it this way.

SGT. JENNIFER DUKE: One, it’s just a tradition. It’s what the Marine Corps has always done. It takes away distraction. Most of these kids are high school age. You know, they’re 18, 19 years old. I mean, when you kind of get down to boys and girls, it’s a distraction.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But others, like retired Lieutenant Colonel Kate Germano, say this separation of the sexes is a bad idea that hurts females.

LT. COL. KATE GERMANO (RET.), Fmr. Commander, 4th Recruit Training Battalion: History has shown that regardless of where or when, separate is never equal. And that is absolutely evident on Parris Island.

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

Germano says she was just pushing to improve the performance of women recruits.

Germano says that, when she arrived at Parris Island, women were performing far worse than men on a range of activities, everything from scores on the shooting range to academics, a disparity she attributes to segregated training.

LT. COL. KATE GERMANO: I didn’t think it was a matter of the ability of the women and physiology, as much as it was a reflection of being separate and different.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Why does that matter? Why does it matter if you get trained how to shoot, how to navigate, how to do any of those military jobs, and you and I do it separately, you as a woman, me as a man? Why does differ? Why does that make a difference?

LT. COL. KATE GERMANO: Because what ends up happening is there becomes this perception that women are trained differently from the men and that it’s easier for them, because the male recruits and the male drill instructors never really see those females putting out their maximum effort and pushing themselves.

Women are absolutely capable of performing in extraordinary ways, if high expectations become the norm.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Commandant Neller says full integration takes place after boot camp. While he says the Marines are looking into some further integration now, he feels separate training has advantages.

GEN. ROBERT NELLER: We believe the way we do recruit training sets women and men up for success, that they’re able to, particularly at the beginning, move at their own rate, at their own speed, build confidence. And then, as we go further down, they end up training together.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Tomorrow night, we will see how the three recruits we met made it through boot camp. Will they pass the tough physical standards required to make it to the front lines?

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

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fascinating.

And we will have more online on the chaos and disorientation of that first night of boot camp. You can watch a video on that at

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