PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. – Above the main boulevard of this historic training base in the mid-Atlantic swamp is a white and black sign: WE MAKE MARINES.
The sign has been there for years and is often used as a snapshot for families who arrive after 13 weeks of mentally and physically demanding training to see how their recruits complete the boot camp.
But in the past few months, when lawmakers have urged the Marine Corps to unite men and women on the same training trains, it's the recent struggle for its identity that Corps Marines will do.
The proposal to accommodate men and women on the same trains at the boot camp, which has already been practiced in other military branches but has long been rejected by the Marines, is only part of the service's plan to integrate gender and follows the opening of combat weapons schools and units for women.
The status quo on Parris Island and in the other Marines recruitment depot in San Diego has been a kind of mental alamo in the Corps for years.
Preserving what some Marines consider the sacredness of gender indoctrination is a final point of view: an attempt to keep a changing American society in check that threatens the structure of a force that considers itself the hardest of the nation.
"It works," Brig. Gen. James F. Glynn, the commanding officer of Parris Island, reported on gender-specific moves in February, just a few weeks before the outbreak of the novel corona virus temporarily paused recruitment to the island and much of the military attempted to fight the disease. "Everything outside of it is unknown."
On Parris Island, Jacob James, a 19-year-old recruit, eyed the rope bridge in front of him in the cold, dwindling days of February. It was the first day of the crucible, the last 54-hour field exercise that marked the transition from recruit to navy. For this obstacle, Jordan’s Crossing, named after a Silver Star recipient since the start of the Iraq war, Mr. James was responsible for 15 of his colleagues, both men and women. Their goal: to move half a dozen 30-pound ammunition cans across the bridge.
It was the first time that the approximately 330 men and women in the Bravo Company were forced to work and speak to each other to achieve a common goal. About 11 weeks of training had already passed.
The recruits had taken part in other exercises, sometimes with a foot gap, martial arts, or separate lines of fire at the shooting range. But the closeness, apart from perhaps a quiet greeting or question, meant little to their Smokey Bear hat wearers, who were constantly around them.
For the melting pot, the Bravo Company recruits were no longer on their trains, but were instead smashed into smaller units of both genders of the company.
Mr. James and his colleagues had been awake since 2 a.m. and had hiked well over 12 miles. It was raining, windy and wildly cold for a South Carolinian winter day. Mr. James outlined his plan to move the ammunition cans: they took a string of cords connected to the cans, hung it over their neck, and shuffled over the rope bridge.
Katelin Bradley, 19, stood in the huddled mass of her colleagues, raising her eyebrows. That didn't sound like a good idea. She suggested that the cord connected to the cans be attached to the rope bridge itself and the load pushed to the other side.
Mr. James considered the idea and rejected it. "The men are strong enough and can do it," he said.
Ms. Bradley fell back into her formation, took her post on the edge of the obstacle, and offered security from all possible, albeit false, enemies.
The Marine Corps' journey to the brief disagreement between Mr. James and Mrs. Bradley during the climatic event of their three months at the boot camp has taken decades. Just a few years ago, when male and female recruits started training in close proximity, drill instructor squads ensured that recruits were prohibited from speaking to each other in almost all circumstances.
In the early 2000s, male trains were often told to turn around when a female train passed so as not to look at them. Urban legends of male recruits kicked out of training to give notes to a woman nearby during church were common.
A lot has changed. Last year, California Democrat Jackie Speier included a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act that is designed to ensure that the Marine Corps integrates recruit training down to the level of the train. However, the vague language – "Training in the Marine Corps recruitment depot on Parris Island, South Carolina must not be separated by gender" – left the Marine Corps enough room to interpret the policy in its own way.
This was made very clear in the testimony of General David H. Berger, Commandant of the Marine Corps, which was presented in March.
"I want to remind these Marines that the Corps has had gender-integrated training at Officer Candidates School for over two decades, with excellent results," General Berger wrote in his testimony. "I have every reason to believe that we can replicate this model in our recruiting recruits."
However, the Officer Candidates School model means that a female train is still separate from male trains, even though they are in the same company – something Parris Island started experimenting with last year. The Marine Officer Candidates School remains the only U.S. military officer training that is not fully integrated.
At a meeting with lawmakers earlier this year, naval officials said they had not believed that the law required integration at the platoon level, although they could not speak for the commander. Ms. Speier's staff said the bill explicitly prohibits gender-based training, and therefore all activities should be summarized at the smallest possible unit level.
Women are currently only training on Parris Island, but the latest congressional regulation aims to open the California recruitment depot to women in the coming years.
General Berger's apparently well-meaning feelings were shared more clearly and privately last year by his predecessor, General Robert B. Neller, who claimed he was not the naval leader known for "changing the recipe".
"We have successfully made Marines. So why should we change?" General Neller said, according to those who attended one of the discussions about gender integration.
Navy officials are quick to say that same-sex traits have nothing to do with the idea that men and women train together. Instead, their existence revolves around the concept of train identity, the idea that waking up, sleeping and training together is an integral part of building what constitutes a marine. The group bays where trains sleep are themselves ecosystems. Changing that, naval officials say, by allowing men and women to sleep in separate areas, but joining them as a train in the morning, would undoubtedly break this model.
Mr. James & # 39; team had problems. The male recruits, ammunition cans hung over their necks, almost vibrated from the rope bridge, trying to cope with the 30-pound tug of weight that dangled far below their soaked boots. They hardly moved and had no time. Ms. Bradley watched from the edge of the obstacle and became quietly frustrated with the Sisyphean efforts her colleagues had made.
First she tried to move her hands, then on command.
"Just tie her up instead," she shouted. No Answer.
Finally she broke the ranks. With her rain-soaked helmet and dangling mud-covered M16 rifle, Mrs. Bradley hurried to the bridge, grabbed one of the remaining rust-green ammunition cans, and tied the cord to the bridge. She started to push the containers slightly to the other side. Mr. James and the rest of the team watched with interest.
She had cracked the code. Mr. James was the first to follow this example, and the rest of the team soon fell behind Ms. Bradley.
If the Marine Corps were peeled apart piece by piece, Parris Island would be the core. Its swampy swamps, drilling fields and the sharp blow of rifle butts that collide in perfect harmony with cement are images that are stamped on the heads of almost all marines.
And there is the sometimes dark underbelly: the death of six recruits in 1956 during a forced march to Ribbon Creek, the death of one recruit in 2016, Raheel Siddiqui, and several investigations into abusive drill instructors and commanders are also relevant. The incidents were harmful to the Marine Corps, but were similarly associated with an aura that only made the island more threatening for new recruits and the distant public.
The Marine Corps has gradually changed this formula, both in terms of drill instructor training and the interaction between male and female recruits, which is evident in Ms. Bradley and Mr. James and their attempt to cross Jordan.
The slow adjustments on Parris Island, according to current and former military officials, reflect the Marine Corps when it comes to involving women: a misguided journey that is often hampered by a leadership that is unable to cope with social issues Changes and coping with reality. It is a military branch that feels entitled to its history and culture, which is known to be rooted in a selective reminder of what was before: famous battles, heroes and traditions.
"Naval leaders have an antiquated gender perspective," said Erin Kirk-Cuomo, a former naval sergeant who left duty in 2010. "In the end, you use the term" OK-Boomer "because you are faced with it. You kick and scream because you don't want to change anything because you think it will make the Marine Corps weaker."
"You are dealing with a force that is naturally young," said Ms. Kirk-Cuomo. “These ideas of gender segregation are not even one thing for them. If most people in the Marine Corps are under 25, why are their leaders fighting it? "
In 2015, when the U.S. military opened all combat jobs to women, the Marine Corps was the only service looking for exceptions to the rule and undertaking a study and month-long experiment to show Pentagon officials that women were not for the roles were suitable. The effort failed.
About 9 percent of the Corps' 185,000 marines are women. It is the lowest percentage of all military branches, and this ratio is further limited by the number of women who can complete training at any given time. According to a quarterly Pentagon report released in December, at least 231 female Marines were in previously restricted combat jobs at the end of 2019.
In 2017, the service was rocked by the Marines United scandal, in which a private Facebook group of thousands of members shared nude photos of female Marines and other services. A 2018 Pentagon report showed a 20 percent increase in reported sexual assault in the Marine Corps, the highest of all armed forces.
On a cool Saturday morning, Mr. James and Mrs. Bradley became wholesome marines after they received the corps emblem – eagle, globe and anchor – from their drilling instructors at a tearful ceremony at sunrise.
Afterwards they spoke briefly about their time together at the melting pot and at Jordan’s Crossing. Private First Class Bradley bluntly noted with a hint of humor that men could sometimes lift heavier things "women can sometimes think". She added that the separate trains required the women to work harder to defeat the men during physical training.
Private First Class James, who was awkward and visibly relieved that the boot camp was almost over, said that at the start of the training, he couldn't imagine doing the crucible with men and women. But when it happened, he had to act and think differently and "in the end you have to work more as a team with women, because as a man you only work with men who do team building exercises."
"It's almost weird, but weird," said Private James. "We came together at the very end like a wake-up call."