Fourteen years ago, when I was a midshipman at Marine Corps Officer Candidates School, our female sergeant instructor lined us up at attention. “If you’re a woman in the Marine Corps,” she said, “you’re either a bitch, a dyke, or a ho.” Shocking? Perhaps. But with a purpose: she was trying to prepare us to interact with men who wouldn’t always be supportive of our presence. So this fall, before Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter announced that women would be allowed into all military occupations, I looked to the Marine Corps’ yearlong experiment to integrate women into ground combat jobs to see if attitudes had changed.
The early indications were not good. A four-page, unsigned summary of the experiment made public last summer bluntly concluded that all-male units outperformed integrated units in combat tasks, particularly hiking while carrying heavy loads and manning certain heavier weapons. But those four pages did not mention statistics about unit cohesion. When I interviewed several female Marines who participated in the experiment, I found an interesting pattern. The quality of leadership at the squad, platoon and company level was a key factor that directly affected the successful integration of women into a cohesive unit.
Sgt. Danielle Beck paused her career as a comptroller to join the experiment’s Weapons Company. She trained in anti-armor missiles, the heaviest of which weighed about sixty pounds. Of the six women that started in her platoon, she and two others finished; the other three were injured. “We had great leadership at Weapons Company,” Sergeant Beck said. The attitude was, ‘we’re here for a mission, we’re here for a task, and we’re gonna get this done.’ ”
Crucial to maintaining this attitude, she said, was the company leadership, headed by Capt. Mark Lenzi. “We interacted on a daily basis. We hiked, trained, P.T.’d — they were with us,” Sergeant Beck said. Leadership by example ingrained expectations of high performance into the troops.
Another advantage was that Weapons Company comprised mostly corporals and sergeants — NCOs in their early-to-mid-twenties, who were more mature than typical junior enlisted just out of high school. The men had been doing their jobs for years — tasks the women in the company had been trained for just months prior.
The Weapons Company Marines still debated whether women should be in combat arms units, but they did so calmly, she said. “We got to a point where we all talked about it openly, and no one was mad about it,” Sergeant Beck said. “We just talked professionally.”
Good leadership also made a strong impression on Lance Cpl. Jordyn Ridgeway when she joined the experiment and learned to drive amphibious assault vehicles, known as tracks, at Camp Pendleton in California. During the months of initial training, she said, the instructors “welcomed us with open arms. They said, ‘you might be a female, but you’re gonna be the best tracker out there, and I want them to know that I was the one who trained you.’ ” She stayed in touch with her former crew chief, who became a mentor.
But when the female trackers traveled to Twentynine Palms, Calif., to meet their male counterparts, the respectful environment disappeared. Sgt. Kathryn Bynum, who was part of the same platoon, said some of the women would flirt “and make us look stupid.” A lot of the men “thought we were a joke,” she said. “Even the staff NCOs would sit around and find ways to make fun of us.”
Her crew chief, a six-foot-plus, 200-pound male sergeant who towered over her 5-foot-4, 105-pound frame, addressed her with a variety of slurs. He left a dead mouse on her cot in an effort to get her to react. She laughed off the mouse, saying, “Is that all you got?” Her crew chief persisted, flinging water in her face. “He didn’t stop until I hit him,” said Sergeant Bynum, the eldest of nine children.
“The person that won was the person that was most aggressive,” she said. “It wasn’t the one that knew the most.” Not even this closely supervised unit was impervious to the kind of hazing and harassment the corps has tried to reduce. All of the women I interviewed said that a willingness to fight and prove themselves were the only things that earned them the men’s respect.
With a strong sense of duty as an NCO, Sergeant Bynum kept going. “I have to take care of those girls coming in,” she said. “There have to be NCOs.” In a previous unit, she had blazed a similar trail after coming out as a lesbian. Other Marines gave her a hard time. “Someone has to be the first one,” she said. “Think about the next kid after you.”
Sergeant Bynum and Lance Corporal Ridgeway recalled just one male sergeant, a natural leader with combat experience, who won the respect of both the men and women. In contrast, Sergeant Beck said her integrated unit was “one of the best” she had ever worked in.
Toxic leaders — those who use hazing and shame as tools to keep their troops in line — kill morale for everyone, and only make the challenges of gender integration worse. Good leaders guide their Marines to grow into good leaders themselves.
In the last month of testing, Lance Corporal Ridgeway described what she called the “come to Jesus” moment among the females in the amphibious assault vehicle platoon. Sequestered in a Quonset hut one night, they realized they had to be there for each other, and created the support structure lacking in their unit. This helped buoy them to the finish. “We just wouldn’t stop fighting because we believed in what we were doing,” Sergeant Bynum said.
Good small-unit leadership will never be more crucial than on January 1st, when the integration mandate goes into effect. “At the end of the day, we’re family,” Sergeant Bynum said. “And the family dynamic is going to change. Maybe it’ll be a little more dysfunctional, but we’re still going to take care of each other… we’re still going to be the best no matter what.”
Teresa Fazio served as a Marine Corps officer from 2002-2006, deploying once to Iraq. Her writing has been published in The New York Times and Task and Purpose, and is forthcoming in Vassar Quarterly and Consequence Magazine. Her manuscript, Unbecoming, was a finalist in the 2015 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Contest. You can follow her on Twitter @DoctorFaz.