The Real Barrier for Women Marines

In her role as leader of the Marine Corps’ all-women boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., Lt. Col. Kate Germano was known as a demanding and at times blunt commander. She was also effective. Under her leadership, performance in physical fitness and rifle tests improved significantly, and so did retention rates for female recruits. Colonel Germano drove her recruits based on the belief that women would not be taken seriously as Marines until they could meet the same performance standards as men. That belief is widespread, and it is ingrained in Marine culture.

But on June 30, after complaints from some recruits about her aggressive leadership tactics, and conflicts with her own commanders, Colonel Germano was removed by her superior, Brig. Gen. Terry Williams, who said he had lost “trust and confidence” in her abilities.

The Real Barrier for Women MarinesAn internal investigation found no evidence of gender discrimination. But the real reason for her dismissal is in dispute, with many arguing that the commander ran up against a Marine Corps that still does not wholeheartedly accept women within its ranks.

The incident has forced the issue of gender integration in the military back into public view — especially in the Marines, the branch that has been most resistant to such change. But it has also revealed a flaw at the heart of the evaluative process being used to allow women into Marine combat roles. By focusing so intently on physical fitness, the corps is avoiding the real barrier to integration — the hypermasculine culture at its heart.

As a rifle platoon commander who served in the November 2004 battle of Falluja, I held the collateral duty of being my battalion’s “body composition officer.” It was my job to measure and weigh the overweight infantry Marines in our ranks, and there were plenty — all of them below standards. Plenty of female Marines I met who served in noncombat jobs were in better condition than these men and as fit as the infantry Marines who met standards. While the physical demands of serving in the Marine infantry are very real, fit men and exceptionally fit women can meet them.

The deeper challenge is not physical; it is institutional. From the top down, the corps’ leadership has framed the issue of gender integration as one of physical ability, relying on elaborate studies that address issues like the density of women’s hipbones, the toll of rigorous physical activity on their fertility, and that women’s hearts are proportionally smaller than men’s.

But this ends up being a sort of smokescreen obscuring many other questions that the corps needs to face: Should recruit training remain segregated when the active forces are not? How would a minority of women fare in the infantry’s atmosphere if their integration were mandated? Would it hurt morale? Most important, if gender integration is mandated before real cultural reform, would it result in an increase in sexual assault and workplace harassment, and thus undermine the “trust and confidence” generations of Marines have earned through their service to the American public?

I know the value of the present Marine culture. For eight years, I served as an officer in infantry and Special Operations units. The infantry is the soul of the corps. Marine pilots, tankers and artillerymen all exist to support the infantry and the infantry is all-male. I experienced how this all-male culture nurtures an intense brotherhood, an alchemical bond I’ve seen inspire incredible courage in the deserts of Anbar Province and the choked valleys of the Hindu Kush. The real reason many Marines don’t want women in the infantry is that it will forever change that culture.

Even so, our military must represent the values of those it serves. Other integrated branches of the military effectively foster camaraderie without relying on a culture of hypermasculinity. With gender integration a distinct possibility, the Marine infantry must honestly imagine a similar path.

The clock is ticking. The Defense Department has mandated that all branches integrate women into combat roles by 2016, or explain why they have not. By that time, the American people may have elected their first woman president and that president might very well mandate full integration of all combat units, regardless of opposition inside or outside the services. The Marine Corps’ leadership, whether it supports integration or not, is obliged to the generations of Marines who have earned the American people’s trust to be ready for that eventuality.

Like most Marines I know, I have a deep love for the corps and an emotional investment in its legacy. This is why I hope it expands its current analyses of hipbone densities and cardiovascular capacities, to ones that include issues like gender integrated command structures, coed living conditions, and the challenge of changing a culture that seems unduly threatened by strong-willed female leaders like Colonel Germano.

Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine, is the author of the novel Green on Blue.

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