Kaitlyn Zivanovich (she/her) is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer and a current Speculative Fiction writer, with short stories in Cast of Wonders, Pseudo Pod and elsewhere. She grew up in a Marine Corps family and has never lived in one place for more than 3 or 4 years. As of this recording she lives in Okinawa, Japan with her spouse and four loud children, but the location of ‘home’ is subject to change at any moment. You can find her on Twitter @KZivanovich.
Today I want to share with you all my experience as a woman in the military in general, and in the United States Marine Corps specifically. I don’t claim to speak for every woman, or every Marine. I’ll be talking about my experience through the lens of gender and patriarchy, but it is not the whole of my experience. I also recognize that a lot of what I’ll talk about is tied specifically to American culture, and may not be true for the militaries of other countries.
To focus this discussion, Amy asked me this question: Does structural patriarchy still exist? In the case of the Marine Corps, the answer is definitively yes. The US Military is one of the most conservative, traditional institutions in the country. In American society, women in the military remains a taboo topic. It is something that prompts a visceral recoil from across the political spectrum. I have encountered many progressives and feminists that are offput by the idea of women serving equally in combat roles. I want to provide some context for this cultural reaction and explore the debate of women in the military through the lens of my personal experience.
I’m focusing specifically on the United States Marine Corps for a few reasons. First, I’ve been connected to the Marine Corps my entire life, it’s where my personal experience comes from. But although much of what I talk about can be applied to other branches of the military, the Marine Corps is uniquely invested in hypermasculinity and structural patriarchy, moreso than other services. There’s a famous quote from General Krulak, a Marine Corps general, from 1957. When asked why America needed a Marine Corps, he responded that America didn’t need a Marine Corps. America wants a Marine Corps. I want to give some context to that very motivating quote. And draw a line from 1918 when women first were allowed to serve in the Marine Corps, to today, and the recent Marines United revenge porn scandal, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), and the inclusion of women in combat Military Occupational Specialties, or MOSs.
Let’s start with a very brief overview of Marine Corps history. The Marine Corps was created in 1775, and served as ‘soldiers of the sea’, often used to protect sailors from boarding parties at war. We got the nickname Leathernecks from this era; Marines would put a strip of leather under their collars to protect them from sword strikes. But warfare changes, and soon the Marine Corps started having an identity crisis. They weren’t sailors. They weren’t soldiers like in the Army, and so they had to figure out their niche in order to justify their existence.
What do you think of when you think of US Marines? Most likely you think that they are the best. The toughest, the most elite of all the military branches. You probably think we have the best uniforms, which is undeniably true. When you picture a Marine in your head, it’s a man, with the squarest jaw you’ve ever seen. His hair is cut in a high and tight. He is not smiling; in fact he’s probably never smiled in his life. He’s just so damn tough and disciplined. As you picture this Marine, in cammies or in his dress blues, you know for sure that he will be the first to jump into battle, and he will absolutely win.
Well, this image we as Americans collectively have of Marines is no accident. It’s the result of an aggressive and intentional PR campaign the Marine Corps developed in the early 1900s. As I mentioned before, we had no niche. Air Force had the air, Army had the land, Navy had the sea. So what did Marines bring to the fight? The answer they came up with: manliness. The Publicity Bureau aligned the image of Marines with American perceptions of masculinity, namely courage, bravery, and a willingness to sacrifice themselves, be the first into battle. Yes, the Navy had the sea, but the Marines stormed the beaches. Posters were drawn up with the manly Marine running into battle, while the Navy floated offshore, doing nothing. They were weak, unmanly, while Marines were the real men. This characterization of the Navy’s weakness veered quickly into misogyny and homophobia—amongst Marines and those who admired them, Sailor became synonymous with girly, or homosexual. The Army could fight, sure, but the Marines were first to fight. If you want to see action, read the poster, join the Marines. The implication being that if you were afraid of action, you could always join the Army. The PR campaign highlighted the unassailable discipline of the Marines: they kept their uniforms tight, their manners straight laced, and they enforced a strict chain of command. Not like those flyboys in the “Chair Force” who laze around with sloppy uniforms and call each other by their first names. No, if you want to be a real man, you have to join the Marines. And not everyone can! As another recruiting poster says: If everyone could get in the Marines, it wouldn’t be the Marines.
And so the Marine Corps became the elite, manly branch of service. The Marine Corps promised to turn boys into real men, in fact the slogan: “The Marine Corps builds men” was used well into the 1980s, 60 years after women were admitted into the service. Marine was and is synonymous with ‘man’. Women, and other marginalized groups, are not included.
Back in WWI, the United States decided women had a right to serve and opened the military services to women. They were brought in specifically to do the administrative work and to “Free a Marine to Fight”. The Marine Corps was not interested in breaking down gender barriers, but instead used this change to reinforce them. The women stayed behind and kept house, and the men were free to go to the front lines. And so began the hypermasculinization of the Marine Corps.
I’ll pause to define hypermasculinity. Hypermasculinity is the exaggeration of male stereotypical behavior and consists of three variables: the belief that violence is manly, that the experience of danger is exciting, and callous sexual attitudes towards women. I have heard Commanding Officers tell war stories that involve bragging about the erection they got riding into battle, or how turned on they get when they hold a rifle. I have watched Marines who have never been to war listen to these stories with a jealous gleam in their eyes, and then tell me I ‘just don’t get it’.
Back to the quote. When asked why the United States needed a Marine Corps, General Krulak responded that it didn’t.
“The United States does not need a Marine Corps mainly because she has a fine modern Army and a vigorous Air Force. . . . We [the Marine Corps] exist today—we flourish today—not because of what we know we are, or what we know we can do, but because of what the grassroots of our country believes we are and believes we can do.”
Krulak went on to say that the American people believe three things about the Marines: that they will be ready to fight on short notice; that they will turn in a dramatically and decisively successful performance; and that the “Corps is downright good for the manhood of our country.” Essentially he said that Americans believe that the Marine Corps turn boys into men, and leaders of men. Krulak concluded that as long as the American people “are convinced that we can really do the three things . . . we are going to have a Marine Corps.” So does structural patriarchy exist in the Marine Corps? It depends on it for its existence. The Marine Corps’ role is to act as a beacon of manhood for America.
Now, lest you think I am denigrating masculinity, please know that there is much about Marine Corps culture that is positive. Exemplary. I truly believe in honor, courage, and commitment as core values. Our culture of justice, judgment, decisiveness, integrity, dependability, tact, endurance, bearing, unselfishness, courage, knowledge, and loyalty—those values are the reason I joined the Marine Corps, and why I remain proud of my service. Many of them are regarded as masculine traits, and are connected to the performance of masculinity in our culture. None of this is inherently bad, rather I would argue that it is inherently good.
Unfortunately, hypermasculinization has also tied very negative and harmful performances of masculinity into Marine Corps culture. We have a drinking culture. A hazing culture. A culture of objectifying and assaulting women. We lose more Marines every year to drunk driving, violent hazing, motorcycle accidents, and suicide, than we do in combat. The numbers aren’t even close. And yet this culture persists, despite Marine Corps leadership making it a top priority, despite Marines sitting through hours of classes on these topics annually. Because no matter what the politicians or generals say, or how many sexual assault awareness training hours congress mandates, deep down every Marine believes that America wants them to be men. They want Marines to be violent, aggressive, thrill-seeking, because that’s what makes us the best. They know as long as they continue to be the first to fight, America will account their mistakes (drunk driving, rape, hazing) as unavoidable foibles. Boys will be boys. Marines will be Marines. And nothing changes.
Now. To be clear, when I joined the Marine Corps, I knew none of this context. I was raised on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and girl power, and I assumed everyone knew that all of that antiquated sexism stuff was over. I had several experiences early in my career that I dismissed as one-off situations, or unimportant in the grand scheme of things. My perspective shifted later on, and these one-off incidents resolved into a pattern. Let me share some of my experiences in the Marine Corps that illustrate structural and cultural patriarchy.
I never intended to join the Marine Corps, right up until the moment I did. My dad was a Marine, I grew up on Marine Corps bases, was raised on Marine Corps history and lore, but my plan was to be a famous actress when I grew up. In high school I was the president of a drama club: Teen Advocates for Social Awareness, we used the theatre to explore social issues. And it was a real leadership challenge, for a variety of reasons. My dad talked to me about leading from the front, being an example, about holding people to high standards. I told him I wished there was a school I could go to just to study leadership, and he said, “Well. There is. It’s called The Basic School, and its where all Marine Officers learn basic leadership.” So, a seed was planted. Still, I went to Brigham Young University to study theatre and hopefully get married. I did neither. I ended up majoring in Middle Eastern Studies/Arabic, and a friend in the program mentioned once that he was going to Officer Candidates School, or OCS (think boot camp), that summer, so he could become a Marine Corps officer. I perked up and said I know all about that, my dad’s a Marine! We talked and swapped stories, and eventually he said, “hey maybe you should go to OCS.” And I said “ok, maybe I should. Maybe I will!” Let me tell you, there is nothing more ‘Marine’ than making a stupid decision to look tough because someone dared you to do it. Ironically, the guy who dared me to go ended up NOT joining the Marine Corps, so I both won and lost that dare. When I walked up to the recruiter and said “hey, I want to go to OCS.” He didn’t know what to do with me; he’d never had a female commission from BYU. A few weeks later I was off to Quantico Virginia for OCS, the equivalent of boot camp, for officers. I was under no obligation to commission if I graduated, so I told everyone, including myself, that I was just doing it to keep my options open, and to see if I could.
On the first day of OCS, after all the paperwork and logistics of settling in, the commanding officer of OCS brought all of the candidates into a large warehouse and in marched the sergeant instructors that would run our lives for the next ten weeks. They walked in with military precision, stone-facing, the epitome of bearing and professionalism. And then the commanding officer turned the company over to the sergeant instructors. All of the officers walked out the door. A soon as the door closed all hell broke loose. The calm, stone-faced sergeant instructors were suddenly in our faces, shouting instructions, berating our every movement, flipping tables and chairs. We had to drag our sea bags with all of our belongings across the parade deck, then run to another part of the parade deck because we ran incorrectly the first time, then dump the contents of our sea bag into a big pile, then put our belongings back into the sea bag all while being barked at and chased by some truly terrifying people. That was the start, and within seconds I knew that I would be in the Marine Corps the rest of my life. I loved it. It was so so miserable and I loved it.
Now I’ll share a little bit about my OCS experience. First, we were separated by gender. There were male platoons and one female platoon. We did the same training exercises next to each other, but we did not work together. This is my experience, but one I’ve heard echoed from other officers who went through OCS at different times: the female Sergeant Instructor were different than the male Sergeant Instructors in their approach to candidates. At OCS, you are requiring to stay of the first four weeks, and at the end of the four weeks you can Drop on Request (or DOR). Basically, if you don’t want to be there, you can leave. This is different from enlisted boot camp; once you sign up, they’ve got you. But if an officer doesn’t want to be there, they’ll send them home. The idea is that they want people who truly desire to lead Marines. Leading Marines is difficult and only the best should have the honor.
At OCS, the first four weeks is hell for everyone. They make you get dressed by the numbers. They make you run up the stairs and if you don’t do it fast enough, you have to run down and do it again. If one person messes something up, everyone starts all over again. It’s organizational sanctioned hazing. But after the four-week mark, when those who don’t want to the be there have DOR’d, the male sergeant instructors changed. The course was still challenging, the discipline strictly enforced, but suddenly the male candidates were treated more like human beings, like future officers. There wasn’t as much yelling or harassment. Their Sergeant Instructors would have talks with them at the end of the day’s training and answer questions about what the Marine Corps was like. They’d tell sea stories and laugh about their experiences. That never happened in our platoon. The sergeant instructors harassed and hazed us up until graduation day. They treated us like toddlers every week. We were late to events because we were having to re-do everything three to four times. The male platoons hated us because we were always behind schedule, and some used it as evidence that females were not cut out for military life. Others saw that we were not having the same experience, and I’ve heard from my male peers over and over that they don’t know how females survived OCS because it was way rougher for us.
And the truth is, we don’t.
The attrition rate for males is close to 25%, meaning 75% of males that enter OCS graduate from OCS. The attrition rate for my platoon was 60%. We were overly scrutinized, consistently told we were not wanted, couldn’t hack it, and actively targeted. We heard male Sergeant Instructors making bets about which candidates they were going to make quit or force out. More females were sent to review boards where they decide you’re not good enough and kick you out than males, even though we were only one platoon out of six.
There are some unwritten rules about how to talk to the candidates because after they graduate, they outrank their Sergeant Instructors, the people who were yelling and harassing them now have to salute them. So after the first four weeks the instructors don’t bully in the same way they do at boot camp, knowing that these candidates will soon be their bosses. Now don’t get me wrong, they still haze and harass, they just use different words. Those rules went out the window for the females though.
Male instructors called us sluts, whores, bitches, and dykes. There was contempt for our existence. One of the very few Black female candidates was particularly harassed. She was one of the fastest candidates in the company, ran faster, climbed rope faster, hiked well. One of the male sergeant instructors would go out of his way to walk by her in formation and mutter racial slurs and complain about how ‘those people were ruining the Marine corps.’ And she reported it. Rumors went around that he was reprimanded, but he continued to serve in the same position and now would complain how he couldn’t talk around the females because ‘some people get their little feelings hurt’. This candidate finished OCS, she graduated near the top, and earned a wright to a commission. She declined and went home to do something else. I’ve always admired how she finished OCS to show she was good enough for this overwhelmingly white boys club and then said ‘no, I don’t want it.’
I also remember a time when my internalized misogyny came out. There’s a martial arts portion of our training and it culminates in a fun event where the platoons will face off in pugil stick battles. It’s great for building comradery, it’s fun competition because it’s platoon versus platoon, and we get to use the aggression we’ve been building over the past several weeks. Except females can’t participate. We could only fight other females; they wouldn’t put a female up against a male. In fact, the few times in training that we sparred with a male from another platoon, he would loudly complain about how it ‘wasn’t a fair fight’ because if he won, he’d be labelled a jerk and if he lost, he’d be labeled weak. Male candidates would tri over themselves to avoid having to spar with us. So, at this epic big battle, we could only fight amongst ourselves, and our matches were a sideshow. We didn’t even fight in the main ring.
I remember the commanding officer talking to us once and saying he was sorry, but the other rival companies didn’t have any girls so we couldn’t fight them. And I called out, “I don’t know sir, looks to me like the entire company is made up of girls.” It was trash talk. My company commander fell over laughing and repeated it to everyone. I got some pats on the back and it felt like “yeah, I’ve arrived. I’m one of the cool ones.” And then I realized I’d insulted myself and my entire platoon by using ‘girls’ as an insult. That’s not the marine corps’ fault that indoctrination happened much earlier on school playgrounds and in the media, but the marine corps encouraged it. And it was then that I first realized what I was actually saying.
Again, these are not the entirety of my experiences at OCS. I learned a lot. I had a lot of fun. I got really sun-burnt. There are plenty of good stories as well. I was very proud to graduate and looked forward to being one of the few and the proud once I graduated from college.
But when I graduated OCS, and went back to finish college, I received some unexpected backlash. My mother, father, and siblings were beyond supportive; they thought it was awesome, as did a few of my girlfriends. The rest of my mostly-male friends, however, were very bothered, and one day when we all met up for lunch they staged an intervention. They felt it was their duty to tell me that it wasn’t appropriate for me to join the military. It took a few confused minutes for me to realize that they meant it wasn’t appropriate for me, as a Mormon woman, to join the military. That was not what God wanted me to do, I had other priorities. I sputtered and felt like I had to defend myself. I wasn’t married, I said, and I was too young to go on a mission for the church—why shouldn’t I get a job? All of the other girls in our friend group had plans to work, why else were we in college? They agreed it was fine to get a job, just not that job. That was not a place for women. And where would I meet a husband in the Marine Corps? Was I putting a family off until my 4-year contract was up? I was stunned. I promised them that I had prayed about it, and received personal revelation, but they were skeptical.
I don’t need to rehash the systemic patriarchy in my faith tradition, I feel that ground has been covered previously on this podcast. It was surprising to me, however, because I joined the Marine Corps because of my spiritual upbringing, not despite it. In many ways my time in the church prepared me for the military. The one skill that helped me survive OCS was my command presence, or the ability to speak confidently in front of people. That came easy, I’d been speaking in front of large congregations since I was 8 years old. I’d been a leader in my Young Women’s classes, I’d planned and organized activities. The Marine Corps seemed to be a natural continuation of my life up to that point. In addition, my church is extremely patriotic, to a fault; BYU has required classes on American Heritage, and the divine creation of this country. But I began to realize that when people prayed for the troops, they were praying for the brave young men. They were not praying for someone like me.
Beyond the practicalities though, honor, courage, and commitment are values I also learned through my faith tradition. There is a famous quote from the church’s prophet and founder Joseph Smith that says “A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.” I had been primed to believe that sacrificing everything for a good cause was righteousness. And I couldn’t understand why these friends of mine, from the same faith tradition, didn’t see it that way.
Well, I ignored them, confident that I was doing the right thing, and I commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the summer of 2006, right before George W. Bush’s Iraq War troop surge, and the first thing I did, that all new officers do, is go to The Basic School, or TBS; the leadership training my dad had told me about so many years ago. OCS is sometimes referred to as the job interview, and TBS is the job training. It’s a six month course that is incredibly time intensive, physically and mentally demanding, and generally miserable. There is not the yelling and screaming of OCS, but the pressure is even greater.
At OCS, boot camp, the females were in their own platoon, kept separate from the male platoons. There was always an asterisk next to our accomplishments—we were the special group, the one that was different, so it was easy to dismiss us. At TBS, however, the platoons were integrated. While there were significantly fewer females than males, we trained together as a unit, regardless of sex. We carried the same weight, hiked the same trails, crammed for the same tests, had the same amount of sleep deprivation, etc…
We were separated into platoons, squads, and four-five person ‘fire teams’, who we would spend the entire six months training next to. The four males in my fire team shared a room in the barracks; I shared a room with the other three females in our platoon. On the first day of the course I went to my fire team’s room and introduced myself, and we all swapped where we went to college, when we went to OCS, do you know so and so sort of stuff. One of the Lieutenants, an almost 7-foot-tall guy from Kentucky, grew visibly agitated as we talked, and finally blurted out to me: “Why would you join the Marine Corps?” At this point, the joining was done, I’d been through ten weeks of boot camp, I’d signed up for four years, so it was a strange question to be asked, considering we were all past the ‘debate’ stage. I kind of laughed and said, “same reason as anyone I guess, ‘cuz the Marines are the best.” And he shook his head, stood up and said “NO. Why would YOU join the Marine Corps? You can’t be in the infantry, or any combat arms MOSs. You said you want to be the best, but you can’t. So why would you join the Marine Corps?”
I’ll pause to explain that, at this time, women were barred from certain MOSs (Military Occupational Specialties). There were marine corps units that women weren’t allowed to be assigned to. These included the Infantry, Tanks, Artillery, Combat Engineers, and Assault Amphibious Vehicles. Officers do not get to choose their MOS, MOSs are competed for and assigned toward the end of TBS. And he was right, I was unable to compete for these MoSs, I had to list my preference among other specialties including Intel, Logistics, Administration, Supply, and Communication. There’s an untold hierarchy in MOSS and the line between ‘cool’ MOSs and ‘weak’ ones is – you guessed it – which ones allow women.
Whereas my friends at BYU held an intervention because they benevolently wanted to prevent me from making a mistake with my life course, at TBS, on Day 1, I encountered a man who believed I didn’t deserve to be there. My presence disgusted him. His behavior to me did not change over the course of the six months. The other members of my fire team, some of them good friends, great guys, never once defended me. His opinion was not taboo or strange, it was what everyone was thinking. Not surprisingly, because white supremacy and misogyny go hand in hand, he also told my mixed-race roommate, who was engaged to a white man, that interracial marriage was an abomination, and that this was just his religious belief. She and I were not particularly close friends, but on that day we closed the door to our room and commiserated with a little bit of crying and a lot of four letter words. But we did it behind closed doors. Because we didn’t want to be difficult. Because we knew no one would do anything.
TBS was also where I first saw institutional sexism in action. When I was a student there, Lieutenants—who are allowed to date each other in every other circumstance—were not allowed to date within their company at the school. It was an artificial restriction intended to prevent ‘boy-girl’ drama, but instead caused more drama than anything else. By the time I returned to TBS as an instructor three years later, they’d dropped that rule because it didn’t make sense. Still, as a student, there was an incident where two other students in our company were caught having sex. The punishment was that they got kicked out of our company, and had to pick up with another company, meaning they would graduate later than intended. We were more than halfway through the course at the time, so the punishment was significant, going through TBS more than once is miserable.
To my surprise however, though both the male and female student involved had broken the same rule, the punishments were different. The male student was recycled into a company that was already in session, meaning he had to redo maybe a month of instruction; it didn’t impact his graduation drastically. The female student, however, was recycled to a company that had not started yet, meaning she had to start over from the very beginning, and her graduation was delayed significantly. Her name became a joke, synonymous with slut, or bimbo. I would see guys act out the sexual encounter with each other for a laugh, making porn faces and noises. If they hadn’t had sex in a while, they’d joke that they were so horny they’d need to go find so and so and take her to the place she and the male student had been caught. The male student, however, was just a dog. “Gotta get it when you can,” everyone laughed. It was clear that he was just doing what men do, and she was acting like a whore. Of course she was more responsible than him. The male marines did not question it. The rest of us though, gave each other silent glances, and realized this was what they thought of all of us. Not just what our peers thought of us. This is what the institution thought of us.
Eventually I graduated from TBS, went to training to become a Signals Intelligence Officer, went to my first command, 2nd Radio Bn, and immediately deployed to Fallujah. I was part of the ‘surge’ of troops sent in 2007 to overwhelm the insurgency in the Al Anbar province of Iraq. I became a subject matter expert in my domain, and as a 2nd Lt was called to brief high ranking MEF officers, and on two or three occasions to directly brief General Officers. This is unusual. Lieutenants are low level officers, we generally don’t get face time with the big guys. But my team focused on some niche aspects of government and tribal dynamics and, around the time the generals realized that understanding this tribal stuff might be useful, I was the person with the information. This actually made my boss, a captain, insanely jealous and he said that I couldn’t go to any big meetings without him, he had to be included. One time he was met the door by the general’s chief of staff and told that his preference wasn’t required. But I did have an excellent mentor, a Major, who developed me into a better intel officer and challenged me and my team to excel. I wasn’t getting mentored from my own boss, so it really helped me to have someone recognize my strengths and purposefully try to develop them. Because of him, I got better at my job and better at leading marines, and he told me at the end of the deployment that he’d never worked with an intel officer of my caliber and I was an asset to the community. Remember him, because he’ll come up later in the story.
On my second deployment I was a platoon commander, in charge of over 50 Marines, male and female. There were two other platoon commanders, my peers, with their own platoons of male and female Marines. We went to a several month long pre-deployment training exercise in 29 Palms, California, where we worked closely together. Very quickly, I became de-facto in charge of all of the females in the company. My male peers wanted me to ‘handle’ issues they were uncomfortable with, and even our boss, the Company Commander, turned to me to solve ‘female problems’. On the one hand, I liked being in a position of authority where I could advocate for female enlisted Marines. But it allowed my male peers to turn them into the ‘other’, and they did not see these Marines as ‘their Marines’. They saw them as ‘females’ and therefore, not their problem.
There are plenty of smaller issues, such as how the male Marines slept altogether in the same Quonset hut (a large empty building like a hangar where they shoved enough cots for a platoon to sleep on) to maintain unit integrity. Their huts were right next to our training area. The females were sent to stay in a Quonset hut on with another unit on the other side of the camp. Unit integrity was important, it seemed, but only for the male marines. Additionally, the officers and staff non-commissioned officers (high ranking enlisted marines) billeted together in their own separate Quonset hut, to separate themselves from the enlisted Marines in order to maintain good order and discipline. Except for me. I was the lone officer in a tent with junior enlisted females. We were only allowed to shower during certain hours, and were warned that we couldn’t complain about male Marines leaving the porta potty open when they peed. Those were some of the smaller annoyances that we dealt with. I did fix the billeting issue by demanding we be given space near the rest of our company. They managed to find us an empty Quonset hut right away, almost as if keeping us with our company was always possible, but they just hadn’t considered doing it. Getting us our own place to stay is something my marines bring up whenever every time we reminisce about that exercise. It was a very small hero moment, but also a huge deal to the other females in the company. It was one of the rare times someone took our concerns seriously. This was only possible because I was an officer. Otherwise the enlisted females would’ve had to just deal with it, and no one would advocate for them.
But there was one bigger issue that slapped me in the face when we first arrived at 29 Palms. After a day of unloading and setting up gear, and planning our operations late into the night, my boss, the Company Commander, held me back, crossed his arms and without making eye contact, told me I needed to have ‘the talk’ with the other females tonight. Naively I asked what he meant, and he said “you know. They have to go everywhere in pairs. No sneaking into the male billeting. Don’t go to the gym alone, that sort of thing.” I said, sure ok, and went to do what I was told. I circled up the other females in our hut and said I needed to talk. My sergeant, one of the best Marines I’ve ever served with, called out “Bring it in! It’s time for the Don’t Be A Whore talk!” I seriously blinked at her. Because, yeah, that’s what the talk was. Don’t be a whore, or else you’re gonna get raped. That’s what my boss had meant. That’s what I’d been sent to say to these Marines. And worse…this was not the first time they’d heard it. While I’m usually good at giving speeches, I fumbled through this one, embarrassed because I hadn’t considered the implications of what I’d been sent to say. I retold this story to that same Sergeant recently and she laughed and told me she first got ‘the talk’ at boot camp. The drill instructor told them they could be one of three things: a bitch, a whore, or a lesbian (using much worse language) and that’s all they could be. The statistics on sexual assault in the Marine Corps, and the military reflect this mindset and this culture. Too many female Marine sexual assault survivors are assaulted by male Marines, their brothers in arms. And when sexual assault or harassment is reported, the accuser is sent away to another unit for their protection while the perpetrator stays in place and continues in the same job. When your company commander tells you that you can’t walk outside at night or you’re asking for it, how likely are you to come forward if something does happen?
I want to pivot for a moment to talk about the intersection of the queer experience and patriarchy in the military. I joined while Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was in effect, meaning gay people could serve…as long as they did not act upon their homosexuality and kept it a secret. Sadly, I was primed for this culture, because this was essentially the policy at Brigham Young University, and still is today. You could be gay, but if you acted on it you could be expelled, and possibly excommunicated from the church. At BYU I learned to have gender neutral conversations with gay friends who didn’t want to be overheard, and that skill translated directly to the Marine Corps. I heard all of the arguments in favor of the policy, and all of them revolved around homosexuals being dangerous, making straight men uncomfortable, and straight men being unable to keep themselves from committing violence. To prove just how manly they were they would brag about how homophobic they were, and how badly they would beat a man if they found out he was gay. These were COMMON conversations. One Marine told me he could never work for a gay officer, because the lifestyle was inherently deceitful. They hid their homosexuality from everyone, how could you work for someone like that? Never mind that Don’t Tell was a prerequisite to service. Homophobic slurs were as pervasive as swear words and acronyms in Marine Corps parlance.
The DADT policy was weaponized against gay Marines, it did not protect them. I was taught that a good leader KNOWS their Marines. They know their families, their challenges, their strengths and weaknesses. They know what’s going on at home. And yet for certain members of my platoon, I wasn’t allowed to ask, and they could be criminally prosecuted for telling me the important details of their lives. The gender neutral conversations came into play here when one of my Marines’ fiancée broke up with them as we were deploying. It’s a situation that Marine leaders would absolutely need to know about, to ensure their Marine was mentally safe as they went into combat. And this Marine, in serious distress, wasn’t allowed to talk about it, at least not openly. Before we could get to the gender neutral conversation—where we’d say ‘your fiancée’ or ‘your friend’ instead of he or she—I’d have to signal that I was even a safe person to talk to at that level. I’d have to lay the groundwork over weeks of conversations, casually mentioning that I have gay relatives, that their partners are awesome members of our family, that I think gay marriage should be legalized, etc, etc… All of that, just to be available to have a half-way conversation. It was unsustainable.
During one deployment, one of my Sergeants approached me to say that the MasterSergeants and Warrant Officers in the unit were bullying another Corporal because they suspected he was gay. To quantify this, Corporal is one of the lower enlisted ranks, usually a 19-20 year old with 2 years in the Marine Corps. A MasterSergeant on the other hand is in his mid-30s, and has been in for 17 years or so. Very senior. The power differential was dramatic. I on the other hand was a 2nd Lieutenant. I outranked the MasterSergeant, but I had barely more time in service than the Corporal. Still, this Sergeant approached me because I was the person who outranked the MasterSergeant, and I was a peer of the Warrant Officer, and I could get them to stop. My Sergeant was concerned this Corporal would commit suicide. I jumped into action. Yes, these senior enlisted Marines had way more time in service, but it was my responsibility as an officer to take care of Marines. So I pulled the MSgt, the ringleader, aside privately, told him what I’d seen, why it was a concern and to stop it. He smirked and said “yes ma’am.” And the next day the comments continued. These grown adult men in positions of authority over the corporal would play a game where every time they moved about the room they would make sure they never turned their back on him. Some said it was so they wouldn’t get raped. Others said they didn’t want him to get turned on by the sight of their butts. They continued the harassment over interoffice chats as well, telling jokes that named him and calling him slurs. The MSgt made direct eye contact with me as he made these comments. Being direct, I pulled him aside again and said, “hey, you really can’t do this, you’re harming one of the Marines you’re responsible for.” He told me that he had been to Equal Opportunity training and knew what he was doing, and if I had a problem I could take it up with the Company Commander. So I did. Immediately. The Company Commander agreed that it was wrong, but kind of shrugged and said, “well he has had Equal Opportunity training.” After this I was socially and professionally ostracized and isolated, and the harassment did not stop. The Marine did not commit suicide, but I attribute that to the junior enlisted Marines who looked after him when the senior leaders, and the institution, would not.
On my next deployment my junior Marines told me a story about our Company Commander, and how when he was an instructor at their MOS school he was responsible for forwarding a Marine’s request to be discharged for whatever reason. The story went though, that if a Marine confessed to being homosexual, even knowing they would be discharged, our Company Commander would take out his penis and say ‘if you’re really gay, prove it. Suck my dick’. And if the Marine refused, he’d refuse to forward their discharge request. He believed that these Marines were faking being homosexual because they were weak and trying to ‘quit’ the Marine Corps. When they told me this story, I gently chastised them for spreading rumors. Our Company Commander was a truly awful human being to work for, but he had a wife, and kids, we shouldn’t share secondhand stories like that, it wasn’t professional.
Then, later that very same day, I overheard this Company Commander tell the same story in his own words, in an office adjacent to mine. He bragged about calling their bluff and laughed about exposing himself to junior Marines and demanding oral sex in exchange for him doing his job. Someone asked, laughing, “Sir, what would you have done if they’d done it?” He answered “I would’ve killed them. But either way they’d be out of the Marine Corps, win win!” Someone asked what if the Marine was a lesbian, and he responded that lesbianism is a myth, it wasn’t real. He wouldn’t even entertain that request.
Note: this man was not ashamed or embarrassed to tell this story; he didn’t tell it in whispered tones. To him, and to those listening and laughing along, it wasn’t a story about him exposing himself and demanding sexual favors from teenagers that worked for him, it was a story about a man displaying strong leadership and protecting the Marine Corps. This was the culture, and during DADT, there was no recourse.
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed in 2011. Leading up to the repeal, the Corps mandated standdowns: times when the command brought all of the Marines together and discussed the coming changes in a town-hall type forum. Everyone had to sign their name to a roster to prove that the command had had these conversations and done their due diligence. I am sure that somewhere in the Marine Corps, there was a standdown that went well—somewhere where the conversation was inclusive, respectful, and changed hearts and minds—but those were not my standdowns. Some were run by men like the Company Commander in the previous story, who rolled their eyes, said they HAD to do this, and made everyone sign their names while effectively undermining the purpose of the conversation. In my unit at the time, the standdown was conducted by a LtCol, a senior officer, and all of the attendees were officers as well, Captains or Majors. The ‘conversation’ turned into homophobic rants, complete with slurs, fearmongering, and threats of violence. All of these opinions were validated by the instructor. “That’s a good point, that’s a real leadership challenge,” he would say, when someone yelled that they would not punish a Marine who beat the sh*t out of his gay roommate if he touched him or looked at him. Our unit’s conversation was held in a theatre, and it was indeed a performance. There was chest-beating, there was angry yelling. My peers tried to outdo each other in expressing their violent disgust for this policy change, and for homosexuals in general.
Myself and a few other likeminded Marines responded with facts: the majority of sexual assault in the Marine Corps is committed by straight men. Should we keep them out because they have the potential to rape someone? The other female officers said “oh you’re uncomfortable that someone you work with might be attracted to you? Welcome to our world. We’re expected to be professional about it, you can be too.”
There were homosexual Marines in the room. Ones who had been celebrating the end of DADT and looking forward to being open. Two expressed to me later that they would not be coming out unless they got married; they were not going to open themselves up to the hatred.
our Company Commander would take out his penis and say ‘if you’re really gay, prove it. Suck my dick’. And if the Marine refused, he’d refuse to forward their discharge request. He believed that these Marines were faking being homosexual because they were weak and trying to ‘quit’ the Marine Corps.
If you’ll recall, I mentioned that my awareness of systemic patriarchy in the Marine Corps shifted throughout my career. Around the time I was promoted to Captain, I was selected to be an instructor at The Basic School, the same school I mentioned that all newly commissioned officers attend. The assignment is somewhat prestigious, the Captains at TBS are supposed to be the best representatives from their respective MOSs, and embody officership and leadership. We were chosen to shape the next generation of Marine Lieutenants, and instill Marine Corps values and ethics. Most of us were fresh off of deployments from Iraq or Afghanistan, complete with medals and ribbons. We were the rockstars of TBS, and we had the egos to match.
When a new Captain arrives, they aren’t allowed to teach anything, not in a classroom or out in the field, until they’ve done a dress rehearsal in front of a senior Captain and been deemed qualified to teach. This process, called snapping and qualifying, is done for every single event, no matter how many events you have previously qualified on. It’s a good process that ensures quality control and oversight, when used correctly.
Very early on I was pulled aside and asked to teach a platform class for the senior Captain in charge of instructor education. As I’ve mentioned, public speaking is one of my skills, so I jumped up and began teaching the class. He stopped me after only a few minutes and said he was blown away, that was the best he’d ever seen a new Captain teach before, I was ready. He went and told the rest of the Captains and Majors the same thing, including my boss. I very early on got a reputation as a good instructor, and people were surprised. Soon after I wanted to qualify on a certain event, a difficult event to teach, dealing with infantry tactics in an urban environment. The lead package instructor wanted to personally qualify me to make sure I was doing it correctly. When I finished he debriefed me very frankly, and opened my eyes. He said to me that he’d been expecting me to fail, because he’d never seen a female Marine understand this material before. In fact, he admitted, he’d made sure to be my qualifying instructor because he wasn’t going to let me teach if I couldn’t hack it. And then, magnanimously, he admitted that I’d taught it perfectly, he had no suggestions, and that I was really skilled at facilitating discussion and maintaining control of the students. Which again, is something that females usually couldn’t do. He wrote all of that in my review, that again went to my boss: I expected her to fail but she’s not like other females. She’s really good. And I was in. I’d proven myself to be able to exceed their expectations as a female, and I was now worthy to be considered one of the guys.
Later, I was qualifying for a much simpler class, and my boss was the one observing me. After the class he had some suggestions for how to improve, and he began his comments by telling me that I had to get everything perfect when I was teaching, because as a female I had no credibility with the students, so if I made any mistakes they wouldn’t listen to me. I bit my tongue for about ten seconds and then stopped him and asked if he thought I wasn’t able to teach because I was a female? He said no… And I said, then I deserve to have my performance evaluated by the same standard as the other captains. He grew cold, put me at attention and chewed me out for daring to accuse him of sexism. And that was that.
Not everyone liked that I was one of the guys, one of the good ones who had proven herself. There was an incident with another Captain who was my absolute peer. We’d been in the Marine Corps the same amount of time. He was also an intelligence officer like me, although in a different, less cool field. We’d deployed to the same areas during the same time, and had similar experiences. And we were both assigned to teach the Counter-Insurgency Intelligence package at TBS. When he shifted jobs to become a Staff Platoon Commander (an SPC, the coveted job at TBS) I took over the package on my own, and he lost his mind. He complained to the Majors in charge that I was not fit to teach because I didn’t have the experience. He refused to let me use the powerpoint slides that he’d created, even though sharing those was how the classes worked. When I taught my classes, he would sit in the back, then write me lengthy emails about how he disagreed with what I said and how I’d taught it. Now, I need to emphasize that I was given this assignment BECAUSE I had experience in this area, and that we had the same MOS, the same training. It came to this, and he said this point blank to me, the Majors, and anyone who would listen: I was female, and females can’t teach Counter Insurgency. Most people dismissed him, because I’d proven myself a competent instructor, and this seemed like a personal grudge.
It came to a head one day as I was preparing to teach my class. I walked into the classroom, with 300+ eager Lieutenants, and this Captain had already set up his slides as though he were the instructor. I moved his stuff aside, put my material up on the projector, and talked with the class leader as we got ready to begin. In front of the class he said, “uh uh, these are my students, you’re not teaching my students.” I corrected him, stating that these are my classes, this is literally my job, and he tried to intimidate me off of the platform. I ignored him, kept my cool and prepared to teach, because I knew I was in the right. The confrontation was so dramatic that another Captain saw it and ran to tell the Majors. My boss, the same one that had chewed me out in the previous story, ran into the room and ordered the intruding Captain to leave, informing him that this was my class. After a tense moment, he put his hands up, and left. I do want to highlight how this leader, my boss, defended me. I did not expect it, but I was very grateful, and it gave me hope that a culture change was possible. I have to question though if I would’ve been defended at all had I not already proven myself to be ‘the best’ in every category. If I were a weak instructor, would they all have allowed me to be steamrolled? I don’t know. This Captain later was fired from The Basic School, which is actually a difficult accomplishment. I had nothing to do with it, but found out years later that the students, who hated this captain, believed that I’d taken him down somehow. I would always say, “no, he did it to himself, things always catch up to guys like that.” If only that were true.
So things were going pretty well for me at TBS, I had the respect of my peers, I’d proven myself, the students loved my classes, and everyone considered me to be a good Marine, and a good officer.
And then I got pregnant.
It was planned, the timing was very deliberate. My partner and I scheduled it during the few years we were guaranteed not to deploy, so I wouldn’t be seen as trying to get out of anything, and we’d both be together when the baby was born. On paper it was an excellent plan. But I was not prepared for my body and my life choices to become public domain.
Everyone I worked with was obsessed with my weight and my appearance, and if I thought I’d be able to lose the baby weight. They compared me to their wives, or their buddy’s wife who was able to run a half marathon at six months pregnant, and didn’t even look pregnant from behind, only from the side. Once I taught a two-hour class while eight months pregnant, and got a little short of breath as I walked around the room. Another Captain pulled me aside and said it was unprofessional to be out of breath in front of the students. I told him they had eyes and could see I was about to give birth any minute, I think they understood the situation. But maybe they didn’t! Maybe they had his mindset, and thought it was inappropriate to display any sort of weakness. On the other hand, I was also criticized for doing too much. Once I went to a field event and hiked around with a little weight. I felt able to handle it, and so I did. Another Captain pulled me aside to tell me his wife had once had a miscarriage, and that it was irresponsible and selfish for me to do so much. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Once during another field event, another Captain told me, in front of my peers, that he was really into pregnant porn, and gave details about what he liked. He also said that he’d get an erection anytime he heard the sound of a baby breastfeeding, it was so sexy. Not a damn one of my friends said anything to him, they laughed. I was expected to laugh as well.
After a difficult c-section, I had six weeks of maternity leave before I had to be back at work. I also had six months to get back into my pre-pregnancy shape, lose all of the weight, and be able to hike and run at the same pace as before. Six months to erase nine months of body changes. I wasn’t able to get out of bed for most of my maternity leave, but the moment I did I started dieting and exercising. For whatever reason, probably because it was my first pregnancy, I did ‘bounce back’ as they say, and quickly got into shape. I knew my career progression depended on it. I wanted to be a Staff Platoon Commander at TBS, and they wouldn’t give me that dream job unless I was in shape.
One day, a Major that I did not work for approached me in the field and asked me very detailed questions about my weight loss and my fitness, and when I would be ready to be an SPC. This was three months after I’d given birth. I answered him honestly, but it hit me later that the people I worked for were having conversations about my post-baby body with each other. And well before the six-month deadline.
Shortly after that conversation, my actual boss approached me, almost frothing at the mouth, and told me that whatever that Major had said to me was entirely inappropriate and that I had six months, and he had no right to ask me those questions. I was again taken aback and grateful that someone was aware, and looking out for me. I was also aware, however, that he was fighting an uphill battle. His behavior was the exception in this case, not the other Major’s.
I remember after my son was born, I met up for lunch with my former mentor from my deployment to Iraq. When I told him I’d had a baby, he told me “cool, time for [me] to get out of the Marine Corps.” He said that’s what women do. They always choose mommy-life over the Marine Corps, which is why it would be easier if they didn’t join in the first place. I felt like the floor had fallen out from under me, this was the officer I’d looked up to, and who had valued my input and thought I was an exceptional intelligence officer—and all along he didn’t think women should be in the Marine Corps at all.
In 2013, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta removed the ban on women serving in combat. He gave the military services until 2016 to come up with an implementation plan, or to present their case for why some roles should continue to exclude women. The other branches of the military got to work figuring out how best to integrate women into combat roles and make the change a smooth transition. The Marine Corps, on the other hand, fought back.
Outrage spread through the Corps, outrage that these civilians, politicians, President Obama who had never served in the military, would dare put these requirements on the military, just to satisfy the politically correct feminists. They were out of touch; they had no idea how that would destroy the infantry. Their anger turned on women who just couldn’t be satisfied with what they were already given—they could do so many jobs, why did they have to come after the combat arms jobs?
Here were the arguments against women in the combat arms MOSs. First, women were weaker than men. This one is easy enough to determine. Show me the physical requirements for each job, and we’ll see if women can meet them. It turns out though, that there were no physical standards for the combat arms MOSs. The only physical standard was ‘male’. Suddenly there was a big push to codify the physical standards for each job. I watched as the instructors of the Infantry Officer Course tried to write out physical standards that would include men, but be just out of reach for women. When women were able to meet a certain standard, the goalpost moved. When women could not do a certain physical task, that was it, that was the standard. The problem is that there will always be a woman who exceeds standards. Should she be allowed into the infantry if she can lift a .50 cal and carry a man on her back?
No. The next argument was that even if women COULD meet the physical standards, their presence in male units would destroy morale. They would have to make so many accommodations for them—separate sleeping areas, separate showers—it would be inefficient to try to do that for the few women who could meet the physical standards. I also got to hear several very interesting takes on female anatomy and hygiene, and how women just couldn’t be clean in the rough and tumble world of the infantry. One man told me, unironically, that women couldn’t be in the infantry or recon because if they went into the ocean while menstruating, the blood would attract sharks and put the entire unit in danger. He was not joking. He was not the only person who believed this. I patiently explained that female Marines had figured out how to pee, poop, and menstruate in a field environment without the world falling apart—and we did it so well that the men apparently had no idea we could even do it. It blew my mind to realize that the men I literally slept next to in the woods, somehow assumed I’d never had my period during any of these times. Another man said that if women had to hike through dirty water, it would get into their vaginas and infect their uteruses. I explained that the vagina was not a straw, and it didn’t suck up dirty water into the womb. The misconceptions were funny at first, and eventually exasperating. How could the people making these decisions be so ignorant about basic anatomy?
But then they pulled out the trump card: sexual assault. I remember during one of the many debates we had on the topic, a peer shook his head and said, “well if you think we have a problem with sexual assault now, wait till they let women in the infantry.” I said “stop. Are you telling me that the infantry is currently full of rapists, who just haven’t been raping because there aren’t enough women nearby? Is that what you’re telling me?” “Of course not,” he said, “I just mean that when women are around things happen.” I told him that if he truly believed that his Marines were rapists, then he had a huge leadership problem and he needed to get rid of them immediately. He mumbled that I just didn’t understand, and he was right. I didn’t understand how a Marine Officer could tell himself that his job was to take care of his Marines…but not the girl ones. Those ones are on their own. It was more important to protect the careers of potential rapists than the opportunities of female marines.
Another female officer made the argument to me that if women were taken as POWs and raped, the country wouldn’t stand for it. I laughed in her face. No one cares if we’re raped right now! The Marine Corps doesn’t care when we’re raped by our fellow Marines! Bit ingenuous to pull out their chivalry just for this.
Other arguments I heard were that if women wanted to be in the infantry, then women should have to sign up for the draft too. And to that I say, absolutely. Inasmuch as the United States requires a draft, it should fall on men and women equally. And if that makes us squeamish, then we should examine why we have a draft at all, and abolish it altogether. When I gave that response, the next argument was to say that if women wanted equality in the military, then men should be allowed to hit women.
General sexism and benevolent patriarchy quickly devolved into outright misogyny. It is deeply unsettling to realize that the men you work beside…secretly believe they should be allowed to beat and rape women without consequence.
There was also a lot of pressure to be one of the cool women, who also didn’t think women belonged in the infantry. One such woman wrote an article in our professional magazine describing her physically demanding experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan which resulted, among other things, in infertility. The article was titled “Get Over It! We Are Not All Created Equal!” Her name was used as a shield in every argument: I’m not sexist, I’m quoting a female! She was paraded around DC by General officers. She had the right message; she was one of the good ones because she was defending the patriarchy.
During this time of intense debate, the Commanding Officer of The Basics School addressed the students, the Lieutenants, and assured them that the Commander and the Generals were fighting this tooth and nail, they would do anything they could to stop it. I looked around at the other female officers in the group as they sat stoically trying to show no reaction. He took for granted that everyone agreed with him and wanted to save the Marine Corps from this PC feminist nonsense. When he came to speak to the Marines, he did not consider the female Marines to be Marines.
On another day, he confronted me in front of my peers and my boss and asked me to make my case as to why women should lead in combat. Before I opened my mouth he interrupted and explained to me that throughout history, there had never been a matriarchal society, there were no women in charge in all of human history, and women were never in fighting or military roles. It just wasn’t our biological role, and if we pushed against that it would end in disaster. I tried to make my argument—that just because something hadn’t been done didn’t mean it couldn’t be—and he interrupted again to ask how much weight I could physically lift. How many pullups could I do. And the answer was, not a lot. “There you go,” he said. I remember the smug ‘gotcha’ look on his face, and the grin he shared with my boss. He’d ambushed me and put me in my place. More proof that he wasn’t sexist, this was just the way it was, and women shouldn’t be in the infantry.
He didn’t realize that he’d said leadership roles, not simply combat roles. And I realized that the man who wrote my fitness reports, did not think that I was biologically capable of leadership. Any leadership. And that gutted me. This was not a debate on whether women should be in the combat arms MOSs. This was a debate on whether women should be in the military at all.
And so the Marine Corps conducted a study called the Marine Integrated Task Force Report, that sought to prove that integrating women into combat roles would weaken the Corps. To find data for this report, they created a mixed gender combat unit and put it through several evaluations, over the course of nine months, looking for the impact on physical readiness, unit cohesion, and morale.
At the end of this experiment, they compiled the results into a 1000-page report. But General Dunford, Commandant of the Marine Corps, released only a four-page summary of this experiment to the public, showing that it proved that women were slower, less accurate with weapons, and sustained more injuries than men. Based on these findings, the Marine Corps requested an exemption to the requirement to integrate women into combat roles. They had proven, with their experiment, that women could not hack it in the infantry.
Except…that’s not what the 1000-page report said. In 2015 an advocacy group called Women in International Security, released 300 more pages of this study that painted a very different picture. These pages showed that while women were physically weaker on average than their male counterparts, they weren’t weak, and they could be integrated successfully when given clear standards.
While the other branches of service analyzed the requirements for each job, and determined gender-neutral standards, the Marine Corps pitted women against men to see who would win. And the study showed that all-male units performed physical tasks better than mixed gender units. However, the rest of the results were left out of the four-page summary. Results that showed that mixed gender units excelled at complex decision making. It also concluded that adding women to all-male units resulted in better behavior from the group as a whole. The rate of disciplinary action decreased; a finding that had previously been observed across the Marine Corps. Additionally the study found that the rate of sexual harassment and sexual assault was similar to other units in the Marine Corps. The report concluded that “There are no indications that rates of sexual harassment and sexual assault will rise following gender integration.”
And yet, the Marine Corps Generals claimed that integrating women would dilute our strength, and was a prescription for failure. It is the same argument and warning given when the military was told to fully integrate African Americans into the service. It is what they said when DADT was repealed.
The Marine Corps’ request to exclude women was denied. In 2016 all combat roles were opened to women. To my knowledge the Marine Corps is still intact. Just as it was after the integration of African Americans. Just as it was after the repeal of DADT.
The Marine Crops has made several structural changes in recent years and put heavy emphasis and focus on sexual assault, as well as inclusion and equality. Some of the changes are good and it’s often refreshing to see that the Commandant’s reading list includes books on anti-racism. It makes you feel like perhaps we’re moving in the right direction. I hope we are. But book recommendations and more stand-downs are not going to overcome centuries of culture. This truth became painfully evident with the 2017 discovery of a Facebook page titled ‘Marines United’.
Marines United was a Facebook page where current and former Marines would post revenge porn: nude pictures and explicit videos of females currently serving in the military. All were shared without the consent or knowledge of the females. They would list their names, their ranks, and their units they were currently serving with. If they transfer to another unit, that information was updated. Some of the women were stalked. The comments and posts advocated sexual violence in the worst terms. All against fellow Marines. There were about 30,000 members of this group. For context, there are about 180,000 members of the Marine Corps. The man who exposed the group, a Marine Corps veteran, received death threats, calls to have him water boarded. Group members put a bounty on pictures of his daughter and said his wife ought to be raped to death.
Marine Corps leadership reacted quickly. There was disgust, outrage, talk of how dishonorable this was, how antithetical to our core values. It started wave of changes in how the military could prosecute such crimes and how Commanders could hold their Marines accountable. But 30,000 Marines are not just a few bad apples. And groups like Marines United (which has only moved into more secretive, secure spaces) do not occur in a vacuum. There’s a direct line between deciding that masculinity was our brand and the Marines United scandal.
We intentionally and deliberately made hypermasculinity a systemic problem. The Generals and Sergeants Major that are outrage dover this are the Majors and Gunnery Sergeants that let the Marines cover the walls in pornography. The same one’s that would brag about having hard-ons during their briefs. The ones who believe that classes on preventing sexual assault should focus on how men need to protect themselves from accusations and women need to not drink so much. I’m reminded of General Krulak’s quote, he said that America wants a Marine Corps, she believes that we are the bravest, the best, and the epitome of what men should be. And if we ever lose America’s trust through dishonor then the Marine Corps will cease to exist.
I wish that were true. That we were truly held to the highest standards of integrity. But America will not condemn the Marine Corps for being men. And men sometimes rape women. And men sometime shave to beat homosexuals. And men are allowed to blow off steam by sharing nude pictures of their coworkers.
So, yes. Structural patriarchy still exists, and has had a significant impact on my life, and on the lives of other men, women, and people of all genders serving in the military. And where do we go from here? Marine Corps doctrine relies on flexibility, adaptability, and meeting the challenges in front of us. The Marine Corps is a symbol in the minds of Americans. It can be a good symbol—we can represent honor, courage and commitment, we can be a beacon of discipline, endurance and sacrifice and none of it has to be tied to hypermasculinity. But to become that symbol will require a divorce of our Corps Values from the damaging parts of our culture, and every previous generation of veterans will cry that they don’t recognize the Corps anymore, that we aren’t real men anymore because our Drill Sergeants aren’t allowed to punch us until we bleed anymore, or we require mental health evaluations after deployments instead of just letting men beat up their wives and children, or worst of all, that the Marine Corps has gone soft because the rooms aren’t lined with the pages of pornographic magazines anymore.
But there is a classic Marine Corps joke that says that the first recruit to sign up for the Marine Corps at Tun Tavern walked up to the table and was told if he signed up, he would get a free shot of whiskey.
The second recruit then walked up to the table and got two free shots for his enlistment bonus. When the second recruit told the first recruit what his bonus was, the first recruit shook his head and said, “It wasn’t that way in the old Corps.”
No, the future of the Marine Corps will not look like the past. That’s a strength, not a weakness. Inclusivity will not destroy Marine Corps readiness, but inflexibility and clinging to an obsolete image of hypermasculinity will.
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