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A drill instructor trains female recruits at Parris Island in 2019.

Hilary Swift/The New York Times/Redux

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.2, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, W.6-8.2, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Time, Continuity, and Change • Individual Development and Identity • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

SPOTLIGHT

U.S. Military

The Battle Over Boot Camp

The rest of the military trains male and female recruits together. Why does the Marine Corps still separate them? 

As You Read, Think About: What mental and physical skills do members of the military need to develop?

Jacob James, 19, eyed the makeshift rope bridge in front of him at Parris Island, a Marine Corps training location in South Carolina. The obstacle was part of the Crucible, a demanding 54-hour exercise that new service members must complete to officially become Marines. 

For this part of the exercise, James was in charge of 15 of his peers, both men and women. The bridge consisted of just two ropes—one for their feet and one above their heads to hang on to. Their goal was to move six 30-pound ammunition cans across it. 

The team had not worked together before, even though they were all from the same unit, Bravo Company. The company’s roughly 330 recruits had spent 11 weeks divided into groups called platoons. And at Marine Corps boot camp, platoons are separated by gender. 

Jacob James, 19, eyed the makeshift rope bridge in front of him at Parris Island. That is a Marine Corps training location in South Carolina. The obstacle was part of the Crucible, a tough 54-hour exercise. New service members must complete it to officially become Marines.

For this part of the exercise, James was in charge of 15 of his peers, male and female. The bridge was just two ropes. One rope was for their feet. The other, above their heads, was to hang on to. The team’s goal was to move six 30-pound ammunition cans across it. 

The team was from the same unit, Bravo Company. But they had not worked together before. Bravo Company’s roughly 330 recruits had spent 11 weeks divided into groups called platoons. And at Marine Corps boot camp, platoons are separated by gender.

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Samuel C. Fletcher

Recruits tackle the Crucible rope bridge obstacle last April at Parris Island in South Carolina.

For months, Bravo Company’s five all-male and one all-female platoons had participated in the same training, sometimes feet apart. But the men and women had rarely spoken to each other.

Now, for the first time, the recruits had to join forces in smaller mixed-gender units as they attempted the Crucible, the most difficult challenge of their training.

They had already hiked more than 12 miles, on little sleep or food. It was raining, windy, and bitterly cold. James studied the obstacle and laid out a plan: They would take the cord connected to the ammo cans, hang it around their necks, and shuffle across the rope bridge.

This did not sound like a good idea to Katelin Bradley, 19, another recruit. She suggested attaching the cord to the rope bridge itself and then pushing the load across.

James thought about the idea and dismissed it. “The men are strong enough and can do it,” he said.

Bravo Company’s five all-male and one all-female platoons had done the same training for months, sometimes feet apart. But the men and women had rarely spoken to each other.

Now, for the first time, the recruits had to join forces in smaller mixed-gender units as they tried the Crucible. This was the hardest challenge of their training.

They had already hiked more than 12 miles, with little sleep or food. It was raining, windy, and bitterly cold. James studied the obstacle and laid out a plan. They would take the cord connected to the ammo cans and hang it around their necks. Then they would shuffle across the rope bridge.

This did not sound like a good idea to Katelin Bradley, 19, another recruit. She suggested attaching the cord to the rope bridge itself, then pushing the load across.

James thought about the idea and dismissed it. “The men are strong enough and can do it,” he said.

Hilary Swift/The New York Times/Redux

Recruits participate in the Crucible, which is set up to feel like a real combat situation.

Divided by Gender

The fact that James and Bradley even had that exchange is notable. Male and female recruits only started tackling the Crucible together in 2019. The Marines have been reluctant to integrate basic training by gender. Also known as boot camp, basic training is an intense program that teaches recruits the mental and physical skills they’ll need to serve in the U.S. armed forces. And in the Marines, boot camp is still mainly segregated, with men and women training separately. 

In all other branches of the military, men and women work and train together, including at boot camp. But for a long time, women were treated unequally throughout the armed forces (see “Key Moments: Women in the U.S. Military,” below). Females could not even officially join the military until the last two years of World War I (1914-18), and they were limited mostly to nursing or support positions.

The fact that James and Bradley even had that exchange is notable. Male and female recruits only started tackling the Crucible together in 2019. The Marines have been reluctant to integrate basic training by gender. Basic training, also known as boot camp, is an intense program. It teaches recruits the mental and physical skills they will need to serve in the U.S. armed forces. And in the Marines, boot camp is still mainly segregated: Men and women train separately. 

In all other branches of the military, men and women work and train together. That includes boot camp. But for a long time, women were treated unequally throughout the armed forces. (See “Key Moments: Women in the U.S. Military,” below.) Females could not even officially join the military until the last two years of World War I (1914-18). And they were limited mostly to nursing or support positions.

In the decades that followed, female service members struggled to gain the same opportunities as males. The Army and other branches opened more roles for women over time. But the Marine Corps dragged its feet, some experts say, claiming many females could not physically handle its most demanding positions. 

The Corps began to accept women into the infantry in 2017—a year after the U.S. Department of Defense opened all combat positions to women. Still, only about 9 percent of the 186,000 Marines today are women—the lowest percentage of any military branch (see “A Growing Presence,” below). Some experts say gender-separated basic training is partly to blame because it limits how many women can go through boot camp at a given time.

Until last month, female Marine recruits could train only at Parris Island. At the urging of the U.S. Congress, the Corps’s other training location, in San Diego, California, opened its boot camp to women in February—in an all-female platoon.

In the decades that followed, female service members struggled to gain the same opportunities as males. The Army and other branches opened more roles for women over time. But the Marine Corps dragged its feet, some experts say. The Corps claimed many females could not physically handle its most demanding positions. 

The Corps began to accept women into the infantry in 2017. That was a year after the U.S. Department of Defense opened all combat positions to women. Still, only about 9 percent of the 186,000 Marines today are women. That is the lowest percentage of any military branch. (See “A Growing Presence,” below). Some experts say gender-separated basic training is partly to blame because it limits how many women can go through boot camp at a given time. 

Until last month, female Marine recruits could train only at Parris Island. At the urging of the U.S. Congress, the Corps opened its other boot camp to women in February. That was an all-female platoon at the training location in San Diego, California.

A Culture Rooted in Tradition

Critics say that male and female Marine recruits should train together within platoons, not just come together for the Crucible. But Marine officials say their insistence on keeping the recruits mostly separated by gender revolves around platoon identity. 

They say sleeping, waking, and training together is a key part of becoming a Marine. And the areas where platoons sleep are separated by gender. Having men and women sleep separately but join up in the morning would alter that model, some Marine officials say.

“This works,” Major General James F. Glynn, former head of Parris Island, said of gender-segregated platoons last year. “Anything outside of this is unknown.”

Critics say that male and female Marine recruits should train together within platoons, not just for the Crucible. But Marine officials say platoon identity is why they insist on keeping the recruits mostly separated by gender. 

The officials say sleeping, waking, and training together is a key part of becoming a Marine. And the areas where platoons sleep are separated by gender. Some Marine officials say that having men and women sleep separately but join up in the morning would alter that model.

“This works,” Major General James F. Glynn said of gender-segregated platoons last year. He is a former head of Parris Island. “Anything outside of this is unknown.”

Male and female recruits train feet apart but rarely speak to each other.

However, many other people, including current and former Marines, say it’s time for the Corps to adapt to societal changes. They argue that having men and women train together is valuable, even if it means platoons don’t share the same sleeping quarters. 

“They are going to have to learn how to work with each other,” says Marine Corporal Katherine Montalbano, who served in a combat unit. “They might as well start in training.”

That change is coming. In late 2019, U.S. lawmakers banned gender segregation in Marine basic training—giving the Corps eight years to fully comply at both training locations. In response, the Corps hired experts to study the best way to train men and women together.

However, many other people say it is time for the Corps to adapt to societal changes. That includes current and former Marines. They argue that having men and women train together is valuable, even if platoons do not share the same sleeping quarters. 

“They are going to have to learn how to work with each other,” says Marine Corporal Katherine Montalbano. She served in a combat unit. “They might as well start in training.”

That change is coming. In late 2019, U.S. lawmakers banned gender segregation in Marine basic training. This gave the Corps eight years to fully comply at both training locations. In response, the Corps hired experts to study the best way to train men and women together.

“Coming Together” 

Back at the Crucible course, James’s team was struggling on the rope bridge. The male recruits were soaking wet and barely able to move with the 30-pound cans hanging from their necks. They were running out of time. Bradley grew frustrated.

She tried to motion with her hands. “Just tie them instead!” she yelled. No response.

Finally, she disobeyed orders and left her assigned position. Her rifle dangling, Bradley rushed to the bridge, grabbed one of the remaining ammo cans and tied its cord to the bridge. She started easily pushing the container to the other side.

She had come up with a better solution. James was the first to follow her lead, and soon the rest of the team did too.

Back at the Crucible course, James’s team was struggling on the rope bridge. The male recruits were soaking wet and barely able to move with the 30-pound cans hanging from their necks. They were running out of time. Bradley grew frustrated.

She tried to motion with her hands. “Just tie them instead!” she yelled. No response.

She finally disobeyed orders and left her assigned position. Her rifle dangling, Bradley rushed to the bridge. She grabbed one of the remaining ammo cans and tied its cord to the bridge. She started easily pushing the container to the other side. 

She had come up with a better solution. James was the first to follow her lead. Soon the rest of the team did too.

Only about 9 percent of the 186,000 Marines serving today are women.

Shortly after completing the Crucible, James and Bradley became full-fledged Marines. Later, they spoke about their time together on the obstacle course. Private First Class Bradley noted with a hint of humor that while the men could sometimes lift heavier things, “the females can sometimes think.” She added that having single-gender platoons pushed the women to work harder to outperform the men.

Private First Class James said that earlier in training he couldn’t have imagined doing the Crucible with men and women together. But when it happened, he said he had to act and think differently, and “you end up having to work more as a team with females.”

“It’s weird, almost, but a good weird,” James said. “Us coming together at the very end was like a wake-up call.”

—additional reporting by Laura Anastasia and Joe Bubar

Shortly after completing the Crucible, James and Bradley became full-fledged Marines. Later, they spoke about their time together on the obstacle course. Private First Class Bradley noted with a hint of humor that while the men could sometimes lift heavier things, “the females can sometimes think.” She added that having separate platoons pushed the women to work harder to outperform the men.

Private First Class James said that earlier in training he could not have imagined doing the Crucible with men and women together. But when it happened, he said he had to act and think differently, and “you end up having to work more as a team with females.”

“It’s weird, almost, but a good weird,” James said. “Us coming together at the very end was like a wake-up call.”

—additional reporting by Laura Anastasia and Joe Bubar

Write About It! Why do you think U.S. lawmakers decided that male and female Marine recruits should train together? What are some advantages of integrating basic training by gender? Include details from the article as evidence.

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