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For Female Recruits, the Struggle Begins Long Before the Battlefield





Post Series: The Sept. 11 Marines
Finally In, Facing New Fight
For Female Recruits, the Struggle Begins Long Before the Battlefield

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 28, 2002; Page A01

PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. -- The sandy grass is wet and swarming with fleas. Candice Fleming takes her place on a slight ridge that looks across a long, narrow field. It is early morning. She tries to concentrate. She is aware of the wind, the elevation, the way she is breathing.

She raises her rifle, semiautomatic and loaded.

Not very long ago, she could have barely imagined this place, this gun, this moment. Before January, she was 19 and tired of college, in love with a guy named Tony. Her friends thought of her as a "girlie girl." She liked pink and matched her outfits and kept stuffed teddy bears and Eeyores on her neatly made bed in Fredericksburg, Va.

Now, she is armed with an M-16, wearing camouflage and combat boots. Seven weeks into boot camp, she is a marker of generational change -- learning to shoot with killing proficiency, in a nation at war, in a military that deploys women to hostile zones.

She is determined to become part of the Sept. 11 Marines.

Fleming's transformation began on a wintry day 75 hours into the new year, when she and 425 other men and women arrived by midnight buses at Parris Island, the storied boot camp on the Carolina coast. They enlisted at a turning point in American history, as the nation launched a war on terrorism amid the anguish and anger of the terrorist attacks.

They chose the path most likely to lead to combat.

For women in particular, this was a historic choice. They were part of the first generation to come of age when their country came under attack and when they could have an integral place in the war that followed: They could see women as colonels and combat ship commanders, and were able to choose most military careers open to men.

While women are still barred from direct-combat jobs on the ground, in Afghanistan they have flown missions over Taliban targets and manned weapons atop Humvees as military police. They have been combat engineers, intelligence analysts, aviation mechanics and air-traffic controllers.

With more than 50,000 U.S. troops deployed in the region in the war on terrorism, women have played a visible part. If there were ever a large-scale ground war, many experts agree that large numbers of women could die side-by-side with men.

In January, Sgt. Jeannette L. Winters, a 25-year-old field radio operator, became the first female Marine ever killed in a hostile-fire zone when she lost her life in the crash of a KC-130 tanker plane in Pakistan.

As skirmishes in Afghanistan go on and the war on terrorism unfolds, a steady procession of women from across the country shows up at Parris Island, a marsh-covered sea island in the shallow waters of the Atlantic where Marines have been made since 1915.

Halfway through training, they arrive at the rifle range. Here, they are given a matter of days to master their M-16s, to shoot with accuracy at distances up to a quarter-mile.

Candice Fleming bears up to this on a humid day when fleas are biting and pressure is building inside her head. If she fails to qualify on her rifle, she knows, she will not become a Marine -- a goal she has clung to in spite of her fiancéís ambivalence.

Her husband-to-be, Tony Molina, headed to Marine boot camp two months ahead of her and urged her not to take on two difficult jobs at once: Marine and Marine's wife.

Fleming pondered his words but stood by her decision. "I need to do this for myself," she thought.

Now, she closes her left eye. She places her face on the stock of her rifle, peering through the rear aperture, at the front sight post. She knows the guiding principle: Rely on your natural point of aim.

Slowly, ever so slowly, she squeezes the trigger.

Then again. And again.

A New Generation

Like the men of their generation, the women who showed up at Parris Island after Sept. 11 came for an array of reasons. There was the military's promise to help pay for college. The idea of job training. The allure of travel. The example set by their fathers or uncles -- or aunts or mothers.

Then there was the singular horror of that day -- and the concern and anger that consumed them in its aftermath.

"Males are not the only ones who are patriotic," said Sara Pujols, 19, of Union City, N.J., whose close friend lost her father at the World Trade Center. By October, Pujols was at a recruiting office, determined to enlist. "I decided," she said, "there was no time to waste."

Many of January's recruits grew up with the assumption that women were part of the military. They were in grade school during the Persian Gulf War, when 37,000 women were deployed and broke down job barriers as never before -- and when stories about them made headlines.

Still, enlisting was a complex choice: more widely accepted than it has ever been but freighted with social tension. Across the armed forces, women are a minority of 15 percent. In the Marine Corps, which prides itself on being first in the fight, women are rarer still, at 6 percent of the ranks.

Stephanie Flint, 19, made her way to a recruiting office in upstate New York after Sept. 11 with the Army in mind. When she did not spot an Army recruiter, she looked at the nearby offices of the other branches and decided: "If I'm going to join something, I'm going to go all-out."

To her, the Marine Corps was the elite -- the most disciplined and respected. She signed up for motor transport.

"I had to change my life, and September 11 pushed me to do it," she said. At the time, Flint was waitressing, attending college and drinking with friends. "I was stuck at 18," she said. "I was not getting older."

For Shannon Desmond, 19, the Marines was a longtime goal -- made more meaningful by Sept. 11. A swimmer and soccer player from the Chicago suburbs, Desmond's police officer stepfather had been a Marine. She loved her stepfather's stories. She loved the Marine uniform -- dress blues with gleaming gold buttons. As a little girl, she dreamed of joining. At about 13, Desmond asked: "Am I allowed to be one?"

"Yes," her stepfather said. "There are women Marines. I've never talked to one, but they're out there."

When Desmond enlisted as a high school senior, she told a recruiter she wanted to work in ground combat, which is still off-limits to women. "I want to be out in the field with them," she announced.

"Bad news: You can't," the recruiter told her.

Shorter than average -- at 5-1 and 109 pounds -- serious and single-minded, Desmond went on to become the only boot camp honors graduate her recruiter ever signed. While she came to feel quite happy with her selected occupation, aviation electronics, she says even now: "If they called me up and said I was going to combat, I would say, 'Okay, let's go get some.' "

'You Can't Do That'

Candice Fleming's decision to become a Marine stunned her family. As her mother, Loretta, put it: "I was in shock probably for a month. I didn't know what the mold of a Marine woman was, but this didn't seem to fit."

Candice was 5-4 and fashion-minded, with thick brown hair that she blow-dried, the kind of young woman who collected ceramic Snowbabies and kept an entire drawer filled with nail polish. She was fond of the movies "Cinderella" and "Snow White," her mother said, and had daydreams of a knight in shining armor. Her car had a pink steering-wheel cover that said "Princess."

"Not Candice!" family and friends responded at the news of her enlistment.

Whatever others saw in her, Candice had long defied expectations. As a freshman at Marymount University in Arlington, she got her tongue pierced. In high school, she marched with the band's color guard, persevering in practices that could last eight hours in the summer heat. She dyed her hair a purplish shade of red. She once had a memorable evening in a mosh pit.

Throughout her girlhood, her father had teased: "You're just a girl; you can't do that." For Candice the joke became an open challenge, a test of her considerable will. But much of that was before she became serious with Tony Molina.

Last August, Candice and Tony decided, after a friendship of four or five years, that their feelings for each other were romantic. They became inseparable. But by then Tony had enlisted in the Marines.

Some friends concluded that Candice enlisted because of Tony. Wrong, she says flatly. She had left Marymount University after a year, enrolled in community college and was still not content. She wanted a change, and the military seemed best, maybe a steppingstone to a job with the FBI.

After Sept. 11, she felt the pull of "wanting to do something and help out."

Not until she signed the paperwork -- with a job specialty in legal administration -- did she even tell Tony. "He was kind of in shock with everyone else," she said. Even in her job category, Marines could be deployed overseas.

When Tony left for Parris Island, the two promised to write letters, thinking they might not see each other for 10 months. For the first four months, they could not talk by phone either -- calls are strictly forbidden at Parris Island.

So, in December, before her own start date at boot camp, Candice found another letter from Tony in the mailbox at her parents' house. She read it as she was walking down the stairs. She nearly fell.

I love My God and my Corps too

I love my family and I love you

I have lived 19 years and to this day

About anyone else, I've never felt this way.

Since I'm not there in person, imagine I'm on bended knee

Saying, 'My little princess, Will you marry me?'

Candice wrote back right away. On one side of her letter were sentences she cannot remember. On the other side was one word in large bold letters.


A Revolutionary Change

Just hours after Candice Fleming, Shannon Desmond, Stephanie Flint and Sara Pujols arrived at Parris Island -- before they had a full night's sleep or a shower or a hot meal -- they were issued M-16A2, assault rifles designed for the rigors of combat.

For the next 12 weeks, the guns would become like another appendage to their bodies, slung over their right shoulders as they marched and hiked and even attended classes. At night, the guns hung from their bedposts, locked down for security.

The gun was the centerpiece of their new culture.

Some women went so far as to name their rifles, so close did the relationship become. In Fleming's platoon, one recruit dubbed her M-16 "Thomas," and another chose "Betsy." Fleming did not follow suit, but her rifle felt distinct nonetheless. It was hers.

It was, as she would say many times, No. 6341883.

Six weeks into training, they headed to the rifle range -- 63 women in all, platoons 4008 and 4009 of Oscar Company, part of the all-female 4th Recruit Training Battalion.

Each platoon gathered first for the creed recited by generations of other Marines.

"This is my rifle," the drill instructors started. "There are many like it, but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. My rifle without me is useless. Without my rifle I am useless.

"I must fire my rifle true. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will."

This ritual has long been part of men's training on Parris Island.

But not until 1980 did firing rifles become part of the training for all women. Boot camp once had more of a charm-school quality.

Women learned about lipstick. They were taught how to properly stamp out cigarettes, climb into sports cars and sit on bar stools.

They passed hours in their barracks with hot irons and fabric sizing, pressing wrinkles out of uniforms.

The culminating training event was not physical or strategic. It was social, what several female Marines of that era call "the tea party," at which recruits were tested on social graces. They sipped punch. They made small talk with officers. They wore pumps.

"We had to entertain them with coffee and make chitchat and show that we could hold our bearing," recalled Master Gunnery Sgt. Carole Hawkins, who went to Parris Island in 1973 and was issued an elaborate makeup kit at her first image-development class.

Those days are remembered by Hawkins and others with a full appreciation for how much times have changed and for the power of perseverance. Many have achieved ranks once hard to imagine. Many have had children, a choice that once would have meant they were out.

"In just 29 years in the Marine Corps, there has been a revolution," not an evolution, Brig. Gen. Frances C. Wilson recently told those gathered to honor an anniversary of Feb. 13, 1943, when the Women Marine Corps Reserve began.

At Parris Island, women are now trained nearly the same as men -- ritual for ritual, exertion for exertion, misery for misery.

Both stab dummies with bayonets. Rappel from a 47-foot tower. Haul 40-pound ammunition cans. Crawl under barbed wire. Climb ropes. Learn martial arts. Swim in camouflage fatigues. Take off gas masks in a fume-filled chamber.

They march in formation. They run. They crank out sit-ups. They hike. They do a 54-hour forced march called "the crucible." When they mess up, they are punished with more exercise. In the end, the differences are few.

Women get more time on runs and do a "flexed-arm hang" rather than pull-ups. They skip a confidence-course event that relies almost entirely on upper-body strength.

But on the rifle range, the standards are exactly the same. The same score is required. The same test is given.

No one becomes a Marine without repeatedly hitting the mark.

Taking Aim at Graduation

The shooting day is off to a steady start, and Candice Fleming's face is damp with sweat. Her camouflage pants are smudged. Her hands are dirty, and her nails are unpainted. But none of this matters. Here, nothing matters at all except her skill.

And her score.

She is at the 300-yard line of the Chosin range, named for the Korean War battle in which the 1st Marine Division, surrounded by Chinese troops, fought its way out in a savage firefight on a frozen reservoir.

Nearly 52 years later, Fleming is an emblem of accumulated social change. Women like her have been shooting on this range for nearly 17 years. But they were not near the heat of battle in large numbers until the watershed that was the Gulf War. In that conflict, two women became prisoners of war, and five were killed in action.

Since then, women's opportunities have expanded markedly. By the mid-1990s, they flew planes in combat and served on combat ships. All told, more than 90 percent of military career fields have been opened.

Now, Fleming is part of a generation more likely to use the guns they are learning to fire.

For the moment, coaches are watching them shoot, giving advice.

"You got a natural point of aim when you fire?" one asks Fleming.

"Yes, sir," she says.

"Then why are you moving around?"

Fleming tries not to dwell on her anxiety about what will happen if she fails. Not only would she be disappointed, her entire platoon would be let down. Until now, her platoon has been top-ranked. The 4009's standing is at stake.

Her graduation is at stake, too.

Fifty shots into the day, her shooting is about average, which may not be good enough to pass.

Fleming tries to stay upbeat. Still, at a session in the afternoon off the rifle range -- where the women practice in a prone shooting position -- she moves stiffly and lags behind.

"Any day, Fleming," the marksmanship instructor calls out with thick sarcasm.

Then: "Any day, platoon."

Fleming does not want to admit her knees are bruised and hurting or that her swollen right ankle feels like "pins and needles." She worries she will be sent to medics who might sideline her. She could lose her chance to graduate on time.

Then she might have to wait longer to see her family, whom she has missed more than she imagined. And she could lose a chance to see Tony, her fiancé. The two have not had a conversation, only letters, since he proposed marriage and she said yes -- and since he proposed she give up being a Marine and she said no.

Now, the marksmanship instructor tells the women they will learn a new move for dropping quickly to the ground to shoot, which could save important seconds in combat.

The instructor demonstrates -- knees first, right hand, left elbow.

Fleming and the other women drop the same way.

They repeat the drop again, then again.

"You better watch your flippin' muzzle," an instructor calls out to Stephanie Flint.

"Aye, sir," she says quickly.

Then, watching Fleming, he calls out with disgust: "You look like you're 90."

The 19-year-old picks up her pace, showing no emotion, averting her glance from him and the other women, staring straight ahead.

Keep going, she tells herself. Don't let up.

Battle of the Sexes

The moment that women show up for boot camp, they see that gender is an issue. They are separated from men even as they stand on the yellow footsteps of Parris Island for their ritual introduction to Marine life.

"Females at the back," a drill instructor thunders.

From then on, women belong to their own platoons. They train separately. Eat meals apart. Sleep in their own barracks. They are guided by female drill instructors, wearing the same Smokey Bear hats and booming out the same angry orders -- women who run with them, march, mount obstacles and generally show it can be done.

Still, the measuring up to men goes on.

In 1985, when a recruit named Anita Lobo became the first woman at Parris Island to be tested on her combat rifle, she broke the range record with a score of 246 of a possible 250.

But in spite of that first success, women since have struggled more than men to master their combat rifles, a fact that has not made fitting in any easier.

For enlisted women, the first-time pass rate is 65 percent, said Chief Warrant Officer James Fraley, in charge of the marksmanship training unit. By contrast, 87 percent of men pass the test on their first try.

Given extra days of practice and testing, nearly all the women qualify and graduate on time. Recruits -- male or female -- are allowed to retake the test five more times, and -- if they still fail -- even to repeat the two-week rifle course and test schedule.

Why the gender gap? "We can't put our finger on it," Fraley said. On average, he said, men may have more experience with weapons but that is not always an advantage; often it means there are bad habits to break.

For women, some suggest the problem could be confidence.

Teaching style is a big factor for female recruits, said Lt. Col. Mary Hochstetler, commander of the all-female battalion. "Some [instructors] they click with, and others they tense up with," she said.

For many women, the pressure to perform as well as men starts before they arrive, and it does not subside in boot camp.

Their drill instructors urge them to shoot better than the men, the recruits say. March tighter. Sound off louder. Run faster. Dress neater. Show more teamwork. "We try harder so we don't look weak," said Candice Fleming.

Valerie Hawver, 20, of Green Bay, Wis., said she felt a general resistance in spite of women's efforts. "The men don't really feel you belong here, that Marines aren't really for the women," she said.

Shannon Desmond, describing a drill instructor's advice, put it this way: "It's a man's world in the Marine Corps, and you have to step up and prove yourself that much more as a female Marine."

Hoping to show the way, 4009's Staff Sgt. Anne Marie Pieters, the senior drill instructor, is all can-do thinking and forward bearing. A tall Californian and military police officer by training, Pieters herself went from cheerleader to Marine. Now she helps teenagers such as Fleming adjust to the realities of war.

Some women, Pieters said, show up at Parris Island and "don't realize that's what we do." Other women come in so gung-ho, she said, they would love to lead the way and go into direct ground combat.

"The majority are trying very hard," she said. The dropout rate for women is 15 percent, compared with 10 percent for men. Pieters has already lost two recruits -- one to pregnancy, the other to a suicide threat. Most women who drop out do so because of injuries.

On the rifle range, Jennifer Goger, 22, of Middletown, N.J., struggles to avoid becoming one of the medical casualties. On crutches, with a stress fracture in her hip, she continues shooting anyway -- hobbling from the 200 yard line, to the 300, then the 500.

Goger keeps up with her platoon, not forgetting why she enlisted. After Sept. 11, when her community became one of the hardest-hit outside New York City and lost several dozen residents, Goger decided: "If there was a war to break out, I wanted to have something to do with it, not be one of those people sitting back."

Put to the Test

The day before the big test, Fleming's score is not what she had hoped: 174 of the possible 250. She has flunked -- or "unq'd," as in unqualified, as they call it here.

She tells herself with resolve: I will shoot better tomorrow. I will pass.

A drill instructor asks a group of other recruits how they did.

No one looks very pleased.

The first woman tries to hedge, not admitting that she failed.

"By a couple of points, ma'am," she reports.

"Pass or FAIL?!" the drill instructor repeats sharply.

"Fail, ma'am," she responds quietly.

The drill instructor asks the next recruit.

"Pass, ma'am," she reports.

The drill instructor nods.

Then, asking the next in line, the drill instructor shakes her head.

The young woman is struggling for her voice.

"Forget it," the drill instructor spits. "I can tell by looking at your face."

Soon, the results are in. Of 63 women, just 10 have scored the required 190 points or more.

The 4009's senior drill instructor, Pieters, takes this in stride. "I'm hoping they pull it off tomorrow," she says. Many of those who scored poorly, she predicts, will rise to the occasion on qualification day.

'You'll Make It'

The women as a group improve markedly on test day. Pieters is right.

Shannon Desmond, inspired to join by her stepfather's stories of his life as a Marine, passes, though not as easily as she wanted. Sara Pujols, whose friend's father died at the World Trade Center, passes, and so does Jennifer Goger, whose community lost so many lives Sept. 11.

Valerie Hawver, who after Sept. 11 wanted to drop everything and start boot camp right then, brings in the highest marks, at 232, qualifying as a range expert. Her score is better than the highest-ranking male in four of the six men's platoons that were formed the same day.

In all, 22 members of the all-female platoon 4009 are good to go.

But not Stephanie Flint, from upstate New York.

Not Candice Fleming, from Fredericksburg.

Later that night, just before bedtime, Fleming can no longer keep up the stoic face she has maintained through the sharp pangs of disappointment. Thinking over her mistakes on the range, her voice begins to break.

No matter how hard she tried, she could not quite get it. Now she has let down her platoon, she thinks.

Tears roll down her cheeks.

"I had a bad day," she says in a near-whisper.

Before she can say much more, Sonyga Young from Cincinnati, standing nearby, reaches over and puts a tight arm around her shoulder. "It'll be okay, Fleming," she assures. "You'll make it."

That is not what happens the next firing day, or the one after that.

But on the third try, Fleming squeezes the trigger slowly.

Then again, and again.

This time she hits the mark squarely, scoring enough to become a Marine.

Part I: A Day of Terror Inspires Recruits To Take Up Arms for the New Fight
Part II: For Female Recruits, the Struggle Begins Long Before the Battlefield
Part III: Recruits' Dreams and Fears Come Together in the 54-Hour 'Crucible'

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