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Female Marines Begin Basic Training In San Diego

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For the first time ever, women are training to be Marines at boot camp in San Diego. The Marines were the last of the armed services to separate men and women at boot camp until Congress ordered them to make recruit training coed. The new recruits started last week. Steve Walsh with member station KPBS has been following them and has this report.

AYESHA ZANTT: Scream, yes, ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Shouting) Yes, ma'am.

ZANTT: (Shouting) Scream, yes, ma'am (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Shouting) Yes, ma'am.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: After two weeks of isolation under protocols to stop the spread of COVID-19, the first company to include female recruits officially stand at attention, the first in the hundred-year history of boot camp in San Diego. They assemble outside the doors marked, through this portal walks the future of the United States Marine Corps.

ZANTT: If you want to stand back up, stand back up right now.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Shouting) Aye, ma'am.

ZANTT: (Unintelligible) get back down.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Shouting) Aye, ma'am.

ZANTT: (Shouting) Stand back up.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Shouting) Aye, ma'am.

WALSH: Drill instructor Staff Sergeant Ayesha Zantt was brought in from Parris Island, S.C., to be part of San Diego's first team of female drill instructors. Parris Island has trained female recruits in separate units since the 1940s. On their first day, Zantt's job was to put both male and female recruits through their paces.

ZANTT: Some people haven't gotten yelled at at all their whole life. They need to understand the difference. You're going to move when I tell you to move. You're going to do what I tell you to do.

WALSH: Right now Congress is telling the Corps they have five years to end gender segregation at Parris Island and eight years at San Diego, though leadership is hinting that after holding out, the Marines will try to beat Congress' timetable.

Zantt laid out the task for these women with the bluntness of a drill instructor.

ZANTT: That have something to prove. They're the only females that is training right now. This is the first female platoon, so they are going to be going against all their brothers inside of that whole company. So they have to show everyone that they are worthy to be here.

WALSH: Nineteen-year-old Teia Chutaro is from Hawaii, but she grew up in the Marshall Islands. She's starting to understand the significance.

TEIA CHUTARO: I had no words at first, but now I take pride in that, you know, not many people get this opportunity here today.

WALSH: Critics have charged that keeping men and women separate just as they become Marines has created larger issues for the Corps. In 2013, Elizabeth Fitzgerald commanded a company of female Marines at Parris Island. She has since left the Marines. She says during her time at Parris Island, a male instructor ordered their recruits to look away as the female recruits passed. Fitzgerald believes the lack of integration led to chronic problems like online scandals where active-duty Marines were caught sharing and commenting on photos of female Marines.

ELIZABETH FITZGERALD: All of our leadership traits, our leadership principles, our values - all of those are - the foundation is laid right at boot camp.

WALSH: Only about 9% of Marines are women, the lowest percentage of any service. They're also the youngest service on average - 70% are 24 years old or younger. Fitzgerald says it's not the young recruits but their leaders who struggle with integrating women at boot camp.

FITZGERALD: The younger generation, I feel like, never has an issue with the change. It's always - stems from top leadership.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Shouting) Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Shouting) Always, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Shouting) Always, sir.

WALSH: In San Diego, the first female recruits were largely focused on the moment. Nineteen-year-old Gabrielle Latchford of Valparaiso, Ind., had just been given her gear.

GABRIELLE LATCHFORD: I'm a little nervous but nothing that I didn't expect, so...

WALSH: Her brother had been a Marine.

LATCHFORD: We're going to learn a lot about ourselves that we probably didn't learn before. We're going to build up our leadership skills and just overall build up our personality.

WALSH: Commanders at boot camp say this is still officially a test. But for now, very few changes were required for this first class as these new recruits - men and women - embark on the 13 weeks it takes to become a U.S. Marine.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR SONG, "LIONHEART") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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