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How can Parris Island train men and women to avoid closure? Here’s what Marines say

A road sign in Parris Island, SC, May 13, 2011. (DOD photo by D. Myles Cullen)

This story explains how Parris Island could fully gender-integrate its base. To understand what the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act means for the base, read our coverage here, published in Sunday’s edition.

It’s a storied tradition nearly as well known as the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island itself — the yellow footprints.

New recruits, giddy with anticipation, board flights and buses from their corners of the country and end up on the yellow footprints at sea level in Beaufort County.

A drill instructor shouts over them: “Tens of thousands of Marines began outstanding service to our country on the very footprints where you are standing. You will carry on their proud tradition.”

Humidity aside, the rite of passage brings goosebumps to the new recruits and Marines who recall their first sacred moments on Parris Island.

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The recruits pass through large silver doors, called hatches, that latch behind them. It’s a sound that symbolizes the closing of their last chapter and the opening of a new one as a Marine in training.

But even lining up on the yellow footprints painted on the pavement isn’t the same for everyone.

Female recruits ride the bus with male recruits, but from the moment they arrive aboard Parris Island, everything is different.

They’re sent to the back of the yellow footprints to form up separately from male recruits. They’re “whisked away” by a female drill instructor to a separate part of the base and begin training on their own, according to Kate Germano, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who led Parris Island’s female 4th Recruit Training Battalion.

Female recruits may run into their male counterparts in the swim tank or on the rifle range, but they have no opportunities for leadership positions that place them in charge of male recruits.

It’s nowhere near gender integrated.

Women have been training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in Port Royal since 1949, but not until March 2019 did India Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion graduate five platoons of males alongside one platoon of females.

In October 2019, a third partially gender-integrated class brought male and female platoons side-by-side for morning physical training, work on the obstacle course and classroom study, the Marine Times reported.

The Marine Corps is the last remaining branch of the military to integrate its bases, and a 2019 Congressional mandate prohibits gender segregation at its recruit bases after 2025. Tangled up in that mandate is a forced reckoning with gender bias and a long-fought battle by female Marines to be treated and trained equally.

It’s on this course that the Marine Corps said 10 days ago that it may close its historic Parris Island and San Diego bases and funnel all recruits to a new base that has the infrastructure to train all recruits shoulder to shoulder. Although that news sent shockwaves through military families, local leaders and business owners, there’s no sign that the bases will be closing in short order.

There’s another option: The Marine Corps could modify its facilities to truly integrate training at Parris Island.

As the integration process changes, and sometimes threatens, how Marine Corps and Parris Island train recruits in the coming decades, one question remains: What needs to change? The Corps, military leadership and Congress don’t appear to have a solid plan to answer that question.

Meanwhile, new generations of Marines in training arrive on the yellow footprints nearly every week and learn separately from each other.

What will it take?

One of the biggest barriers to gender integration at Parris Island is that the Marine Corps has not released a plan for what modifications the base needs to train male and female recruits shoulder to shoulder.

That makes understanding how daily life on base would change even more difficult.

“In addition to not having a plan for integration, there’s no definition for what integrated training is,” Germano said. “We need to know what integration means.”

To Germano and others, successful gender integration could include recruits sharing barracks but genders being separated by floor — similar to some university dorms. Recruits of all genders would share cafeterias and common spaces, and be integrated in platoons that do physical training all together.

But in its most recent report to the Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, the Marines offered a different step to end its tradition of separating recruits by gender at both Parris Island and in San Diego.

The Corps will still be allowed to have separate-gender squad bays, which is where recruits sleep and shower. But all-male recruit companies trained solely by men will be “obsolete,” according to the report.

Any type of gender integration would require a lot more bed space on Parris Island, Germano said. Since the Corps has not publicly released infrastructure plans for the base, it’s unclear how many buildings would need to be created to house female recruits closer to barracks.

Housing is an important part of gender integration.

In a 2018 paper in the Army University, Master Sgt. Jesus Robles wrote about gender integration in deployed Army battalions, and showed support for co-ed living spaces. He called living arrangements “undoubtedly one of the loudest arguments against gender integration.”

“We found it was detrimental and even disruptive to the planning and execution of operations when we polarized genders by assigning separate living quarters. On numerous occasions … one or the other was not present for those epiphanies that occur without warning in team quarters.”

Still, there’s not a clear path forward from the Corps on what will be needed at Parris Island.

“The limiting factor for gender integration remains facilities,” the Marine Corps report said. “In order for both (recruit depots) to conduct gender integrated recruit training, while simultaneously meeting the throughput requirements required by Title 10, modifications will have to be made at each installation.”

There were no details on the modifications, or what they could look like.

But in the interim, Germano said the Corps can create short-term solutions. She’s seen the Marines do it before.

During her time aboard Parris Island, Germano said the base experienced a surge of recruits and housed several in trailers while they were training. She said the interim solution represented a commitment to solving the problem she’s never seen when it comes to gender integration.

“In that circumstance we were able to come up with an interim solution, but we cannot now,” she said. “When it comes to gender in the Marine Corps, the culture is so obtuse and so resistant that it’s hard for me to give the Marine Corps the benefit of the doubt.”

Making more female Marines

A surefire component to gender integration is increasing the number of female recruits and female drill instructors.

In its September report, Parris Island listed 128 female drill instructors opposite the base’s 505 male drill instructors. The number satisfies the base’s goal of employing 116 female drill instructors.

There are currently no female drill instructors in the San Diego recruit depot, although last week’s news paved the way for female drill instructors to oversee male recruits there.

But drill instructors have to start somewhere. Particularly, as Marine recruits. The pipeline to leadership has to start with women choosing to enlist in the military, according to Lori Robinson and Michael O’Hanlon, who wrote “Women Warriors: The ongoing story of integrating and diversifying the American armed forces” in May.

While the military is at its highest female population, Robinson and O’Hanlon found that they made up just 16% of the total force. The Marines have the smallest proportion of women.

“Percentages have roughly doubled in the last generation for the various services but, even today, averaged across the four major Department of Defense services, women represent only one of every six Americans in uniform, ranging from about 8% in the Marine Corps to 19% in the Air Force,” they wrote.

That imbalance in who makes up the Marines has contributed to an underlying cultural problem that goes far beyond gender integration: The belief that women don’t belong on the yellow footprints.

If successfully integrating genders at Parris Island relies on combating gender bias and misogyny, Germano said it may be a long haul.

“First they would have to acknowledge that there is a culture worth pointing out,” she said. “That is a difficult thing for the leadership to acknowledge.”

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© 2020 The Island Packet