The U.S. Marine recruits, both women and men, patrolled through a mock village that suddenly was struck by simulated machine gun fire and explosions.
When the dust cleared, women emerged carrying men across their shoulders, and vice versa, practicing how to extract casualties from the battlefield. Others lifted dummies on a litter as if they were wounded comrades, passing them over a wall, before moving on to sparring in a cage with other recruits and an obstacle course.
It is all part of “the crucible,” a 54-hour test of strength and spirit that recruits must pass before becoming U.S. Marines.
Now, for the first time, women from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego have gone through the crucible and earned their Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblems at Camp Pendleton, the sprawling, hilly Marine base about 40 miles north of San Diego.
Previously, female recruits and drill instructors were limited to the only other Marine boot camp, at Parris Island, South Carolina, which graduates 3,400 female Marines a year, about 10% of the total number of new Marines created on both coasts.
The first 53 female recruits on the West Coast became Marines last week, breaking one of the last gender barriers in the U.S. armed forces, and in the branch of the service that has been most resistant to integrating women.
“There’s definitely a certain pressure to succeed. There’s a lot of expectations for us,” said Annika Tarnanen, 19, from Minneapolis, one of 60 women who began recruit training back in January in San Diego. Seven dropped out due to injuries.
The Marine Corps has consistently lagged the other military branches in integrating women and was 8.6% female in 2018, about half the figure of 16.5% when considering the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines as a whole, according to a 2020 General Accounting Office report.
When former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter ordered all combat roles open to women in December 2015, the Marine Corps was alone among the services in requesting exceptions in areas such as infantry, machine gunner, fire support and reconnaissance, according to a Congressional Research Service report. The exceptions were denied.
Among the new Marines at Camp Pendleton was Emily Zamudio, 19, now a private first class who will join the infantry as a rifleman – a combat role.
“I really wanted to inspire more females to do male roles,” said Zamudio, from Madera, California. “I want more females to know that no matter what your size, you can do it.”
Tens of thousands of U.S. women participated in the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq this century. Though not directly assigned combat roles, some saw action and were killed as the battle lines shifted.
A Hike and a Scream
The crucible has been part of Marine Corps training since the 1990s. Although the Marine Corps has different physical fitness standards for people based on age and gender throughout their careers, recruits all face the same tests at this ritual.
Female recruits used to train separately at Parris Island, but starting in 2019 they were integrated with men.
On the West Coast, where San Diego recruits relocate to Camp Pendleton to complete the crucible, the pioneering all-female Platoon 3241 was integrated with the five all-male platoons that make up Lima Company, camping in the open air with the same three hours of sleep per night.
Like the men, the women concluded with a 9-mile hike carrying rifles and 50-pound backpacks, charging up one final hill with guttural screams to a peak overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Drill instructors from each platoon then bestowed them with their emblems in a solemn rite of passage.
“You are part of Marine Corps history,” Staff Sergeant Amber Staroscik, chief drill instructor for the platoon of women, told her newly minted Marines.
Staroscik did her recruit training at Parris Island and worked as drill instructor there until moving to the West Coast.
“I knew the significance of it when I started. We were always denied,” Staroscik said. “Now they see us training side by side. We’re carrying the same pack and hiking the same distance. Hopefully it erases some of the gender biases.”
Staroscik said one of her best recruits was Abigail Ragland, 20, who said the platoon felt a special obligation to achieve.
“With so many eyes on us we don’t want to be looked at as failures,” said Ragland, who comes from a military family in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Ragland chose to enlist in the Marine Corps because she was told it had a special brotherhood.
“And now,” she said, “a sisterhood.”