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The Crucible: the final test for Marine recruits

Hilary Swift/The New York Times

Battle at Boot Camp

For the Marine Corps, which has been slow to move toward gender integration, keeping men and women in separate platoons during training is its last stand

Jacob James, a 19-year-old recruit, eyed the rope bridge in front of him at Parris Island, a Marine Corps training base in the South Carolina marsh. It was the first day of the Crucible, the final, 54-hour field exercise that signifies the transition from recruit to Marine. For this obstacle, James was in charge of 15 of his peers, both men and women. Their goal: Move half a dozen 30-pound ammunition cans across the bridge.

It was the first time the roughly 330 men and women in Bravo Company were forced to work and speak with one another with a shared aim of completing a goal. About 11 weeks of training had already passed.

The male and female recruits had participated in other exercises, sometimes feet apart, practicing martial arts or on separate firing lines at the rifle range. But they had rarely spoken to each other. Individual platoons at Marine Corps boot camp remain separated by gender.

Now for the Crucible, the recruits of Bravo Company were no longer in their platoons but were instead smashed into smaller units of both genders from the company.

James laid out his plan to move the ammo cans: They would take a strand of cord connected to the cans, hang it over their necks and shuffle across the rope bridge.

Katelin Bradley, 19, standing in the huddled mass of her peers, raised her eyebrows. This did not sound like a good idea. She suggested attaching the cord connected to the cans to the rope bridge itself and pushing the load to the other side.

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

Bradley fell back into formation, taking her post on the edge of the obstacle, providing security from any possible, albeit fake, enemies.

Jacob James eyed the rope bridge in front of him at Parris Island, a Marine Corps training base in the South Carolina marsh. The 19-year-old recruit was participating in the first day of the Crucible. This final, 54-hour field exercise marked the transition from recruit to Marine. For this obstacle, James was in charge of 15 of his peers, both men and women. Their goal: Move half a dozen 30-pound ammunition cans across the bridge.

There were roughly 330 men and women in Bravo Company. It was the first time they had to work and speak with one another to complete a goal. About 11 weeks of training had already passed.

The male and female recruits had participated in other exercises. Sometimes they were only feet apart, practicing martial arts or on separate firing lines at the rifle range. But they had rarely spoken to each other. Individual platoons at Marine Corps boot camp remain separated by gender.

Now, for the Crucible, the recruits of Bravo Company were no longer in their platoons. Instead, they were put into smaller units of both genders from the company.

James laid out his plan to move the ammo cans: They would take a strand of cord connected to the cans, hang it over their necks and shuffle across the rope bridge.

Katelin Bradley, 19, standing in a huddle of her peers, raised her eyebrows. This did not sound like a good idea. She suggested attaching the cord connected to the cans to the rope bridge itself and pushing the load to the other side.

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

Bradley fell back into formation. She took her post on the edge of the obstacle. She was set to provide security from any possible, albeit fake, enemies.

By the Numbers

9%

PERCENTAGE of Marines who are women—the lowest percentage of any military branch.

PERCENTAGE of Marines who are women—the lowest percentage of any military branch.

231

NUMBER of female Marines in previously restricted combat jobs in 2019.

NUMBER of female Marines in previously restricted combat jobs in 2019.

2.5 million

NUMBER of women who have served in the U.S. military, from the Revolutionary War to today.

NUMBER of women who have served in the U.S. military, from the Revolutionary War to today.

SOURCES: United States Marine Corps; Women in Military Service For America Memorial

SOURCES: United States Marine Corps; Women in Military Service For America Memorial

Divided by Gender

The brief disagreement between James and Bradley played out last year amid the larger struggle within the Marines to integrate basic training. Only a few years ago, as male and female recruits began training in closer proximity, drill instructors ordered that they were forbidden to speak to one another under almost any circumstances. In the early 2000s, male platoons were often told to turn around when a female platoon walked past to avoid looking at them.

Much has changed. The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act included a provision that was intended to ensure by law that the Marine Corps would integrate recruit training, down to the platoon level.

But the vague language left enough room for the Marine Corps to interpret the directive in its own manner. So women and men are still kept in separate platoons and come together only for larger exercises, such as the Crucible.

The brief disagreement between James and Bradley played out last year in the middle of the larger struggle within the Marines to integrate basic training. Male and female recruits began training in closer proximity only a few years ago. Still, drill instructors ordered them not to speak to one another under almost any circumstances. In the early 2000s, male platoons were often told to turn around when a female platoon walked past to avoid looking at them.

Much has changed. The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act included a provision that aimed to ensure by law that the Marine Corps would integrate recruit training, down to the platoon level.

But the vague language left enough room for the Marine Corps to interpret the directive in its own manner. So women and men are still kept in separate platoons. They come together only for larger exercises, such as the Crucible.

Hilary Swift/The New York Times

Graduation at Parris Island, a Marine Corps training base in South Carolina

A Culture Rooted in Tradition

Women have served in the armed forces since the nation’s founding, often pushing back against gender restrictions (see timeline slideshow, below). It wasn’t until 2016 that all combat positions were officially opened to women.

The rest of the military is already completely integrated when it comes to basic training. But the Marine Corps—with a culture rooted in famous battles, heroes, and traditions—has been slow to move toward gender integration.

As the U.S. military prepared to open all combat jobs to women, the Marines Corps was the only service to look for exceptions to the rule, creating a study and a months-long experiment to show Pentagon officials that women were not fit for the roles. The effort failed. And in 2017, the Marines let women into the infantry for the first time. Later that year, the first woman graduated from the Corps’s notoriously tough Infantry Officer Course.

Today about 9 percent of the 185,000 Marines in the Corps are women. It’s the lowest percentage of any military branch.

Women have served in the armed forces since the nation’s founding. They’ve often pushed back against gender restrictions (see timeline, above). But it wasn’t until 2016 that all combat positions were officially opened to women.

The rest of the military is already completely integrated when it comes to basic training. But the Marine Corps has been slow to move toward gender integration. That’s because its culture is rooted in famous battles, heroes, and traditions.

As the U.S. military prepared to open all combat jobs to women, the Marines Corps was the only service to look for exceptions to the rule. It created a study and a months-long experiment to show Pentagon officials that women were not fit for the roles. The effort failed. And in 2017, the Marines let women into the infantry for the first time. Later that year, the first woman graduated from the Corps’s notoriously tough Infantry Officer Course.

Today about 9 percent of the 185,000 Marines in the Corps are women. It’s the lowest percentage of any military branch.

Marine officials say their insistence on keeping men and women separate revolves around the concept of platoon identity: the notion that waking, sleeping, and training together are an integral part of building what makes a Marine. The squad bays, where platoons sleep, are ecosystems themselves. Changing that, Marine officials say, by having men and women sleep in separate areas but joining in the morning as a platoon, would break that model.

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

However, many other people, including current and former Marines, say it’s time for the military branch to adapt to societal changes.

“Marine leaders have an antiquated view of gender,” says Erin Kirk-Cuomo, a former Marine sergeant who left the service in 2010. She adds, “They kick and scream because they don’t want to make a change, because they think it will make the Marine Corps weaker.”

However, change might be coming. The Marine Corps’ other training base, in San Diego, which had been all-male, agreed to admit women for the first time in February. As at Parris Island, the female recruits will train in a separate platoon from the men. But the Marine Corps has hired outside researchers to study how to best train men and women together at boot camp, and it plans to reassess integrated platoons after the study is completed this year or next.

Marine officials say their decision to keep men and women separate revolves around the concept of platoon identity. That’s the idea that waking, sleeping, and training together are a key part of what makes a Marine. The squad bays, where platoons sleep, are ecosystems themselves. Marine officials say that having men and women sleep in separate areas but joining in the morning as a platoon would break that model.

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

But many other people, including current and former Marines, say it’s time for the military branch to adapt to societal changes.

“Marine leaders have an antiquated view of gender,” says Erin Kirk-Cuomo, a former Marine sergeant who left the service in 2010. She adds, “They kick and scream because they don’t want to make a change, because they think it will make the Marine Corps weaker.”

But change might be coming. The Marine Corps’ other training base in San Diego had been all-male. It agreed to admit women for the first time in February. As at Parris Island, the female recruits will train in a separate platoon from the men. But the Marine Corps has hired outside researchers to study how to best train men and women together at boot camp. It plans to reassess integrated platoons after the study is completed this year or next.

Hilary Swift/The New York Times

Training in the swampy marshes at Parris Island

Breaking Ranks

Back at Parris Island, James’s team was struggling. The male recruits, ammo cans draped across their necks, were nearly vibrating off the rope bridge, struggling to handle the 30-pound pull of dead weight dangling well below their soaked boots. They were barely moving and running out of time.

Bradley watched from the edge of the obstacle, growing quietly frustrated. At first, she tried to motion with her hands, then by commands.

“Just tie them instead,” she yelled. No response.

Finally, she broke ranks. Her helmet soaked by rain and her mud-covered M16 rifle dangling, Bradley rushed to the bridge, grabbed one of the remaining rusty green ammo cans and tied its cord to the bridge. She started easily pushing the containers to the other side. James and the rest of the team watched with interest.

Back at Parris Island, James’s team was struggling. The male recruits had ammo cans draped across their necks. They were nearly vibrating off the rope bridge. And they were struggling to handle the 30-pound pull of dead weight dangling well below their soaked boots. They were barely moving and running out of time.

Bradley watched from the edge of the obstacle, growing quietly frustrated. At first, she tried to motion with her hands, then by commands.

“Just tie them instead,” she yelled. No response.

Finally, she broke ranks. Her helmet soaked by rain and her mud-covered M16 rifle dangling, Bradley rushed to the bridge. She grabbed one of the remaining rusty green ammo cans and tied its cord to the bridge. She started easily pushing the containers to the other side. James and the rest of the team watched with interest.

‘You end up having to work more as a team.’

She had cracked the code. James was the first to follow suit, and the rest of the team soon fell in behind Bradley.

After completing the Crucible, James and Bradley became full-fledged Marines and spoke briefly about their time together on the obstacle course. Private First Class Bradley noted bluntly and with a tinge of humor that while the men could sometimes lift heavier things, “the females can sometimes think.” She added that the separate platoons had made the women want to best the men during physical training.

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,” Private James said. “Us coming together at the very end was like a wake-up call.”

She had cracked the code. James was the first to follow suit, and the rest of the team soon fell in behind Bradley.

After completing the Crucible, James and Bradley became full-fledged Marines. They spoke briefly about their time together on the obstacle course. Private First Class Bradley noted bluntly and with a tinge of humor that while the men could sometimes lift heavier things, “the females can sometimes think.” She added that the separate platoons had made the women want to do better than the men during physical training.

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,” Private James said. “Us coming together at the very end was like a wake-up call.”

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a reporter for The New York Times and a former Marine infantryman. Additional reporting by Joe Bubar.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a reporter for The New York Times and a former Marine infantryman. Additional reporting by Joe Bubar.

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