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After first co-ed infantry class, new perspectives on women in combat

Nov. 24, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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Pfc. Cristina Fuentes Montenegro, 25, left, shares a moment with Pfc. Julia Carroll, 18, during the Infantry Training Battalion graduation ceremony held on Camp Geiger.
Pfc. Cristina Fuentes Montenegro, 25, left, shares a moment with Pfc. Julia Carroll, 18, during the Infantry Training Battalion graduation ceremony held on Camp Geiger. (John Althouse / The (Jacksonville, N.C.) Daily New)
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CAMP GEIGER, N.C. — Their task: Complete a grueling 59-day test of physical and mental strength for a job long thought to be out of their reach.

Their reward: Credit in their career personnel file, and a place in U.S. military history.

Their identities: hidden, until one of them posted online an instantly iconic photo revealing their grinning faces to the world.

On Nov. 21, three female Marines — Pfc. Cristina Fuentes Montenegro, 25, Pfc. Julia Carroll, 18, and Pfc. Katie Gorz, 19 — became the first women to graduate from the Marine Corps’ enlisted infantry training course here at Camp Geiger. They were assigned to Delta Company, Infantry Training Battalion. A fourth woman, Pfc. Harlee Bradford, who was sidelined with a leg fracture, may join them in a few weeks if upon her recovery she can complete the program’s final Combat Fitness Test and Physical Fitness Test.

ITB, as Marines call it, is a mandatory course for enlisted personnel hoping to obtain an infantry military occupational specialty. It was opened to women this fall as part of the Marine Corps’ research to identify which additional ground combat jobs may lift their gender restrictions.

Fifteen female Marines reported to ITB on Sept. 24 alongside their male counterparts. Training challenges included progressively longer hikes, culminating during late October with a 12½-mile hump while weighed down with 90-pound packs. Ultimately, 11 women would drop out or be cut from the course, a 73 percent attrition rate.

In all, 222 men completed the course out of 266 who began it, officials said. Of those who did not graduate, 18 will join another company and try again. Lt. Col. Dave Wallis, the battalion’s commanding officer, said fewer than 10 male Marines will fail entirely, giving the men an attrition rate of three or four percent.

Marine Corps infantry specialties remain closed to women. These three graduates will receive credit for the course, but report to noninfantry MOS schools for further training. Gorz plans to pursue a logistics specialty. Fuentes Montenegro intends to become an aviation mechanic. Carroll will train in signals intelligence.

The Marine Corps continues to evaluate the possibility of opening infantry roles as part of the Pentagon’s Women in Service Restriction Review. Officials plan to send 300 women through ITB by next fall, though officials have said they won’t open any infantry fields before 2015 — and even then, the service could ask for an exception that would keep some jobs closed to women.

Already, two more companies, Echo and Alpha, began training with the battalion in October. Wallis said nine of the 13 women who began with Echo company remain while eight of nine remain in Alpha.

Bravo company, which kicked off its training cycle Nov. 12, has yet to drop one of its 22 female volunteers, Wallis said.

During the graduation ceremony, Wallis congratulated the Marines on their achievement. “I have two messages for you.” he said. “The first is this: You are prepared. No matter where you go, the training you received will fare you well.”

The second message, Wallis said, was first captured in an iconic recruiting poster depicting a Marine drill instructor locking eyeballs with a sheepish recruit. “We don’t promise you a rose garden,” it says.

“You have to fight for that job. You have to earn it,” Wallis told the Marines. “Never stop challenging yourself, never stop moving forward.”

Marine Corps Times was present for the graduation ceremony, after which the media was allowed to interview Carroll, Fuentes Montenegro and two of their male classmates, Pfcs. Trent Wetzel and Daniel Lemustundidor. Gorz, who was chosen to be a squad leader during the course, according to media reports, declined to be interviewed.

Excerpts from the discussion, edited for space and clarity:

Q.
Why did you volunteer for infantry training, knowing you wouldn’t be able to pick up an infantry MOS

Fuentes Montenegro: I did the training because it was going to make me a better Marine, a more prepared Marine.

Carroll: The extra training. It’s very valuable, especially since women in noncombat MOSs may see combat.

Q.
What was the hardest part of the course?

Carroll: It was just training day-in and day-out. That was the toughest part; the constant training.

Fuentes Montenegro: Every day had a challenge because the gear that we use, it’s heavy. We have to keep up with [the men] ... even walking in formation, our strides are shorter. So every day was a challenge physically for us.

Q. Was it ever hard to keep going, knowing you had the option of quitting at any time?

Carroll: Quitting was never an option for me. I don’t believe in quitting. So the fact that I could quit any time, technically, legally, it didn’t mean anything. I was never going to quit.

Fuentes Montenegro: Yes, we had tough moments, and yes, there were moments when we had to remember ourselves while we were doing it, but dropping out was never an option.

Q.
How were you treated by the male Marines in Delta Company?

Carroll: I didn’t know what to think. I was worried that there would be a lot of negative vibes, I guess, from the males, but I didn’t experience that. As the days passed, I was more and more eager to get on with training. I really experienced no bad vibes at all, in the beginning or ever.

Fuentes Montenegro: I also did not experience bad vibes, but the bond [between the male and female students] definitely grew with the training.

Q. Do you wish you could follow the male Marines into the infantry field?

Carroll: I do. I don’t know how to explain it. I just wish I could. ... We’re trained to take care of each other, and I wish I could help take care of them.

Fuentes Montenegro: If the Marine Corps held us to the same standards as males, and they believed that we are ready, then yes, I would definitely do that.

Q. What advice would you give the female Marines who are coming after you in ITB?

Fuentes Montenegro: I would say give it all you got. Our instructor, he told us that all it takes is everything you’ve got, and it’s true. Once you are committed to a goal, you can make it if you throw everything at the goal. And always keep your focus on training. That’s the most important thing.

Q.
If you could have any Marine Corps specialty you wanted, what would you choose?

Carroll: I would be a mortarman. … My dad, he was a grunt, too. He told me stories when I was little, and I just always wanted to do what he did.

Fuentes Montenegro: I really can’t answer that question. Five months ago, I had no idea I was going to be here. But I would definitely say that my love for the Marine Corps has grown so much in these few months. I want to wait and see what it has for me.

Q.
What was is like for you going through this training, knowing no one has ever done it before?

Fuentes Montenegro: We didn’t take it as, oh, we’re going to be the first ones. We took it as, we have more training to do, and yes, we’re lucky to get more training than other female Marines.

Q. For the male graduates, what was it like training alongside women?

Wetzel: When you’re in ITB, you’re all together. You’re out in the field with each other. That’s a bond you’ll never forget. I believe there’s a saying: We’re all just different shades of green. I believe that. I don’t see gender.

Lemustundidor: At the beginning, we didn’t know how to react to females. But throughout the training, there was just, a brother, a sister, another brother that we were training with.

Q. Some men are apprehensive about integrating women into the infantry. What is your message to them?

Wetzel: Everyone has an opinion. Personally, I believe it’s fine. Training is training.

Lemustundidor: Everyone does have an opinion, but until you’re put in that position, you can’t really judge it. You have to wait to see how it plays out.

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