Editor's note: This story was first published on July 7. The updated version includes a copy of the command investigation.
A Marine officer who led the service's only all-female recruit battalion was fired amid complaints of a toxic leadership environment — but her supporters say she was only trying to make the unit better by holding women to tougher standards.
Lt. Col. Kate Germano, the former commanding officer of 4th Recruit Training Battalion at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, was found to be "hostile, unprofessional and abusive," according to a command investigation obtained by Marine Corps Times. She was relieved for cause on June 30 by Brig. Gen. Terry Williams, Parris Island's commanding general.
But officers who served with her say she was a blunt reformer who spearheaded efforts to improve recruit training regardless of gender, and that a vocal minority in the battalion undercut her achievements. Germano's tactics, for example, dramatically improved range qualification rates for female recruits.
The ensuing controversy, some say, provides a glimpse into an ongoing struggle to establish equal standards for male and female Marines at the Corps' East Coast recruit depot. Now Germano is petitioning lawmakers for redress, saying she was treated unjustly by base leadership. Germano declined to provide additional details about those efforts, due to concerns about protected communications to Congress.
Williams cited a poor command climate and the loss of trust and confidence in Germano's ability to serve in command, according to a statement that was provided to Marine Corps Times. The command investigation, completed June 25 and obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, states that Germano displayed "toxic leadership" by publicly berating and showing contempt for subordinates, bullying Marines and singling them out for under-performance.
On one occasion, the investigation found, she made comments during a sexual assault prevention brief that female Marines interpreted as victim-blaming, leading some to testify that it would make them feel less comfortable reporting a sexual assault within the command.
Germano also "reinforced gender bias and stereotypes" in the minds of her Marines by telling them on several occasions that male Marines would not take orders from them and would see them as inferior if they could not meet men's physical standards, the investigation found.
The nearly 300-page document included more than two dozen partially redacted interviews and written statements from Marines at Parris Island and within Germano's unit.
It also included the results of a Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute command climate survey taken by 64 members of the battalion in April. The survey found that nearly half of respondents thought the unit did not promote a climate based on respect and trust, and nearly 20 percent of respondents believed the unit did not create an environment where victims would feel comfortable reporting a sexual assault.
In a letter to 4th Recruit Training Battalion following her relief, Germano painted a different picture — one in which her unit had excelled regardless of outside opposition.
"Despite considerable active and passive resistance throughout all echelons of the Recruit Depot and the Marine Corps, we each worked incredibly hard to improve the performance of our recruits to make them stronger, faster, smarter, and better shots — all to better the institution," she wrote. "We achieved unprecedented and historic results in just a short period of time, and regardless of the controversy cause by our goal to improve the caliber of our graduates, I ask that you remain steadfast and committed to this objective."
Germano declined requests for comment, telling Marine Corps Times that she wanted the letter to serve as her statement on the matter. In that letter, she wrote that she had one final request for her Marines: to pull together and move forward as a unit despite her firing.
A year at Parris Island
A legal officer by training, Germano took command of the unit last June. At the post, she was responsible for leading nearly 100 Marines and overseeing three drill instructor teams, responsible for 22 boot camp series graduations per year. In her 18 years as a Marine officer, she held a number of high-profile positions, including a year as Marine aide to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in 2011. She previously served as commander of Recruiting Station San Diego, screening potential recruits from 2007-2010.
According the accounts of three officers who served at Parris Island and spoke with Marine Corps Times, Germano was dismayed upon arrival to find that the all-female recruit battalion was kept separate from its male counterparts for events such as the Crucible hike, the famed concluding challenge of boot camp. The unit, she found, struggled to retain adequate enlisted and officer staff because of its all-female composition, resulting in shortened rest periods between boot camp series and overworked Marines. She also discovered that the standards for female recruit performance in objective skills such as shooting were historically lower than for male recruits.
"What she did when she came is she changed the mentality of the Marines in the battalion and the recruits to not expect a historically lower performance than the male recruits at the battalion," said a female Marine officer stationed at the depot, one of three who spoke with Marine Corps Times on condition of anonymity, for fear of professional retribution. "Almost all the categories performed better during her tenure, just by challenging the training protocol of performing separately."
Parris Island officials confirmed that range qualification scores improved dramatically within 4th RTB during Germano's tenure. From 2014-2015, average first-time rifle qualification rates for the depot's three male battalions improved from 93 percent to 96 percent, said Col. Jeff Fultz, chief of staff for Parris Island and the Eastern Recruiting Region. During the same timeframe, rifle qual rates for the female battalion soared from 79 percent to 91 percent.
A May 18 "request mast" memo submitted to Williams, the depot commander, shows that Germano believed these efforts were being undermined by her immediate superior, Recruit Training Regiment commander Col. Daniel Haas.
Germano wrote that Haas had an "intractable stance" regarding her ability to command that was further cemented by the poor results of the April command climate survey. Haas declined through his command to offer comment on the request mast.
"Through his words, actions, and omissions, he has empowered malcontents within my unit to foment dissent as demonstrated by the very pointed and similar comments about me in the recent [Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute] survey," she wrote. "...This has resulted in a climate where female Marines who seek out the regiment staff to complain that the battalion leadership is mean are treated with kid gloves (feelings vs. facts)."
In the request, she asked that depot leadership be directed to consider 100 percent of the battalion's feedback in forming a perspective on the unit's command climate, and that the entire unit be allowed to take a Commandant of the Marine Corps command climate survey, administered in a formal, controlled way. The DEOMI survey, she said, had been loosely controlled, allowing disgruntled Marines to take it multiple times and negatively weight the responses. According to official documentation, 64 of the 99 members of the battalion took the survey, and at least one respondent admitted to taking it more than once, though it's not clear what kind of feedback the respondent provided.
The command climate survey, Fultz said, had been administered like any other DEOMI survey. It would have been possible for Marines to take the survey multiple times, Fultz said. However, he said, the survey was not the only factor that prompted Williams to conduct the initial command investigation.
Fultz said a second investigation, conducted by Training and Education Command at the behest of Williams, found no evidence of the hostile work environment or gender-based discrimination that Germano alleged.
That investigation, which was completed June 26 and released to Marine Corps Times, established that the relationship between Haas and Germano was strained, but found no evidence of gender or protected-class discrimination, based on a series of interviews conducted by TECOM officials. It did, however, establish that 4th RTB struggled due to inadequate personnel and a high operational tempo, a problem that Germano worked hard to change, according to officers who served with her.
The investigating officer recommended that the battalion's on-hand end strength and operational tempo be reviewed, and concurred with Germano's request for a fresh CMC or DEOMI command climate survey, asking that one be completed no earlier than the end of October, with input from her and Haas. TECOM Commander Maj. Gen. James Lukeman disapproved these recommendations, however, saying no additional manpower review at Parris Island was necessary and advising only that normal DEOMI command climate surveys continue.
A TECOM spokesman said the survey recommendation was rendered inapplicable by Germano's relief, as a new command climate survey would be implemented within 30 days of a new commander's arrival, according to existing Marine Corps regulations. Lukeman also said in his investigation endorsement that he found "no indication of inadequate support" at 4th RTB, and that TECOM continued to support manning requirements across the command.
'Throw like a girl'
The Parris Island command investigation and witness statements paint a portrait of Germano as a driven officer who could be abrasive and aggressive, and doggedly pursued the goal of unit improvement to the apparent alienation of at least some Marines in the command.
The document describes a May 9 Crucible hump conducted by the battalion's Papa Company, which finished about a half mile behind a male recruit company. Witnesses alleged Germano took the company to task in a meeting two days after the hike, saying it was the worst she'd ever seen and the Marines in the company should be as embarrassed as she was about it. She also told the Papa Company Marines company that they were responsible for the negative comments in the command climate survey and that she was tired of being blamed, the investigation states.
If the unit's members "focused on doing the right thing instead of running outside of [the battalion] talking about how mean she was and how horrible the command is, our command climate would be just fine," she told the unit, according to one member who was interviewed.
Another event that illustrates the tension between Germano's attempt at reform and the pushback from her unit came the same month, when she showed the short film "Throw Like a Girl," to a group of new Marines. Created for a Procter & Gamble advertisement that was screened during the Super Bowl, the video illustrates how many take the descriptor "like a girl" to mean weak or ineffective. The class then took a hard-edged turn, according to multiple witness statements, when Germano singled out Marines who couldn't perform three pullups or complete a physical fitness test's 3-mile run in less than 23 minutes.
Making these Marines stand, she told them they wouldn't be able to lead their male counterparts in the fleet, witnesses said.
Allegations that Germano took a "victim-blaming" approach to sexual assault prevention stem from a January brief to officers. Witnesses said she implied that sexual assault is "100 percent preventable" and that "by drinking, you are putting yourself in a position to be sexually assaulted." One attendee said she would not feel comfortable reporting an assault following the brief because she felt it would not be taken seriously.
The investigation found that Germano's personal viewpoints on the issue of sexual assault revealed no malice or bad intent. But, the investigating officer found, her poor choice of words and focus on accountability left room for misinterpretation and left some Marines feeling less safe.
Multiple witnesses, however, testified that Germano was a caring and supportive leader who made herself available to her Marines and prioritized troop welfare and the wellbeing of their families.
"I have been mentored and supported throughout my time here and feel the environment is demanding but in a positive manner that encourages growth and learning and creates pride from successes," one Marine witness said in a voluntary statement.
One female officer who spoke to Marine Corps Times in Germano's defense said she had observed her as a leader and mentor who went beyond the requirements of her job to look after her Marines, even taking the time to send flowers to family members of troops who were ill.
While the officer felt that the majority of the troops understood and supported what Germano was trying to do for the battalion, others clashed with her direct personality or "didn't have the best encounters" with her method, the officer said. The pressure to ready the unit for upcoming changes, such as a new requirement that all female Marines perform pullups that may be implemented as soon as next year, only compounded tensions, she said.
"She was trying to make a difference for everyone," the officer said. "Who knows if she went about it the right way; I can't say."
A May 21 statement from a 4th RTB Marine whose name and title is redacted sums up what appears to be a commonly held viewpoint.
"I thought she proposed some good initiatives such as transparency in billet selections and improving rifle range scores," the Marine wrote. "However, as the summer wore in, it became apparent that [Germano] thought she was fixing a broken battalion with a poor command climate."
Germano's reputation suffered due to a lack of buy-in to her reform efforts from other officers in the unit, said another officer who spoke with the paper.
"Lt. Col. Germano is direct, and people have a tendency to take it personally," she said. "If it had come from a male officer, there would have been no objection."
Another Parris Island officer who supported Germano's fight to address unit personnel shortfalls said the unit was better for having her as a commanding officer.
"The battalion was headed in the right direction under Lt. Col. Germano," the officer said. "She meant well. She was very passionate for what she did and believed in."