A Marine Corps infantry commander's plan to let male and female grunts share the same tents and fighting positions is rekindling a heated debate about last year's decision to allow women to serve in combat units.
The move comes shortly after the first three female infantry Marines joined their unit, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in early January. The battalion's executive officer told Marine Corps Times on Tuesday that his unit will expect male and female Marines to share living conditions while in the field.
The decision has generated a tsunami of reactions, many from people suggesting that when men and women share a tent, inappropriate relationships will ensue.
"Don't care how much equality you want in the military, it's not right morally for me. I'm sure plenty of other married couples would feel the same," wrote Matt Ross, a former enlisted Marine, on the Marine Corps Times Facebook page on Wednesday.
"There are 'Jodys' even among the ranks of Marines," Ross wrote, referencing a term Marines use for a man who cheats with someone's wife.
The concerns come at a precarious time for the Pentagon's new women-in-combat policy. Approved last year by the Obama administration and former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the decision to open all military jobs to women could be revisited by President Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who have both expressed some skepticism about the change.
Longtime supporters of the historic change applauded the Corps' plan to have men and women sharing tents and fighting positions.
"This is a positive step for the Marines that will strengthen our fighting forces," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said in an email on Thursday.
For now, 1/8 is the only Marine infantry unit with female grunts. Decisions about sleep and shelter arrangements will be made at the unit level. "Individual commanders are responsible to determine bivouac plans for their units," said Maj. Clark Carpenter, a Marine spokesman.
The concerns about sexual relationships was echoed by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a Marine veteran who opposed former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’ efforts to integrate women into the infantry and other combat arms jobs.
Hunter said he never had any female Marines in his artillery battery, but he believes that having female and male Marines living together under austere conditions will lead to problems for staff noncommissioned officers.
"You’re going to have sex, you’re going to have love, you’re going to have relationships, and it’s going to overly complicate the command structure," Hunter told Marine Corps Times. "The point is to have the most efficient, effective military that America can have. If something doesn’t increase the effectiveness of the military, I think we need to take a really hard look at it."
But this is not the first time that male and female Marines have had to share tents, pointed out Kelli Kuduk, a Marine veteran who deployed four times, twice to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan.
Kuduk, who left the Marines as a sergeant in 2008, said she has been surprised at the concerns voiced about the prospect of male and female Marines living together in the field.
"It’s a perfectly normal thing that when you go to the field
you all kind of live in a pile, so to speak," said Kuduk, who served in signals intelligence.
During her first deployment to Afghanistan, Kuduk shared a fighting hole with male Marines and did not encounter any issues, she said. Some commenters on Facebook argued that female Marines would need separate toilet facilities in the field, but Kuduk said for her it was no big deal.
"Generally, I would say, ‘Hey guys, I need to pee,’" she said. "And I’d say: ‘Look that way.’ It didn’t really affect my ability to carry on with my job."
Kuduk found that junior enlisted Marines were perfectly fine living in the field with integrated units, but male senior enlisted leaders were constantly worried about relationships developing. Ironically, she found that it was when Marines of both genders lived together that they got along best, she said.
"The more you’re out there in the field in a fighting hole with a male Marine, they see you as an actual person," she said. "It was when we segregated the female Marines that incidents actually went up."
Retired Lt. Col. Kate Germano, who was in charge of training female recruits at the Marine Corps’ East Coast training depot, said she also believes having gender-integrated living conditions improves how men view women.
"The women want to be treated just like the men and the bottom line is that it is difficult to maintain trust and unit cohesion when there are different living conditions and there is a perception that there is a double standard for performance and conduct," said Germano, who is now chief operating officer for the Service Women’s Action Network.
In any integrated unit, inappropriate relationships between men and women are always a possibility without good leadership, Germano said.
The commander of 1st Battalion, 8th Marines has said he will hold his male and female Marines to the same standards.
Germano said, "It sounds like the battalion commander is intent on leading all of his Marines with a firm and fair hand, regardless of gender, and that’s exactly what we would want."
With all integrated units, leaders need to assuage military spouses’ concerns about men and women working and living together, she said.
"The more engaged the leadership is, in terms of the officers and staff NCOs in engaging with the spouses and communicating with them and hearing their concerns and explaining how these Marines will be treated, the less this will be an issue and the more it will be business as usual," Germano said.