As the Marine Corps hurtles toward congressionally set deadlines to integrate entry-level training at both of its boot camps, leaders say they’re most troubled by a basic math problem.
About 9% of the Marine Corps is female ― the lowest percentage of any military service ― and female drill instructors historically have worked at a higher tempo and with less rest than their male counterparts to meet mission requirements, according to a 2021 University of Pittsburgh report commissioned by the Marine Corps.
In 2021, the service announced it wanted to increase its female drill instructor population by a daunting 70 personnel, from 134–207 within the next five years, to support the integration mandate. But at a December 2022 presentation to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, a top Marine Corps Training and Education Command official said the COVID-19 pandemic has made achieving that goal even more difficult.
Due to restrictions on in-person recruiting in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, the Marine Corps had accessed 3,239 fewer male and 1,243 fewer female Marines than expected during this period, said Col. Howard Hall, Training and Education Command chief of staff.
“Therefore, there will be fewer female E-4 to E-6s available and eligible to meet the 207 female DI requirement in FY 24-26, which is our critical transition period,” he said.
Nonetheless, he said, the planning team leading integration efforts had developed an updated roadmap to meet the 207 drill instructors goal by 2027, when Marine Corps Recruit Depots Parris Island, South Carolina, and San Diego are each expected to train 50% of female recruits.
“In order to stay on track, we conducted an annual assessment and will continue to do so that measures risk among all of these important entities and applies mitigations from the enterprise level,” Hall said.
In a later conversation with Marine Corps Times, Hall did not break down the specific adjustments that would keep the service’s ramp-up plan on track, but indicated that leaders might be forced to take measures they’ve historically sought to avoid, such as involuntarily assigning female Marines to special duty as drill instructors.
Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs “said it’ll be tight, but we can do it,” Hall said. “But we have to keep an eye on it every year. Because again, Marines have a vote, and sometimes they vote with their feet, so to speak.”
When the Marine Corps doesn’t get enough volunteers to fill all required positions within special duty assignments, such as drill instructor or Marine embassy security guard, it can deploy the Headquarters Marine Corps Special Duty Assignments Screening Team, or HSST, which screens Marines for mandatory assignment to the jobs. If a Marine declines an HSST order, he or she is classified as ineligible for reenlistment.
“The problem is, the success rate of individuals who are ‘HSST’-ed, it’s quite a bit lower than those who volunteer,” Hall said. “So if we go beyond volunteers and go into ‘HSST’-ing, young men and women make a very difficult choice.”
Marine leaders, he added, also wanted to make sure that other special duty assignment communities didn’t get shorted, and the career trajectory of Marines didn’t suffer, because of the needs of the drill instructor community.
A two-year independent study completed by the University of Pittsburgh and delivered to the Marine Corps in summer 2022 goes into greater depth about the built-in challenges for the service’s female drill instructors.
While there are enough male drill instructors to assign a “ghost platoon” of spare instructors to every male recruit company to account for injury and other attrition, female recruit companies don’t have that luxury. Female drill instructors get shorter breaks to make sure every female recruit cycle gets staffed. And when drill instructors need to drop due to injury or pregnancy, the pressure on remaining staff becomes even more brutal.
“Most of our female drill instructors lose custody of their children,” an enlisted female Marine Corps training cadre member from Parris Island, South Carolina, told researchers. “Their marriages fall apart, [and] their bodies end up in casts.”
Hall told the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services that the Marine Corps did not want to pursue one of the report’s key recommendations, to create mixed-gender drill instructor teams for all recruit units, until the service had met its target of 207 female drill instructors. To integrate every drill instructor team, he said, the service estimated it would need an additional 51 female drill instructors on top of that baseline.
“So, step one, we get from 134 to 207 to accomplish our company integrated model as it is today,” he said. “It’s a balancing act. So it’s aspirational for right now. But once we build that capacity, we will move toward that direction.”
A major contention by the Marine Corps in regard to entry-level training is that all Marine recruits must have the same experience at boot camp, and thus any changes must be implemented at full scale.
“I’m a one-standard kind of individual,” Lt. Gen. Kevin Iiams, commanding general of TECOM, told Marine Corps Times in a September 2022 interview. “I don’t want to have mixed DI teams for only portions of the recruit population … it’s got to be everyone.”
The study proposes, however, that an incremental approach that integrates some teams right away might take some pressure off of female drill instructors as the Marine Corps works to build its staff population to the desired strength.
Recruits already had dramatically different training experiences based on their boot camp location: mountainous hikes on the West Coast, humidity and sand fleas on the East Coast, said Sidra Montgomery, a senior researcher with Insight Policy Research and a co-author of the report.
The study team recommended a strategy that prioritized mixed drill instructor teams in companies that had both male and female recruits would require a smaller number of female drill instructors to execute and avoid inequitable staffing workloads. Female drill instructors at all-male companies likely would be unable to take turns supervising recruits in the squad bays overnight, for example, Montgomery said.
“It would be great to have female drill instructors in every training company; that would be incredible for the Marine Corps,” she told Marine Corps Times in an interview. “It’s just that their population levels don’t support this,” she told Marine Corps Times in an interview. “In my opinion, it’s not super realistic at this point in time ― but they can start doing mixed-DI teams with integrated companies now.”
An entry-level training advisory council assembled to consider the report is expected to make more decisions and recommendations regarding its findings in the coming year.
Hope Hodge Seck is an award-winning investigative and enterprise reporter covering the U.S. military and national defense. The former managing editor of Military.com, her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Politico Magazine, USA Today and Popular Mechanics.