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Cheered By Pentagon's Decision, Female Marines Turn Focus Toward Training

Sgt. Kelly Brown puts her weapon over her shoulder at the Marine base at Twentynine Palms, Calif., in March. On Thursday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that women would be allowed to serve in combat jobs.
Sgt. Kelly Brown puts her weapon over her shoulder at the Marine base at Twentynine Palms, Calif., in March. On Thursday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that women would be allowed to serve in combat jobs.

The Pentagon has been debating the role of women in combat for generations. Women began serving in the military in support positions, far from the actual fighting. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan essentially erased ideas of front lines — and even if women weren't allowed in combat, technically, they were anyway.

Last week, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter made the shift official.

"Women will now be able to contribute to our mission in ways they could not before," Carter announced at an event Thursday. "They'll be able to drive tanks, fire mortars, lead infantry soldiers into combat. They'll be able to serve as army rangers, green berets, navy seals, marine corp infantry, air force parajumpers — and everything else that was previously open only to men."

It's an announcement cheered by female Marines like Capt. Zoe Bedell, a logistics officer who served two tours in Afghanistan. She left the Marine Corps in 2011, citing frustrations with what she saw as a glass ceiling in the military.

"When you are at the basic school, which is the first round of Marine Corps training for officers, you list your preferences for your military job," Bedell tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "Infantry was not on the list, artillery was not on the list, human intelligence was not on the list — which I found particularly frustrating, because I had studied Arabic."

Cpt. Zoe Bedell.
E.B. Boyd / Courtesy of Zoe Bedell
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Cpt. Zoe Bedell.

Now, she is the plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU against the Department of Defense, which sought to overturn the ban against women in combat.

"If you think about what the Marine Corps does, the Marine Corps fights. It is a war-fighting organization. And so if you are being excluded from doing what the organization does, you are going to have more limited opportunities," Bedell says. "You are going to always be marginalized within that organization."

So, when Carter declared an end to that ban Thursday, Bedell says she got chills just listening. And as for the integration of women into combat positions, Bedell says, "I am very optimistic that they won't disappoint."

But there are some reasons to wonder if the transition will go smoothly. Bedell's own Marine Corps privately resisted the decision, partly on the basis of the Corps' yearlong study showing mixed combat units performed worse than all-male units.

Marine Lt. Col. Kate Germano, an active-duty officer who ran an all-female training battalion at Parris Island, the Corps' boot camp in South Carolina, says the key to success in the transition rests partly in recruitment.

"If you select the right women, who are already fit and are athletically inclined, and are mentally strong and resilient, they fare better than those who come to Parris Island completely not prepared," Germano tells NPR's Lynn Neary.

Lt. Col. Kate Germano (right, arms crossed) stands beside Sgt. Lindsey Rodriguez.
Lindsey Rodriguez / Courtesy of Kate Germano
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Lt. Col. Kate Germano (right, arms crossed) stands beside Sgt. Lindsey Rodriguez.

"What I will say is that women who choose to join the Marine Corps generally come in because they want to be held to a higher standard," says Germano, who has been training Marines for years. "And my higher standard applied to men as well as women."

And she's careful to note that, despite the way headlines may make the situation sound, one thing isn't changing.

"This isn't about women going into combat; women have gone into combat for decades now and have excelled. This is in particular about infantry," Germano says.

"There will be a certain number of women who are qualified and many, many other women will not be qualified — or may be qualified but may not desire the job. You could say the same thing for the male population. What I would say is this is really about the next generation of Marines. "

Mostly, she says, the transition may come down to a simple principle.

"This is a team effort," Germano says, "and this is about making sure that we've just established a level platform for women and men."

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