In a crisp autumn dawn among the North Carolina pines, 200 panting, sweaty infantry students forged ahead on their route. Daybreak signaled the end of a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) march out of darkness as it had for countless men before. On that morning, however, four women stood sharing the accomplishment.
Now three of those Marines – Pfcs. Julia Carroll, Christina Fuentes Montenegro and Katie Gorz – have become the first entry-level enlisted women to complete infantry training as part of the Marine Corps’ research effort toward integrating women into previously closed ground-combat assignments.
A graduation ceremony Nov. 21 for the 224 students of Delta Company at the School of Infantry East, Camp Geiger, N.C., marked the occasion. The women will not be taking on combat-arms roles and instead will continue to their assigned military occupational specialty school.
They will receive credit for completing infantry training in addition to satisfying the common combat-skills training required of every rifleman.
Their success allows the Corps to move forward since the Secretary of Defense’s decision to rescind the 1994 direct-combat exclusion rule for women in January 2013. The Marine Corps gathered data on the women’s performance as they executed existing infantry tasks and training events.
The Fiscal 2011 National Defense Authorization Act required the services to provide a review of laws, policies and regulations restricting the service of women in the Armed Forces. The Marine Corps along with the other services and Special Operations Command developed a deliberate plan to fully integrate women into newly opened positions no later than January 1, 2016.
The Corps’ plan outlines the commandant’s intent to adopt a deliberate, measured and responsible approach to ensure the highest levels of combat readiness are maintained and commensurate with the Corps’ role as the nation’s crisis response force while providing every Marine the opportunity to realize his or her potential, and posture them for success.
Marine Corps officials said any force-wide changes to be made will occur only after the Corps has conducted its research, determined the way ahead and set the conditions to implement recommendations.
Carroll, Fuentes Montenegro and Gorz are remainders of a group of 15 recruit-training graduates who volunteered and qualified for student assignments to the school’s Infantry Training Battalion beginning Sept. 24.
The 20-km hike Oct. 28 was a milestone in the training. Some women dropped from the course and some, having completed combat training required for all entry-level Marines, began their paths to combat-supporting occupations. Seven women remained before the hike, and three were among a group of 29 Marines who fell out while hiking.
The hike kicked off patrol week, or what instructors consider the most challenging and important week of training in which students apply their newfound knowledge.
“Patrol week is crucial because it teaches the Marines how to efficiently take care of their bodies when in the field,” said Staff Sgt. Billy Shinault, company gunnery sergeant for Delta Company.
Among performing other vital combat skills, the students demonstrated hand-and-arm signals, set ambushes and defensive positions, and simulated crossing danger areas — all designed to build confidence and show they can execute the fundamentals required of an infantryman.
“(The students) push themselves to the limit, and that’s all we ask for here,” Sgt. David Rogers, a Delta Company platoon leader. “They’re so new. They want to taste the blood. They give everything they’ve got.”
Beyond patrol week was a week firing the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle, a final exam and a stress shoot designed to show the realism of battle.
Three of the final four remaining women held positions of leadership or authority: one squad leader, one fire team leader and one clerk.
“We (combat instructors) see leaders and put them in those positions,” said Rogers, an infantryman with more than 10 years of service, including multiple combat deployments. “You don’t just get that overnight; you have to be a leader.”