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Brass Walk Back General's 'Barbie Doll' Remarks After Backlash

FILE - U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Austin Renforth, the commanding general of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. meets the Marines of First Marine Corps District in Garden City, N.Y., July 20, 2016. (U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Elizabeth Thurston)
FILE - U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Austin Renforth, the commanding general of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. meets the Marines of First Marine Corps District in Garden City, N.Y., July 20, 2016. (U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Elizabeth Thurston)

Marine Corps leadership is in damage control mode after comments made by the general in charge of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in an interview with Military.com generated a furor online.

In a video posted to social media Thursday evening, Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Glenn Walters said he had been asked about the article, which dealt with the Corps' efforts to make boot camp more integrated by gender.

In the Military.com interview, published Tuesday, Brig. Gen. Austin Renforth said the Marine Corps wanted to keep the early stages of recruit training separated by gender in part because female recruits tended to lack confidence when they arrived at boot camp, and having male recruits see them during the early days when they're struggling and emotional could make the wrong impression.

"I think we're trying to find, recruiting-wise, those women who were handed lacrosse sticks and hockey sticks growing up and not Barbie dolls," he said in the interview. "We don't always get that."

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While the comments generated some public reaction on Facebook and Twitter, a military official close to the situation told Military.com there had been an even stronger backlash within closed military-centric Facebook groups, and among "key stakeholders" among the Marines' efforts to promote gender integration in training.

The official praised Renforth for finding more opportunities for male and female recruits to train side-by-side in boot camp, but said his "clumsy choice of words" could detract from the Marine Corps' "overall goals" when it comes to training women and men.

"I was asked about my opinion on a recent Military.com article on integrated recruit training," Walters said in the one-minute video. "So, here goes. I am proud of the commanding general of Parris Island's effort to integrate the training of male and female recruits where it makes sense, and he has done that. In fact, we are more integrated now than ever, and it's working."

Walters reiterated the institutional viewpoint that there was value in training separately in the early boot camp stages, but disavowed Renforth's statements about female recruits' upbringings affecting their confidence levels.

"When it comes to hockey, lacrosse, or Barbie dolls, quite frankly I could not care less what games a troop plays prior to making the commitment to become a United States Marine," Walters said.

"As long as we continue to get young men and women of character and discipline who possess a willingness to be part of something bigger than self we will continue making marines, winning our nation's battles, and returning quality citizens back to their communities after their service to our great country," he said.

Lt. Col. Eric Dent, public affairs officer for Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, told Military.com that Walter's statement was not meant to be a rebuke or reprimand to Renforth but said at least one of Renforth's quotes had caused confusion among Marines.

"Most understand what Brig. Gen. Renforth was likely getting at ... being a member of a physically-demanding athletic team might be beneficial, but it's not mutually exclusive," Dent said in an emailed statement.

Renforth had been invited by Marine Corps officials to respond to his own comments directly, but had declined to do so, the official told Military.com. Inquiries to officials at Parris Island did not receive an immediate response Thursday evening.

The quick public response by senior Marine Corps leadership underscores the sensitivity surrounding the topic of women in uniform and the microscope the service is under when it comes to its male-dominated culture.

The Marine Corps is still dealing with the aftermath of a March report that revealed that active-duty troops were sharing nude and compromising images of female service members without their consent via a closed Facebook page, Marines United.

The Marines United scandal has prompted multiple congressional inquiries and hearings, and resulted in a dedicated Marine Corps task force to address both internet conduct and cultural treatment of women in the Marine Corps.

Kate Germano, a retired lieutenant colonel and the former commander of Parris Island's all-female Fourth Recruit Training Battalion, told Military.com Walters' comments on Renforth's remarks didn't go far enough.

"It doesn't surprise me that it would be an attention gainer because the comments that Renforth made were so terrible," she said. "It feeds into that narrative that women are weaker that they're less emotionally stable."

Germano was relieved from her command in 2015 after an investigation determined she was too hard on recruits and subordinates. Germano maintains her firing was a backlash from Parris Island leadership after her successful efforts to bring up female recruits' rifle range scores and instill a more competitive mindset in her unit.

She has been an outspoken advocate of making all Marine Corps boot camp training integrated by gender, as it is in the other services, and had publicly criticized Renforth's comments about female recruits via social media.

"Anyone else offended by the sweeping sexist statements in this article?" she wrote on Twitter June 7, with a link to the Renforth interview. "Sexism starts with how we recruit and hold them to low expectations."

Germano suggested Renforth's position at the depot should be reevaluated in light of his remarks.

"He made those comments thinking that was okay," she said. "The environment at [Parris Island] was one where we create gender stereotypes, we say that no women can be as strong as male Marines ... the commanding general of Parris Island just told male recruits that women can't compete."

Additional administrative action is not expected, a military official said.

Walters, who heads the Marine Corps' new task force on internet conduct and culture, is expected to address the Joint Annual Women's Leadership Symposium in Norfolk next week.

-- Editor's note: This story was updated to correct a quote in the 10th paragraph and include a response from the commandant's spokesman beginning in the 11th paragraph.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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Headlines Marine Corps Women in the Military Military Recruitment Hope Seck

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