After Losing Combat Debate, Corps Sells Gender Integration to Marines

Female recruits form up at the Marine Corps Training Depot on Parris Island, S.C.

Since Marine Lt. Col. Larry Coleman started facilitating two-day "train-the-trainer" sessions explaining how the Corps is going to funnel women into ground combat roles for the first time in history, some of the most challenging questions he has received have to do with data the service collected on doing just that.

Coleman, the Integration branch head for Marine Corps Manpower, Plans and Policy, said the officers and senior enlisted leaders he trains often want to know why the Marine Corps is proceeding with the task of opening infantry jobs to women after a yearlong experiment found squads and teams with female members shot less accurately, performed more slowly and were injured more frequently than all-male ones.

It's a valid question; this data, after all, is part of the reason why Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Marines' top officer at the time, last year petitioned Defense Secretary Ash Carter to keep some jobs closed. But the Marine Corps was overruled on that count, and now brass are in the position of selling the comprehensive integration policy that some didn't want to ground-pounders with their own reservations.

Regarding the questions about the experimental data, "that's a tough one, and it’s always going to be a tough one when we explain it to them," Coleman said.

He said he emphasizes that the performance data collected from teams with female members was presented relative to that collected from all-male teams, and did not mean that the mixed-gender teams had failed.

"We tell them that yes, the majority of the tasks they performed at a lower level," he said. "However, their performance was not unsatisfactory … they were still meeting what we have in our training and readiness manuals as the standards."

And some of that difference, he continued, could be attributed to the fact that women recruited for the wide-ranging ground combat experiment were not able to come up through the infantry ranks and gain experience over years on the job, as many of the men did.

Coleman encourages Marines to take gender out of the equation when thinking about physicality and getting the job done.

"Any Marine who is 5'2" is going to have trouble dragging a 6'4" Marine who is kitted up for combat out of a firefight," he said. "So we need to kind of figure out how we do that."

He also shares a story from his own previous experience as the commanding officer of 2nd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. Prior to a deployment to Afghanistan, he said, the all-male unit was taken aback to discover the corpsman they were assigned was a slightly built woman. They doubted she would be able to handle the physical rigors of the job, but put her through predeployment training anyway. To their surprise, she thrived.

"She was female, she was small, she was from the Navy, not even a Marine, and so when she came in she already had a couple strikes against her," Coleman said. "But because we forced them to train her, work with her … they realized, not only can she fit into the team but she's a really competent corpsman as well."

For a service in which only seven percent of troops are women, the decision to make the infantry co-ed marks a significant cultural shift -- easily the biggest change of its kind since the military repealed the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" prohibition on gay troops serving openly in 2010. But the Marine Corps allowed reporters to sit in on the mandatory training sessions held for troops regarding what the DADT repeal meant for their work and operations. The fact that training sessions regarding gender integration are closed to press may speak to the heightened sensitivity surrounding the issue.

"The Marines are reserved enough when senior ranking Marines and officers are in there. When you start to bring in civilian staff and other civilians, they get even more reserved," Coleman said. "We really want to have an honest, open discussion with them to address concerns, to address their own personal problems or issues, their misperceptions, to answer the hard questions."

The two-day sessions, which began taking place across the Marine Corps in May, first address the concrete facts of how the service plans to prepare previously closed units to receive female members and how the new gender-neutral physical bars to entry for various combat jobs were determined. They also walk troops through a brief history of legislation and policy surrounding direct ground combat assignment and collocation of female troops with male ones -- decades of complex rules dictated by lawmakers and Defense Department brass.

For Marines who have served downrange in with female engagement teams and encountered some of these restrictions -- such as the collocation prohibition on female units being assigned to infantry units at battalion-level or below, which remained law until 2012 -- Coleman said he sees a deeper understanding set in.

" 'We weren't really treating them different because they were females, we were treating them different because that's what the law and policy said we had to do,' " Coleman said these Marines say. " 'OK, I don't know everything, I don't have the full story.' That's when they start to open up."

The second half of training is more theoretical, dealing with institutional change, how to communicate as leaders, and how to become aware of hidden or unconscious biases. The Marines use materials and tools embraced by police departments and corporations for the same purposes. They look at two nearly identical resumes, one bearing a male name and one a female, and record their instinctive responses. They make split-second associations with photographs; are they more likely to associate "military" with a woman or a man? And they evaluate the language they use when dealing with male and female troops.

"There is an initial pushback. As soon as you put in unconscious bias or sensitivity training, there's this automatic repulsion toward that," Coleman said. But the Marine leaders become more receptive when they realize that their instinctive responses and associations might differ from their neighbor's.

"It's not about feelings. It's about interpreting the way you are perceiving things around you," he said.

By mid-July, two senior Marines from each battalion in the Marine Corps will have completed one of these train-the-trainer sessions. Those Marines will then be tasked with communicating the information to the rest of the troops in the unit, using a combination of available slides and training resources and guided discussion groups. That process, which has already begun in some East-Coast units, will be complete by October.

Marines have a history of opposing social change; in 2010, then-commandant Gen. James Amos told lawmakers he worried that having gay troops serve openly could distract other Marines in the fight, potentially costing them their lives. But the Corps also has a tradition of falling tightly in line with a policy decision once it has been made.

"I tell them, 'Challenge me, try to prove that I am the radical who's trying to feminize the Marine Corps, or try to prove a misogynist who's trying to keep the women out,' " Coleman said. "My contention is, neither of them will be able to do that, because I'm agnostic on the whole thing."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at@HopeSeck.

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