WASHINGTON — A Marine in full combat gear moves through dark, frigid water, gripping an M-16 rifle, before plunging under barbed wire and through a submerged drainage pipe. It is only when the fighter shouts an order over the sound of explosions does the historical nature of the TV advertisement become clear: the Marine is a woman.
For a Corps that has struggled with the perception that it is the least welcoming of women among the military services, the new ad is part of a campaign to appeal to a new generation of Marines. It is also a bid for more female recruits for "the few, the proud," particularly athletes capable of meeting the tough physical standards required.
"The water was 27 degrees and coated with a layer of thick ice," said Marine Capt. Erin Demchko, describing the great difficulty of the gauntlet, all while being surrounded by camera crews. "Giving the film production staff what they wanted, while maintaining my bearing as a Marine officer and trying not to look cold, was a challenge."
Demchko, a deputy commander at Camp Courtney in Okinawa, Japan, is part of the Marine Corps' expanding effort to recruit women. The smallest military service has the lowest percentage of women, and wants at least 10 percent representation by 2019. While female Marines occasionally have appeared in ads and been featured in online videos, this is the first time a woman is the focus of a national television commercial for the Corps.
The service is battling an image problem, especially after a recent scandal involving nude photos shared online. Many were accompanied by crude, derogatory or even violent comments about women. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is investigating the matter and several Marines have been disciplined.
But the perception of the Marines as a male domain goes back further. They were the only service to seek an exception when the Pentagon moved to allow women to serve in all combat jobs. That request was denied in late 2015 by then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
Since then, 74 women have moved into combat jobs previously open only to men. In total, women make up about 8.3 percent of the 183,000-strong Corps.
The Marines want more. And the ad aims to increase awareness among women about new opportunities, said Maj. Gen. Paul Kennedy, head of Marine Corps Recruiting Command.
The message is for potential recruits to "not think that we are only looking for a few good men, that we're actually using all of our recurring efforts to find good women as well," he said.
The Marines don't expect instant results. Low unemployment rates, competition among employers, and the need to increase the overall size of the Marine Corps make recruiting women a challenge.
"We're facing headwinds now that we didn't have even a year ago," said Kennedy, who huddled with counterparts from the other military services last week. "There's a train wreck coming for some folks. They're not getting tail winds that they used to have — the high unemployment, the money that was associated with enlistment bonuses."
Still, he said he expects female recruits to comprise almost a tenth of the Marines entering the service this year.
The ad is being released Friday. It shows a young school girl interceding when students bully another girl. It then follows her as she plays rugby and trains and serves as a Marine. Titled "Battle Up," the commercial seeks to show the Marines' fighting spirit and how it carries from youth through combat missions.
For Demchko, filming the commercial was unlike anything she'd ever done.
Small scenes were shot again and again, with multiple cameras following her every move. At a school for Marine Corps officer candidates in Virginia, the crew chopped through a thick layer of ice to film the scenes in the water. They followed her as she pulled herself over logs and barbed wire in the obstacle course at Quantico, known as the Quigley. And she and others shot live rounds during a convoy scene.
While the maneuvers and combat actions were familiar, "everything felt different with all the staff and cameras," said Demchko, who grew up in Hackensack, N.J., and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. She already has served a tour in Afghanistan.
While the ad "is targeted at young women who are seeking a way to challenge themselves," she said it could entice anyone who wants to fight for their country.
"I am extremely humbled to be a part of such a big production," she said. "Professional actors can keep their jobs, though. I'd rather be a Marine."