In the year since Brig. Gen. Austin Renforth took command at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, the only place the Marine Corps trains female recruits, he has eliminated a large swath of previously gender-segregated training events and challenges, from the combat endurance course to the famous final test known as The Crucible.
He estimates that more than 70 percent of all boot camp training is now gender-integrated, he told Military.com in an interview last week. And that's about where it should stay, he thinks.
If boot camp were to become fully integrated from the start of training, he worries that male recruits might develop a less-than-favorable impression of their female counterparts -- an impression that could continue to influence their perspective on women in uniform as they join the fleet.
"You get one chance to make a first impression," Renforth said. "The women, it takes them a couple weeks to understand that they can do more than they think they can do. The men come in, and they're sort of presumed brave by how they were socially engineered growing up."
The difference in the average confidence levels of male and female recruits is on display, Renforth said, when the recruits complete their initial strength tests, still in gender-segregated groups.
The initial strength test, or IST, takes place on the second or third day of boot camp and consists of a 1.5-mile run, a timed set of crunches, and either pull-ups or a flexed-arm hang, depending on the military career field sought. Male recruits, Renforth said, are already "breathing fire" when they get to the IST. With the female recruits, he said, it's a different story.
"There's a lot of tears, there's a lot of struggling," he said. " ... I don't necessarily want the men to see those women; it can have a reverse effect if you see them too early."
In the first few weeks at boot camp, female recruits are able to overcome any negative social conditioning that might diminish their confidence and start "breathing fire" like the male recruits, Renforth said.
"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. "We don't always get that."
Apart from the early weeks of training and gender-specific living quarters, Renforth said he now considers Marine Corps boot camp fully gender-integrated.
All requirements for graduation are completed in co-ed settings, and Renforth has overseen the integration of hikes, the final physical fitness test and combat fitness test requirements, and the famous Crucible during his tenure.
"I took that as an implied task from the commandant [Gen Robert Neller] when he came here," he said. "He didn't tell me directly to do it, but it was really simple to do. And the majority of it our drill instructors came up with on their own."
Perhaps even more significantly, Renforth has ordered integration of battalion leadership structures to expose female and male recruits to leaders of both genders.
There's now a male executive officer in the all-female Fourth Recruit Training Battalion and a male XO in the all-male 1st Recruit Training Battalion. Likewise, he said, male and female senior enlisted leaders are mixed into different-gendered recruit battalions.
"We're trying to expose the genders to each other early," Renforth said. "We're trying to give them different role models for them to understand."
Notably, the Marine Corps is the only service branch that still maintains any segregation by gender of entry-level training, or operates a separate unit for training female recruits.
Officials with Marine Corps Training and Education Command told this reporter in 2015 that reasons the Marine Corps wanted to maintain some separation of training included limiting distractions, allowing for differences in physical strength and endurance, and exposing recruits to leadership role models of their same gender.
"In general, [recruits] arrive with immature, undeveloped and unfocused thoughts on professionalism and professional conduct," TECOM spokesman Anton Semelroth said in a statement at the time.
"The only thing they have in common is their desire to be a Marine. By capitalizing on that desire, recruit training transforms these individuals from many diverse backgrounds into Marines imbued with a common set of values and standards."
Renforth said the integration efforts that have taken place on his watch have been seamless and haven't made many waves or elicited much response from recruits. Regardless, he maintains that putting the young men and women together before they have reached similar levels of confidence could have negative consequences.
"I don't know if that will resonate well with the American public. I don't know if people will love that answer," he said. "But I think once we imbue some of our core values into our men and women, I think they're better integrated after a couple weeks of getting some of that."