Men flying fighter jets, spy planes and parachutes may have been the main draw for tens of thousands of people at the annual Miramar Air Show Saturday, but the show was also meant to highlight something else -- the accomplishments of women in the military's most male-heavy branch.
The theme of this year's Marine Corps Air Station Miramar air show is "100 Years of Women in the Marine Corps." On Saturday, in a hangar away from the crowds filling the air show performance area, was an exhibit highlighting "firsts" accomplished by women Marines. A few women Marines who claimed some of those "firsts" -- the first Marine pilot, the first Marine artillery officer -- were also there on Saturday as part of a meet-and-greet.
Out of all the military branches, the Marines have the fewest women. Just 8.5 percent of active-duty Marines are women, while 15.1 percent of the Army, 19.7 percent of the Navy and 20.3 percent of the Air Force are, according to the Defense Manpower Data Center.
Some women Marines at the air show speculated that the Marines have the least women partly because it's the most demanding military branch, where everybody is trained as a rifleman first.
"We're known to be the toughest branch," said staff Sgt. Shantel Limbo at Saturday's exhibit area. "We're first to fight."
Those factors could make the Marines seem more intimidating to some women, some female Marines said.
"I think a lot of people don't think they can do it," said 1st Lt. Virginia Brodie, who became the Marine Corps' first artillery officer in 2016. "People don't realize that if they want to do it, they can."
The Marine Corps enlisted its first woman, Pvt. Opha May Johnson, in 1918. Over the next few decades, women had relatively limited roles as Marines. During World War II, for example, women enlisted in the Marines mostly to "free a man to fight," taking up jobs that were largely clerical.
It wasn't until December 2015 that the U.S. secretary of defense ordered all military jobs to be opened to women. Up until then, about 10 percent of military positions had been closed to women, including infantry, reconnaissance and some special operations units, according to the Department of Defense.
That decision allowed Brodie to become one of the first two women to ever graduate from the Marine Corps' artillery school in 2016.
"It was challenging at first to prove myself," Brodie said. "I take a lot of pride in being a female Marine, but at the end of the day, you're just a Marine, as well."
Women Marines described a dichotomy between expecting to be treated like any other Marine and facing gender biases held by some of their male colleagues and superiors. Limbo, who has been a Marine for 12 years, said a male Marine officer once refused to work with her because, he told her, she was a woman.
"They're obligated to protect us and they see us as weaker. It's programmed in their brains. It's like, no, I can pick up my own box," Limbo said. "We're still fighting that battle of equal opportunity. I don't think it's ever going to be gone."
A 2014 study estimated that more than a quarter of active women military service members experienced gender discrimination or sexual harassment within one year. For women Marines, the study estimated it was 31.4 percent, compared to 15.7 percent for the Air Force, which was estimated to have the least gender discrimination. A separate 2016 survey found that 18.3 percent of women Marines reported experiencing gender discrimination, compared to 14.1 percent in the military overall.
For Lt. Col. Sarah Deal, who became the Marine Corps' first woman pilot in 1995 and flew a CH-53E helicopter in Afghanistan, gender discrimination meant getting way more advice than she wanted. She said she was pulled aside by a male Marine who told her, "We know you're here, and we don't care."
For Manuela Santos, who served as a Marine from 1978 to 1998 and is now secretary of San Diego County's Women Marines Association chapter, gender discrimination meant being told to run and stand separately from her fellow male Marines. It meant having to speak up for herself when she discovered that male Marines were making decisions about her platoon while they were in men's changing facilities, which were off-limits to women.
"You've just got to be mentally tough and know your job. You've got to be able to stand your ground. That's how you win the men over," Santos said. "As women, we know that we're always trailblazing for the next generation."
This article is written by Kristen Taketa from The San Diego Union-Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.