Sgt. Bailey Weis didn't set out to be a trailblazer, but she became one late last month when she completed the second phase of the arduous selection process for Marine special operators, a feat no other woman has accomplished.
Weis made it through Phase Two of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command's Assessment and Selection course, a highly competitive and secretive program that tests candidates' mental and physical prowess to make it as a Raider. But after being passed over for selection to continue in MARSOC's training pipeline despite her accomplishment, she's now opting to leave the Marine Corps behind for other opportunities.
Weis, an aviation maintenance controller with Marine Attack Squadron 542, made it through both phases on her first try. But she "was not selected to continue on to the Individual Training Course," said Maj. Nick Mannweiler, a MARSOC spokesman.
ITC is the notoriously tough nine-month course that turns Marines into critical-skills operators.
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"It feels good to be the first one because that way other females know it's possible to do something like this," Weis told Military.com. "If that makes them want to do it more or have more confidence, then I think it's going to break a good barrier -- especially for special operations."
Four other female Marines have attempted the program, which only opened up to women after the military-wide ban on female service members serving in combat roles was lifted. One of those women made it through the first phase of the Assessment and Selection course, but didn't have the minimum scores needed to move on.
Not getting the nod to move forward was incredibly disappointing, Weis said. But she trusts that those making the call did so for a reason.
"They have a lot of different ways that they analyze everyone and are extremely professional and on-point with everything they're doing," she said. "... It sucks, but you've got to handle it the right way."
Since Weis made it through the entire Assessment and Selection process, she can't attempt it again. She knows too much about the training, which would give her an advantage over other Marines.
Now after nearly five years in the Marine Corps, the noncommissioned officer is looking beyond the Marines for her next challenge. In December, Weis will begin pursuing her master's degree in international relations, and she hopes to earn a commission in the North Carolina National Guard.
"[MARSOC] would've been a nice option," she said. "But there are a lot of other opportunities out there."
This wasn't the only time Weis helped shatter a gender barrier in the Marine Corps.
Soon after she finished boot camp, she heard that women would be allowed to attempt infantry training as part of an experiment before the gender ban was lifted. She volunteered to attend Infantry Training Battalion, graduated, and set her hopes on a possible career in special operations.
Once she was cleared to give MARSOC's selection process a shot, she said she hit the gym and worked to erase any shortfalls that could hurt her chances of making it though.
"Just being a female ... I knew I had my weaknesses, like my upper-body and other forms of strength," she said. "So I started training about seven or eight months before I went to that course."
Candidates are told to be prepared to run, swim and hike during the three-week-long first phase of Assessment and Selection. Phase Two of the rigorous process, which is more mysterious, focuses on “a holistic evaluation of candidates' suitability for the unique demands of special operations,” Mannweiler said.
It’s a fiercely competitive process. “Only 5 percent of initially screened applicants will begin the Individual Training Course,” he added.
Weis enlisted the help of her husband, a former reconnaissance Marine; her mom, a personal trainer; and other friends to prepare for the course. She took a three-phase approach, first building up her strength, then maxing it, and finally working on her endurance.
She swam, ran with a 45-pound rucksack, worked on her pull-ups and lifted weights. She eventually worked her way up to deadlifting at least 225 pounds and benching about 140.
It was an intense process, but she said it paid off. While the Assessment and Selection process was one of the most challenging things she's ever done, she said she never felt physically unprepared.
None of that surprised her dad, Steve Powell, who has watched Weis excel at everything from gymnastics to basketball, softball and soccer.
"She's just one of those special people who always have a vision and goal in life," he said. "There's hardly anything that can keep her back."
Weis said she didn't want any special treatment during training, even though she was the only woman in her cycle. She stayed in the same squad bay as the men, just behind a barricade that gave her a bit of privacy. She also had her own bathroom, but trained right alongside the male Marines.
"When you're doing all the events and you're able to do everything with them, you earn their respect," she said. "I never experienced any negativity and even had support from the other candidates. The instructors were also incredibly professional. I never felt different."
Candidates who attend MARSOC's Assessment and Selection course sign non-disclosure agreements that bar them from sharing training details, Mannweiler said. Some of the toughest moments Weis faced throughout the course are topics she said she can't discuss.
"You really just push your body to the limit and then past it," she said. "You learn that you can do more than you thought you could."
Powell said seeing his daughter's confidence build as she takes on challenges like MARSOC training is rewarding to watch. She doesn't do it for the limelight, he said, but to prove to herself and her team that she can do it.
"She's kind of my hero," Powell said. "I don't really know where she came from because it certainly isn't anything I did. She's just one of those who makes the right decisions, does the right thing and has a good heart."
Weis credits her strong support system and preparation with helping her make it through the grueling selection process. Now she hopes other women attempt the programs, too.
Owen West, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, agrees. In February, he told members of Congress that U.S. Special Operations Command must work to recruit and retain a more diverse pool of candidates.
“We need more candidates without military family histories; we need more cultural diversity; we need more women,” he said.
Female troops can bring a host of skills and strengths to the special-operations community, Weis said.
"There are some cultures where men aren't able to interact with women," she said. "Having women on those missions who meet the same standards that you've got men in special operations meeting, that's a huge asset.
"Seeing that it's slowly becoming possible is an exciting thing."