GI Jane Was a Fairy Tale: Fighting for Respect in the Marine Corps

U.S. Marine Corps recruits, with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, Recruit Training Regiment, listen to periods of instruction about the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) at Leatherneck Square on Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, July 11, 2018. The Marine Corps Martial Arts Program helps to create the warrior ethos by utilizing armed and unarmed techniques from various styles of martial arts. (Yamil Casarreal/Marine Corps)
U.S. Marine Corps recruits, with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, Recruit Training Regiment, listen to periods of instruction about the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) at Leatherneck Square on Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, July 11, 2018. The Marine Corps Martial Arts Program helps to create the warrior ethos by utilizing armed and unarmed techniques from various styles of martial arts. (Yamil Casarreal/Marine Corps)

Anuradha Bhagwati served in the Marine Corps from 1999 to 2004, rising to the rank of captain and becoming only the second woman to graduate Marine Corps Martial Arts Program instructor trainer school. Following her service, she became the first executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, an advocacy organization that, among other accomplishments, lobbied successfully for the end of the Pentagon's ground combat exclusion policy regarding women. The following is an excerpt from her new memoir, Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience. It hit shelves Tuesday.

Bristol's nose was crooked from years of being smashed against fists, knees, floors, and walls. His white skin was roasted from years of patrolling beneath the sun. He was the size of Godzilla, each leg a mighty column leveling the ground beneath him. I was one-third his mass, making me the goddamned queen of underdogs.

Bristol was a master manipulator of human emotions. I was spellbound, and wary of letting him in. Rumor was he had delved deep into psychological warfare and special operations, and mastered the grisly stuff American moms and dads never knew about and congressional intelligence committees took to their graves. This made him legendary. A prior enlisted infantryman, he'd been in the Corps more years than I'd been alive, and spent several of those years manhandling America's enemies overseas.

We had circled my squad three times now, I his nonconsensual partner in a dance that had no clear mission. I was trying to breathe as his shoulder cut into my gut. Upside down, I saw my squad, still inching forward. Whatever he was up to, I couldn't stand that I was getting a break from my squad's collective agony. I had to earn my respect.

Bristol was lecturing me on nothing in particular, but then started talking about my role here, informing me that I was responsible for my roommate's poor performance. He was talking about Riley, the PhD from OCS who'd been responsible for our leg-shaving orders, and the only other woman in the black belt program. She had a temper like a maniac, and was just not cutting it physically. He wanted me to know that if she had a problem, it was my problem, too. This was no feminist motivation speech about women lifting one another up. He was insulting Riley and taunting me at the same time. This was all a game to him.

I thought, Goddamn it, put me down, mother-----r.

Eventually, he did. I yes Sir'd everything under the blazing sun and scurried back to my squad.

Bristol was eager to prove that I was different. It wasn't enough for me and my squad to know that I was a woman. He had to show us.

We were on the obstacle course early one morning. Bristol had been shadowing me that day. Officers did this often, calling it supervision, but sometimes I wondered. He was like a mosquito in my ear, whispering tales about each obstacle in the evolution, giving me tips that I didn't need on this course that I knew in my sleep, while I heaved and pulled myself along with my squad. At some point I thought I'd lost him, and I exhaled a bit under my flak jacket. Moving as a unit, we began to traverse the wooden hurdles. Suddenly Bristol was there.

He stopped our squad and approached me, casting a shadow over the course. He reached his enormous arm behind my head and grabbed my hair in one giant fist, pulling my skull back, slowly, as if to make sure my face would be seen. I saw the men in my squad as though I were seeing them for the first time. I do not know if the same was true for them.

I wasn't looking for protection. If he was going to use me as a prop, I wanted witnesses. Bristol could only execute this sort of thing in front of the guys. My guys. Humiliation of women had a particular flavor when executed before silent men.

"This is what they'll do if they get their hands on you. What are you going to do then, Lieutenant?" My face was frozen but my brain was operating on rapid fire now.

The smart-ass in me totally agreed.

Uh, I don't know--buzz my head, Sir, but the Corps won't let me.

The other side was goading him.

Say it, Sir, say what they'll really do to me. Or just f---king do it. Or are you scared I might cry? I was preparing for his next move, which I knew would happen without any warning. I was no hero in a Ridley Scott movie. G.I. Jane was a fairy tale. There were no comebacks with Bristol.

He eventually let go. Maybe it was the quiet stink in my eyes, or the steadiness in my presence. I had learned by now to hold and wait for him to shift gears. When he moved on, we went back to training as if nothing had happened.

I was a lightweight compared to the hulking guys in my course. They responded to me in different ways. The other officer in my squad, a major and a helicopter pilot who treated me like a daughter as much as a training partner, pissed me off to no end when we partnered up in ground fighting. A former competitive wrestler and a push-up champion, he just sat there beneath me, refusing to offer any resistance for me to practice my guard or mount techniques.

"Come on, fight me, Sir!" I hollered at him.

Another time, I was matched with a dude twice my weight, and after rolling around for a bit back and forth he just straddled me, sat down on my pelvis, and checked out. The guy was practically taking a cigarette break. I couldn't move out from under him to save my life, though I was making a hell of an effort to. Bristol walked by, unamused by my wriggling.

"You're not going to win like that, Lieutenant. Figure it out."

A few days later, I was summoned into a boxing ring to spar with one of our instructors, a beefy midwestern staff sergeant whose back and chest threatened to swallow my skinny Indian skeleton whole. I took a fighting stance, ready to pound on him and receive whatever punches he threw at my rib cage and gut. I summoned my adrenaline and braced for impact. Whatever I lacked in size and brawn I tried to make up in willpower and capacity to take a pounding. But he refused to meet me in the center of the ring, saying, "I need you to put on a flak jacket, Ma'am."

I paused. (Pausing was a luxury occasionally afforded to officers, a relative privilege that only sometimes made up for the fact of being female.) Something wasn't right here. The men in my squad who fought before me in the ring had not worn flak jackets. Why would I strap an extra sixteen pounds onto my chest and back to take on the Incredible Hulk when he already outweighed me by 125 pounds?

Pauses were risky when you were physically exhausted but not nearly done with whatever physical pain lay ahead. Pauses broke your momentum and messed with the chemicals that were short-circuiting your better instincts not to hit someone twice your size. I was spent from having my ass kicked for days on end, indoors, outdoors, and every which way by very large Marines, on one good leg no less. I was exhausted just trying to walk straight.

I was the only woman in this squad. And I'd experienced just enough to know the difference between safety and bulls--t. The staff sergeant was a Muscle Milk-guzzling machine-gunner whose main education in life came from Marine Corps infantry. He was our lead instructor and an expert on tearing humans limb from limb. I couldn't possibly adopt a separate training uniform and be padded up like some princess.

The rest of my squad, a group of infantrymen, a reconnaissance Marine, and a massive former cook, grew still, sweating profusely, watching this drama unfold.

"Ma'am, it's standard safety gear for females."

"But I don't need any safety gear."

"Ma'am, it's --"

"Staff Sergeant, the guys don't have to wear this. So why should I have to wear it?"

"Ma'am." He paused, and summoned a poker face for me, the female officer, who, despite any natural laws he thought ruled the order of things between men and women, technically outranked him.

He said this cautiously.

"It's for your protection, so you don't get hurt." He blushed. Oh lord.

The idea that this burly staff sergeant and his cadre of tough guys had given enough thought to consider the safety of my breasts stunned me. It meant he'd actually considered that I had breasts. I quickly shook the thought from my head.

What female weakness was it this time? Was it breast cancer, or baby making? Or, god forbid, was it simply cosmetic, that they didn't want my boobs to suffer the indignity of bruising?

I didn't believe that the Corps gave a rat's ass about the health of my breasts or any infant's chances of successfully breastfeeding. They were my goddamned boobs, and little did they know that I did not consider myself either a milk production machine or a cautionary tale for oncologists. Being forced to wear breast protection gear, among a sea of hardened dudes with rock-solid chests, was like few other humiliations I'd endured in uniform.

Everyone was waiting. My squad knew I was feisty and strong-willed, but they didn't know how far I'd take this. Some of these guys tiptoed around me, these enormous, hulking men, treating me like a doll. I had to toughen them up. A few were blessed with common sense, and I respected them for it. My favorite instructor was a short, stocky infantryman, Sergeant Doyle, who wasn't afraid to kick me hard in the gut and send me flying across the room to get me to learn something. He didn't believe in coddling me.

This was not that Marine. But I was fed up and getting nowhere, and the embarrassment was slowly taking over any will I had to hold out. What was I going to do, complain to Bristol, who had likely orchestrated the whole thing in the first place? I slung the jacket over my precious chest and swung as hard as I could.

-- From "Unbecoming" by Anuradha Bhagwati, published by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., a division of CBS. Copyright © 2019 by Anuradha Bhagwati. Reprinted by permission.

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