The Marine Corps hit a big milestone last month when three women completed drill instructor school at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, which has historically trained only men. In February, the women will lead a platoon of female recruits there -- another historic moment for the 100-year-old base.
But a dozen female drill instructors have been assigned to the all-male recruit depot in years past, only to see roles in training recruits limited once they arrived.
The women had more experience training recruits than most of their male colleagues, having already completed three-year drill instructor tours at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina, where the service typically trains female enlistees. Still, none of the second-tour drill instructors were assigned to training battalions in San Diego.
Instead, they were given support roles: receiving incoming recruits, working with those too sick or injured to return to training, or teaching courses. When one female staff noncommissioned officer asked to be moved to a traditional training battalion, she said a colonel kept giving her the same answer: "We need to find the best man for the job."
"It's such a common expression that it didn't register with me at the time, but that was the excuse every time," the staff NCO told Military.com. She spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing career reprisal for speaking out since she's still on active duty.
The unspoken policy was embarrassing, she said, and left her feeling angry and disillusioned. Most of the women had more than 10 years in uniform. Some served in combat, others as instructors at the Marine Corps' Officer Candidates School.
It also put them in a bad position in terms of how they were viewed by male drill instructors at the base, the staff NCO said.
"The majority of them resented the fact that we get the extra pay -- the special duty assignment pay -- but from their view, we're not having to do the work," she said. "It's not that we didn't want to. They weren't letting us."
The Marine said she never got a clear explanation as to why her request to serve with a training battalion went ungranted. She had the support of her battalion leaders, she said, but the move ultimately had to be approved by Col. Dan Kazmier, who was commanding officer of Recruit Training Regiment at the time.
There weren't any policies prohibiting women in San Diego from serving in traditional training battalions, said Capt. Sam Stephenson, a Training and Education spokesman. Second-term drill instructors are assigned duties "based on their knowledge, experience, capability, as well as the needs of the command," he said.
Kazmier, who retired in October, didn't respond to questions about why requests from female drill instructors who wanted to be assigned to recruit training battalions weren't approved, saying only that he's "very proud of the progress we made [on gender integration] and how MCRD San Diego is continuing to lead in that effort."
Commandant Gen. David Berger said in September that the service would "run a couple of trials this wintertime" in which it would move female drill instructors to train recruits on the West Coast.
"All of our female drill instructors are on the East Coast," Berger said.
The female drill instructor who spent two years at San Diego said few know that women have been assigned there for years. She said she wishes the Marine Corps hadn't squandered the chance to train new women drill instructors on the West Coast while she and other experienced female DIs were assigned to the San Diego recruit depot.
They could have guided them, she said, adding that she feels sorry that they can't.
The first female drill instructor arrived at MCRD San Diego in 2003, Stephenson said. They've served as physical training, academic, martial arts and water-survival instructors, he added. They've also trained other drill instructors at the San Diego schoolhouse.
The purpose of having female drill instructors at the all-male depot was to "provide additional leadership roles and experiences for our Marines and recruits," he said.
The staff NCO said that, at times, it felt like the Marine Corps put female drill instructors on the West Coast to appease members of Congress who have pushed for more gender-integrated training at boot camp. Even though they weren't allowed to serve in training battalions, the women were regularly expected to represent the depot at air shows and other events off base.
Another female drill instructor who was at the depot when the staff NCO was there served in an administrative role. But whenever someone from Congress, a diplomat or member of another service or foreign military showed up, the female Marine was tasked with showing them around.
"They would put her out there to lead them around, give them the tour, and give the idea that we have females here," the staff NCO said.
Stephenson said it's common for the recruit depots' "strongest performers" to be selected for VIP visits and base tours.
Several second-tour male drill instructors who had worked with women at Parris Island knew the female Marines were capable of more than was being asked of them, the staff NCO said. But fear of retribution was strong, so they didn't take their complaints up the chain.
"The one thing that we, as females, are constantly aware of in the Marine Corps is that if you push too hard for something, if you draw too much attention to an issue, you may get what you were asking for, but you also may be set up for certain failure or even sabotaged," the Marine said. "When I brought the issue up to my company commander, he had the company first sergeant complete a written, negative counseling on me.
"If I had pressed the issue any more than I did, they would have made sure that I failed," she added.
Stephenson stressed that open and honest communication up and down the chain of command, without fear of retribution, is consistently reinforced through verbal and written communication. Everyone, he added, is expected to treat their fellow Marines with dignity and respect.
"It is unfortunate and disappointing that this individual felt she experienced neither," he said.