Gunnery Sgt. Julianna Pinder's 16-year Marine Corps career is about to come to an end -- and not by choice.
The combat engineer with the California-based 7th Engineer Support Battalion has spent months fighting for a second look at her reenlistment request. It was denied twice last year over an adverse 2018 fitness report she received after her second daughter was born.
As a staff sergeant based in Okinawa, Japan, Pinder was working to drop her pregnancy weight after her daughter's 2016 birth. The Marine Corps requires women to be back inside height and weight standards within nine months of having a child.
But at four months old, Pinder's daughter Lillianna was significantly smaller than other babies her age. Her weight fell in just the 3rd percentile, and the baby's pediatrician diagnosed her with a condition called failure to thrive, which can have long-term effects on an infant's development if not addressed.
Pinder's attention quickly shifted from dropping enough weight to keep her career on track to doing what was needed to keep her daughter healthy. The pediatrician recommended that Pinder breastfeed her baby for at least a year, and she was told to switch to a high-calorie diet and limit her exercise to low-impact options to produce enough milk.
"I had to make the conscious and correct decision to put my daughter's health above my weight loss," she wrote in a three-page letter requesting to have her reenlistment denial reconsidered.
Pinder said her leaders at the time knew about the health issues her child was facing. They could have granted her a waiver to give her more time to get back into fighting weight standards after addressing her baby's needs.
Instead, she was put on the Body Composition Program, or the BCP -- an assignment many in the Marine Corps view as a career killer.
"There were other options," Pinder told Military.com. "They just weren't used."
She's now set to leave the Marine Corps on Feb. 10, four years shy of the 20 needed to earn most military retirement benefits. Pinder has taken her case all the way up to the top Marine general. In a letter to Gen. David Berger, the gunnery sergeant cited the commandant's 2019 planning guidance in which Berger wrote that no Marine should be asked to choose between "being the best parent possible and the best Marine possible."
"I did have to choose and I chose to be the best parent possible," Pinder wrote. "... I took responsibility for gaining weight in order to produce breastmilk which is unanimously recommended by pediatricians and proven to be the best form of nourishment for an infant. Considering the reason why I was assigned to BCP, I believe that I was unfairly penalized for choosing my child's life above my well-being.
"Now," she added, "that choice is costing me my career."
'A Woman's Nightmare'
Around the same time Pinder's reenlistment was denied, Courtney Jones checked into the Marine Corps' Warrant Officer Basic Course in Quantico, Virginia. The 18-week course, which falls under The Basic School, is demanding, both academically and physically, as it prepares prior-enlisted Marines to lead as officers.
After nearly 15 years in the Marine Corps, multiple deployments and a special-duty assignment as an embassy security guard, Jones, a former F/A-18 Hornet electrician technician, found out she was pregnant.
She alerted her leadership and got the OK from her obstetrician to continue the course, but she was denied the chance to participate in the physical requirements. Months passed before Jones was told, two weeks out from graduation, that she wouldn't be allowed to complete the course since she didn't meet the physical requirements.
Jones detailed the experience in a Facebook post that has received more than 12,000 likes, shares and comments.
"Afraid of a miscarriage, but scared of not accomplishing my career goals is a woman's nightmare wrapped in one!" she wrote. "Ultimately, I weighed the decision and took the risk! It was the scariest and most dangerous decision I made."
With days left to complete the course, Jones -- three months pregnant -- did a 17-mile land-navigation exercise, ran a double obstacle course that had her jumping over hurdles and climbing ropes and walls, and finished a 5-mile endurance course.
All that was running through her mind, she said, was how hard she'd worked to get to that point in her career.
"I thought about how I had put having a family on hold and met the needs of the Marine Corps for 15 years," Jones told Military.com. "I thought I deserved a family just as much as the next person. I was frustrated that I knew I was physically capable of completing the school [while] keeping my baby, but potentially stunted by my leaders."
There are no policies barring pregnant women from attending courses at The Basic School unless a medical officer determines there's a risk, said Capt. Sam Stephenson, a Training and Education Command spokesman. The Marine Corps' order on pregnancy states that Marines can continue their fitness plans in consultation with their health care provider.
Jones was temporarily exempted from participating in physical fitness events, Stephenson said, "out of an abundance of caution and an initial lack of communication between the medical staff and the instructor staff."
"A few weeks later, upon clarification from the medical staff that Warrant Officer Jones was medically qualified to participate in physical events, her exemption was removed," he said. "The physical events identified were all requirements for graduation and WO Jones was notified that she would have to complete the events to graduate."
If she didn't, he added, Jones would have been required to remain at TBS until she did, or return for the next Warrant Officer Basic Course.
Jones, who's now an avionics officer, had a healthy baby after completing the course. But her experience highlighted what many women in the military have complained about -- that leaders often don't know how to deal with pregnancy and postpartum issues.
While she said she understands the school didn't want to be responsible for putting Jones or her baby at risk, she said officers and senior enlisted leaders need more training.
"Training on policies concerning pregnancy and postpartum can only benefit leaders and the Marine Corps as a whole," Jones said.
Correcting the Record
Pinder said she never received a response from the commandant on her appeal to remain in the Marine Corps. Questions submitted by Military.com to Berger's office were referred to Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs, which oversees career matters.
"He was my last hope," Pinder said of Berger. "He's the one pushing out the guidance on supporting women ... but his lower generals aren't necessarily adhering to his policies."
Maj. Jordan Cochran, a Manpower and Reserve Affairs spokesman, said Marines who believe they were wrongly assigned to the BCP, or have other discrepancies in their personnel records, should contact the Performance Evaluation Review Board or the Board for Correction of Naval Records.
Pinder said she did that once she realized her BCP assignment hurt her shot at reenlistment. But the process for appeals takes time, which she worries she's out of as her end-of-active-service date approaches.
Cochran said that, as of earlier this month, the Marine Corps had not received any notification from the review boards on Pinder's case.
The service updated its pregnancy order last year. It says that pregnant and postpartum Marines should not be "adversely evaluated or receive adverse fitness reports or evaluations" because of "complications affecting the health of the mother, and/or nursing."
Even before the order was updated, though, Cochran said, "It was never acceptable for any aspect of a Marine's pregnancy to affect their performance evaluation."
The pregnancy order in effect when Pinder had her baby in 2016 said that if a Marine's postpartum exemptions from weight standards are extended due to a unique medical circumstance, the woman should not be placed in the BCP.
"The Marine's [health care provider] would have to qualify the 'unique medical circumstance' and determine that weight gain (or the lack of weight loss) is necessary to effectively breastfeed," Cochran said.
Pinder's daughter's pediatrician submitted a letter on the Marine's behalf explaining she was encouraged to increase her calorie intake to provide enough nutrition for her baby.
"[It] is my medical opinion that GySgt Pinder should have been exempt from the weight standards during those 9 months and never should have been placed on BCP at that time," the Navy doctor wrote.
Junior Marines Take Notice
The Marine Corps has faced significant problems in terms of how women in the ranks are treated.
Women withhold details about their pregnancy or postpartum concerns out of fear of being treated differently, Jones said. Female Marines being told they're lazy or using pregnancy as an excuse to get out of work is not unheard of.
"[It] stems from women having to prove that they belong in the Marine Corps," the warrant officer said. "Being pregnant sometimes comes with a negative stigma already and to express any sort of uncomfortableness may put them further apart from belonging."
When Pinder had her first daughter, she said her male colleagues accused her of getting pregnant to avoid deploying.
"It was a horrible feeling," she said, adding that it drove her to deploy twice as a single mom -- first to Iraq in 2008 and then Afghanistan in 2010.
Since becoming commandant in 2019, Berger has pushed for progressive changes regarding parental leave and inclusivity in the ranks. He's interested in lengthening the Marine Corps' maternity-leave policy from 12 weeks to a full year and wants to understand why women and people of color are taking themselves out of the running for command screening boards at much higher rates than white men.
Pinder is currently one of 14 female staff noncommissioned officers in the combat engineer military occupational specialty, and one of just four female gunnery sergeants in the job. The retention rate for female combat engineers is 71%, versus 83% for men in the military occupational specialty, Cochran said.
One NCO who has known Pinder for years said junior Marines -- women and men -- are taking note of what happens to their leaders who have babies. The NCO, who has a 9-month-old and spoke on the condition of anonymity over fears of career repercussions, said she's troubled by the way Pinder's career is ending and wonders whether the same could happen to her.
"She has dedicated her time and her energy, sacrificed for her family, went on deployments, and has paved the road for so many female Marines," the Marine said. "It's all just completely going unnoticed now because of one bad leader who forced her into this position.
"There's not a day that goes by that I ever think that the Marine Corps has my best interest at heart because I am a female," she added.
Pinder said she mentors female Marines in her battalion who are having babies and reviews the pregnancy order with them. Too often, she said she sees women taking their questions to Facebook groups for female service members because their commands don't have the answers.
Jones heard from a lot of women from across the branches when she shared her own story on Facebook. She was grateful for the encouragement she received, but said she was not surprised to hear how many other women experienced something similar.
"I have repeatedly heard, 'If the Marine Corps wanted you to have a family, baby, etcetera, they would have issued you one,'" she said. "That comment alone made me feel bad initially for getting pregnant, as if I didn't deserve to have a family or it was bad timing."
Her experience at TBS will change the way she speaks to Marines about pregnancy, she said. As important as it is to progress in one's military career, Jones says it's just as important to build a family when they see fit.
"Read all the policies and orders ensuring you know your rights," Jones said, "and don't let people's opinions replace the rules."