'They Just Want it More:' Meet the First Women to Become Marines at Recruit Depot San Diego

Pfc. Emily Zamudio poses with the awards earned by Lima Company.
Pfc. Emily Zamudio, a new Marine trained at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, poses with the awards earned by Lima Company during boot camp training (Hope Hodge Seck/Military.com)

MCRD SAN DIEGO -- It's been almost a week since the Crucible, the legendary two-and-a-half-day physical and mental torture fest that culminates in recruits earning the coveted title of Marines. Here at the Marines' West Coast boot camp, Lima Company is now in Fourth Phase, a more laid-back period of training, instruction and mentorship intended to give newly minted Marines a taste of life in the fleet before graduation.

In the barracks at Lima's Platoon 3241, the first platoon of female recruits ever to train at San Diego, it's "like a hive," as Recruit Training Regiment Commander Col. Matt Palma put it -- quiet but buzzing with activity as platoon members scrub down the shared bathroom facilities, starch and iron their utility covers to stiff perfection, and polish black dress uniform shoes until they gleam.

The new Marines move with a confidence earned with their coveted eagle, globe and anchor pins, but burnished by a wall of trophies displayed by the door: top scores for the final physical fitness test, final combat fitness test and initial physical fitness test. Best performance at final drill.

Training alongside five platoons of male recruits in Lima Company, they cleaned up.

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Congress overrode Marine leaders' long-standing objections to training women at San Diego in 2019, passing a law requiring the training base to accommodate female recruits by 2028. Unlike the Marines' East Coast boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, where female recruits have historically trained separately from men in a dedicated battalion, San Diego features a shared dining facility and greater integration among recruits in training.

But once the law was passed, Marine Corps brass decided they weren't going to wait for the deadline. And within the Corps' Training and Education Command, leaders took great pains to ensure that the first platoon of women to train at San Diego had every chance at success. Senior drill instructors were hand-picked and shipped in from Parris Island; the recruits themselves were selected with an eye to athletic ability and drive.

Pfc. Emily Zamudio, a petite 19-year-old who might not clear five feet, shocked recruiters by cranking out 15 pull-ups, 90 crunches and a 1.5-mile run in 10 minutes, 50 seconds -- putting her on track to max out a Marine Corps PFT.

An officer at the Military Entrance Processing Station took notice.

"He really thought my physical and leadership ability would be great for San Diego," said Zamudio, who wants to serve in the infantry as a rifleman and eventually pursue a career in law enforcement. "They put me on a list, and I got approved."

After a brief period of uncertainty at the start of boot camp in February, Zamudio said she found her footing when she was made a squad leader within the platoon.

"It kind of boosted my confidence way more, and it kind of reminded me of my potential," she said. "And since then, I've been performing how I want to."

Pfc. Abigail Raglan, 20, also has big plans. Her mother wanted her to pursue an Air Force career, she said, but the mission and ethos of the Marines resonated with her more.

"I just feel the Marines hold themselves to a higher value, which I want to keep pushing for and keep upping that value," she said.

Raglan will train to be in the aircrew field as an enlisted Marine, but she's already pondering a path to get her commission so she can become a pilot. When told she'd be headed to San Diego to train, she said she was most concerned with getting her chance to become a Marine, but admitted "it felt pretty cool to be a part of something, a part of the first."

The competitive drive of the women's platoon, she said, was fed by the knowledge that, wherever they went, they were instantly identifiable.

"Everybody knows, as soon as you step on deck, what platoon you are, whereas for the guys, it kind of gets a little mixed," she said. "So I think that we have to hold ourselves to a little bit of a higher standard, because everyone does know who we are. So therefore, we have to continue to put out, day in and day out, which makes us competitive not only to our platoon members, but to the company."

Raglan has two brothers on the same journey: an older brother who preceded her to boot camp at San Diego and is now in follow-on training; and a twin, Nathan, who is two phases behind her in another company. While she doesn't see much of him now, it means she could have both of her brothers, plus her parents, present at her graduation ceremony in early May -- more family members than the other recruits, who are limited to two guests as the base cautiously sheds COVID-19 precautions.

New Marines with Lima Company’s all-female platoon.
New Marines with Lima Company’s all-female platoon run to follow a drill instructor’s commands April 27, 2021 at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. (Hope Hodge Seck/Military.com)

Pfc. Josephine Imperial, 19, got a surprise early visit from her dad, Sgt. Maj. Nicholas Imperial, senior enlisted leader at Air Control Training Squadron out of Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif. He was waiting for her after she crested the last hill of the Reaper, a 9.7-mile hike with full combat load that concludes the Crucible.

It was because of her dad that Imperial, who plans to go into communications, was unsure that she wanted to train at San Diego. Her father and grandfather had trained at Parris Island, and she'd imagined continuing that legacy. But she was drawn to the idea of making history, and ultimately agreed to be part of the new platoon, with her dad's support. Her eyes brightened when she remembered her reunion with him.

"As soon as I got my eagle, globe and anchor, I got called out and I turned around, and my dad was right there," she said. "And I just started sobbing. I was in shock. I was like, 'Oh, my God, this is crazy.' Everything was happening all at once."

While the San Diego recruit depot likely could facilitate another female platoon's training, Palma, the training regiment's commander, doesn't expect it to happen again this fiscal year. That's in large part because of the significance he places on having experienced female senior drill instructors in charge. Female senior DIs are in high demand within the Marine Corps and, until now, have worked exclusively at Parris Island.

Staff Sgt. Amber Starostik, 27, was one of the drill instructors transplanted from the East Coast for the recent training cycle. She's already completed a three-year tour as a DI and senior drill instructor at Parris Island, but volunteered to come out West and continue to train Marines. Starostik said she sought to emphasize to the recruits throughout training that their objective was not to succeed as women, but to become Marines -- peers with anyone who wears the uniform, regardless of gender.

The drive she saw in the platoon was exceptional, however.

"They're definitely superstars in their own right," Starostik said. "But I think a lot of it has to do with ... this high desire to succeed. You don't see that aspiration to succeed in every opportunity. And it's not like they're super special. They just want it more than almost anyone I've ever seen."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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