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PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. — The first female Marine Corps general in charge of its tough-as-nails basic training site on Parris Island says she’s confident women in the Corps will be able to handle combat.
Brig. Gen. Loretta Reynolds says the Pentagon’s lifting of the combat exclusion against women earlier this year means commanders will be able to “just use the talent that they have. Just use it where they need it. That’s awesome.”
Reynolds was the first woman to command a Marine base in a combat zone when she was put in charge of Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan in 2010. As head of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force’s headquarters group, she oversaw the base in Helmand province that grew to house 20,000 Marines.
She also commanded a communications battalion in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 in battle-scarred Fallujah.
Now, the Marine Corps has entrusted her with training all its women and nearly half its men. She said young Marines aren’t as concerned about gender as they are about a commander’s ability to lead.
“Anytime you’re going to take your Marines into harm’s way, they are looking for leadership that is calm, assertive, sure of themselves,” Reynolds said in her first extended interview since the ban was lifted. “And quite honestly, I don’t think that some of these young Marines care if it’s a male or a female. They just want to be properly led.”
Reynolds said she doesn’t think the type of basic training both male and female recruits endure on the swampy, insect-filled island outside Beaufort will change much, given the Pentagon’s lifting of the ban.
“We already work them pretty hard,” she said. “We think we give them a solid foundation.”
As one of only two basic training sites for the Marines, Parris Island holds near-legendary status in the branch’s lore. After 12 weeks of arduous training, about 17,000 men and 3,000 women graduate from the tough-love of some 604 drill instructors who determine whether the recruits are worthy of pinning on the Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblem worn by Marines.
“What we’re looking for here is character, intellect and potential to carry forth our legacy,” Reynolds said.
In January, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the so-called combat exclusion that kept women from serving in units that engage the enemy, such as the infantry, tank and special forces units of the Army and Marine Corps. Their leaders, the service chiefs, have yet to determine exactly what the physical standards are for those jobs, and some roles may still exclude women.
Minimum physical requirements for many hard-core combat jobs had never been established, and the effort to come up with them is still in under way, Reynolds pointed out.
“There’s a lot more work to do to figure it out,” the general said.
The Corps has proposed adapting its twice-yearly physical fitness test to require that women complete at least three chin-ups, a standard that men must currently meet. Data is being collected to see whether the standard is appropriate.
In the past decade, men and women have found themselves fighting side-by-side when combat has overtaken support units once considered behind combat lines. More than 150 women have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
About 7 percent of Marines are female compared to about 14 percent overall for the armed forces.
Reynolds is one of the two active-duty female general officers in the Marine Corps. There are also two other female generals in the Marine Corps Reserve.
Pausing from training on a recent day, recruit Jennifer Martinez of Greenville, Texas, says she followed her father and grandfather into the military, although they both served in the Air Force. The 18-year-old said she thinks she could serve in a combat zone.
“Boot camp has prepared you for everything,” said Martinez. “It’s prepared you mentally, physically, emotionally. Especially with the drill instructors. They do a great job of yelling.”
Overseeing one company of female recruits and drill instructors, 1st Sgt. Rena Bruno says she commanded men during a deployment to Iraq. The petite 110-pound veteran of 13-years in uniform said that as a logistics manager, she dealt with dangerous convoy duty and learned “to hold my pistol a little closer to my body.”
“My Marines were looking at me to guide them and ensure their safety. There was no time to really question that,” Bruno said of being a female commander.
Bruno said women have to train for the challenges, including upper body workouts so they could pull another Marine out of harm’s way, climb up a rope or carry battle armor and weaponry.
“We are focusing more on the whole upper body because we are going to be required to do pull-ups,” Bruno said. “So a lot of our PT (physical training) sessions are geared toward that.”
And can she do pull-ups?
“Guaranteed, I can get up on a pull bar and knock out eight, very easy for me,” she said.
Told of Bruno’s comments, Reynolds lauded the varied roles women have played on the battlefield.
“It’s not all kicking down doors. It’s a lot about ensuring the security of the locals. It’s a lot of the counter-insurgency missions,” that require information female Marines can glean from locals that the males cannot, the general said.
And even the 6-foot, fit and trim Reynolds, who played basketball at the Naval Academy and still goes on early morning runs with her recruits, is preparing for the proposed new standards.
“I’m not ashamed to tell you I can’t do a pull-up yet, but I’m working on it!” the 48-year-old Reynolds said with a laugh.
Reynolds says she has to wonder at the new opportunities now offered women in uniform. And while much was barred in her early days in uniform, she says she never felt she was being short-changed.
“I don’t remember being stuck on, ‘No, Reynolds, you can’t do that,’ “ she said. “If I were to look back after the career I’ve had with regret, shame on me. I’ve been blessed. I’ve had command at every rank.”