Navy Lt. Cmdr. Shannon Stout, the 2nd Tank Battalion medical officer, walks with her uncle Neil Stout, a retired Navy petty officer 3rd class and World War II veteran, during her promotion ceremony Sept. 4. (Pfc. Jose Mendez Jr./Marine Corps)
When Navy Lt. Cmdr. Shannon Stout pinned on the oak leaf of an O-4 last month, it was more than a personal accomplishment; it was history in the making.
Stout, the medical officer for 2nd Tank Battalion at Camp Lejeune, N.C., became the first female field grade officer within the unit, and possibly within any combat arms battalion in the Marine Corps.
For the past 16 months, she has been one of the women serving in nearly 400 newly opened billets within Marine Corps combat units (60 of which are reserved for sailors and Navy officers), filling roles ranging from chaplain to logistician. The positions opened in May 2012, two months after the Pentagon lifted its 1994 combat exclusion policy that barred women from being assigned to ground combat units. Headquarters Marine Corps is now conducting experiments to determine if a broader move could be made to allow women into more combat arms positions.
Stout said she had just left a civilian residency in 2012 and was awaiting new orders when the opportunity to move to 2nd Tanks arose.
“It felt like I was sort of in the right place at the right time,” Stout said. “It just worked out really well.”
She had previously shadowed a roommate working as a corpsman at Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C., and admired the Marines’ cameraderie and culture. But serving in a previously all-male unit came with its own forms of culture shock, as well.
At the battalion command post where she worked, Marines rushed to make room for their six new female colleagues, hanging a pink sign on one of the male bathroom facilities warning that if the door was locked, it was female shower hours. The arrangement left one bathroom for 700 male Marines to share a few times a day.
“Initially, they went a little overboard,” she said. “I think there was definitely some grumbling about seeing the female shower hours sign on the male head.”
But when Stout went with the unit to the field, the distinctions broke down.
“A port-a-john’s a port-a-john, and they didn’t designate any female ones. Things like that haven’t been an issue,” she said.
While Marines have occasionally tested her authority or addressed her without the respect they would show a male counterpart, she said she handles these encounters and moves on. And these encounters haven’t been characteristic of her time at the battalion, she said.
Whether women are ready for the front lines or not remains a separate question, but Stout said her experience helps to prove that women can handle the rigors of a combat arms unit.
“I’m not an ultramarathoner, I’m not a PT stud. I can keep up just as a very real human female,” she said.
For the other women who have joined 2nd Tanks and the ones who will follow after her, she recommends being prepared for difficulties but assuming the best of their colleagues.
“Come into it with the expectation of fair and equal treatment,” she said. “Realize that even as a male coming into certain positions, there are going to be challenges. In some cases, it can be very easy to assume that a challenge is due to your gender. And it might not be.”
Stout plans to pursue the preventative medicine field following her time at 2nd Tanks. If another opportunity arises to serve with Marines, she said she’d welcome it.