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The Marines' First West Coast Female Boot Camp Is Over, And It May Be Years Before It Happens Again

The first class of female recruits train at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, ending almost a hundred years when the boot camp accepted only men.
Steve Walsh
American Homefront
The first class of female recruits train at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, ending almost a hundred years when the boot camp accepted only men.

A group of female recruits completed Marine boot camp in San Diego this spring - the first time the Corps has trained women outside of Parris Island, S.C. But there are no immediate plans to make the new female boot camp permanent.

Steve Walsh reports on the uncertain future of the Marine Corps' West Coast female boot camp.

The first group of female Marine recruits to train on the west coast understood people were watching. Some observers were cheering them on, while others were more negative - like Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who called efforts to accommodate female troops "a mockery of the U.S. military."

"They're not oblivious to what happens on social media," said senior drill instructor Amber Staroscik. "They know what's being said. I think it became more of a challenge to them, to push them to be harder."

Cameras often followed the women as they ran, swam, climbed obstacles, and crawled through the California dirt. The low point came midway through the 13 weeks, said drill instructor Stephanie Fahl.

"When it came to initial drill, they were very, very nervous, and they messed up a lot, and we actually tied for last."

Drill is synchronized marching. The women came in behind the five male platoons. Fahl said the women were meticulous, with better attention to detail, but they weren't as confident as the men.

Then came Final Drill, and the women won - beating the five other platoons.

"I think we all woke up and said. 'Why do we put ourselves down?" said recruit Marie Ann Parra. "Everyone else is breaking us down. We're supposed to be the ones building ourselves back up."

At 21, Parra is older than the average recruit. She dropped out of college in her junior year, when she ran out of money. She was homeless for a time. Her parents didn't want their honor student daughter to join the Marines.

"You could tell the moment we hit that parade deck, there was just passion. All of us remembered why we wanted to be a Marine," Parra said. "There were a lot of tears when they announced that platoon 3241 won drill."

There were more tears to come. Unlike the Marines' traditional training site for women in flat and swampy Parris Island, S.C., west coast boot camp culminates with scaling "the Reaper," a summit that looms over Camp Pendleton.

"You see the Reaper even at the chow hall," Parra said. "And us girls, I've even overheard male recruits. You see it, and you just kind of tremble."

But they reached the top, where they held the traditional ceremony. Each new Marine received an eagle globe and anchor pin -- the symbol of the Corps. Parra, muddy and sleep deprived, held it in her palm.

"It meant so much more than I thought it would going to mean," she said. "Looking down at this, I didn't think I was strong enough to be here.... This shows to everyone that I actually can. It shows to myself that I'm bigger than I am."

The Marine Corps is under a Congressional mandate to fully integrate boot camp. But the Corps has until 2028 to do it.
Credit Steve Walsh / American Homefront
American Homefront
The Marine Corps is under a Congressional mandate to fully integrate boot camp. But the Corps has until 2028 to do it.

Graduates of west coast boot camp are dubbed Hollywood Marines - and these women are the first female Hollywood Marines in the 100 history of San Diego boot camp.

The Marines are the last service to fully integrate women into boot camp. The Corps is under a Congressional mandate to open west coast Boot Camp to women, but the deadline is 2028. For now, another cycle of women isn't scheduled for San Diego.

"We're on a high right now," Staroscik said. "and I think that right now the perfect thing for this high would be to continue pushing forward."

Along with Final Drill, the female recruits won the physical fitness test and the combat fitness test, where they carry another recruit on their back, navigate an obstacle course with ammo cans, and crawl through live fire.

"Can they conquer the hills of camp Pendleton? Yes," Staroscik said. "They can do everything that is done out here. They've proved that. The foundation has been set. That shows. And it's been documented now, pretty thoroughly, that yes they can. And actually they can do it really well."

But unless something changes, these 53 women are the first, and at least for a while, the last female Hollywood Marines.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC

As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.
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