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Marine Corps, despite a mandate, resists fully opening boot camp to women

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The U.S. Marines are under a congressional mandate to end gender segregation in boot camp. That would bring the service in line with all the other branches of the military. But the Marines say they do not plan to go all the way. Steve Walsh in San Diego has details.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You're clogging it up.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Recruits slide on their backs under barbed wire in the dirt at Parris Island, S.C. Boot camp is 13 weeks of pain and suffering. Sidra Montgomery with the University of Pittsburgh said her team witnessed some of the reasons why the Marines have been reluctant to fully integrate women into this process.

SIDRA MONTGOMERY: So there's just no privacy in that area. And drill instructors are allowed to go in and out of the head area as they please. In other services, drill instructors are not allowed to go in the head area because that is seen as a space that is used for changing and personal hygiene for recruits.

WALSH: Montgomery helped oversee a study ordered by the Marines to look at how to end gender segregation. The rest of the services have been training men and women together since the 1990s. While those services have strict rules that limit changing to bathrooms and shower areas, the study details how the Marines demand recruits strip repeatedly in their squad bay. Drill instructors stand in the shower, barking out the correct way to wash.

MONTGOMERY: You do what I say you do when I say you do it, how I say you do it, right? That is the quintessential approach of Marine Corps recruit training.

WALSH: The need for additional privacy not only keeps male and female recruits separate, but also limits the opportunities for female drill instructors since drill instructors also sleep in the squad bay. The 700-page report found that in the absence of women, vulgar and sexist comments were being made in front of the male recruits.

MONTGOMERY: To objectify women, to describe acts with women's bodily parts, to condone tacit violence against women.

WALSH: These images were even written into company training documents found at San Diego, which only began training women after a congressional mandate.

MONTGOMERY: Male recruits that we spoke with in the focus groups - they had a recognition that this language was wrong to use around women. They didn't connect to the fact that it's wrong, period.

WALSH: Critics say training men and women separately fosters attitudes that linger well beyond boot camp. Lory Manning is with the Service Women's Action Network, which filed the lawsuit to fully open boot camp.

LORY MANNING: They're afraid that if they introduce women into some of these units, it will wreck the male bond, whereas the other services have found out that the women blend right in, and they have a band of brothers and sisters.

WALSH: The Marines have the lowest percentage of women of any service, Manning says.

MANNING: I think - even though they won't come out in public and say it, I think they really don't want to go much above 9 to 10% of women in the Marine Corps. And this is the best way to make sure that happens without having to say it.

WALSH: Congresswoman Jackie Speier placed language in the defense bill that requires the Marines to end gender segregation by 2025 at Parris Island, in 2028 in San Diego. The Marines say the law is ambiguous.

JACKIE SPEIER: They are foot-dragging and, you know, violating, frankly, a provision I put in the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that prohibits gender-separated training at any level.

WALSH: So far, the Marines have committed to opening up more elements of boot camp where men and women train side-by-side while still keeping them in separate platoons. Speier, now on the cusp of retirement, says it's not enough.

SPEIER: Frankly, there just isn't a rational, a logical or a moral reason for them to continue to fight gender integration. It's going to happen. You know, maybe only after some heads roll, but it is going to happen.

WALSH: For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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