Breaking Down Barriers: Infantry Training Battalion

Breaking Down Barriers: Infantry Training Battalion

The path from civilian to Marine is marked in phases. Marine Corps Recruit Training has three phases. It's often joked that the School of Infantry is phase four. Courtesy photo.

CAMP GIEGER, N.C. (October 30, 2015) –The path from civilian to Marine is marked in phases. Boot camp has three phases. It's often joked that the School of Infantry is phase four. At Camp Geiger, North Carolina, non-infantry Marines experience this phase through Marine Combat Training. For those going to the infantry, there's Infantry Training Battalion. 

I volunteered for the trial. I would be in Infantry Training Battalion.

The map was a blank. I had no clue where the enemy camp was located, only that I had to find them before they found me. Hastily, I built up my camp, pouring my limited funds into training facilities and upgrades until I was finally able to employ a pair of scouts. 

"Let's roll!" 

They pass my sentries and head out into the unknown. 

They knew their job, they were on their own. I continue to build. I train my troops and expand my domain. Things are quiet - for now.

Then there's the siren. The sound of firing in the distance. The scouts succeeded.

I quickly turn my attention back to them, my scouts revealed the enemy's sentry, but I need more. I put in the orders, halt fire, charge forward and reveal all of the enemy's position. They zip through the enemy camp, dodging near fatal hits, the blank areas of the map filled by infrastructure and enemy troops.

Once I have enough, I send my scouts in the opposite direction of our camp, into the hills before they loop back around and return home for repairs. The scouts did their job, now it was time to fight. 

I grew up a military brat. My father was in the Navy and Command & Conquer was something we shared. It was a game of strategy, putting your forces against your opponent's to locate, close with, and destroy them, by fire and maneuver, or to repel their assault by fire and close combat.

It was also the closest I thought I'd ever get to the military, just a dependent playing computer games.

WHO I AM

I had never intended to join the Marine Corps. My brother was the Marine. My brother was the one talking to a recruiter before he'd even graduated high school. My brother went to the poolee functions every week. 

Over a decade had passed since my Command & Conquer days and I'd since accepted that I wouldn't be allowed to fight like the troops I rallied on the computer screen. Women weren't allowed to do that.

But, the military was a part of upbringing and college wasn't doing it for me. I'd thought I'd join the Navy, like our father. 

Then, one hot, humid summer day, I went with my brother to a Marine Corps' poolee function and that was the end of the Navy for me.

I wanted to be a Marine.

We ran the combat fitness test that first day. Crawling through the grass. Ammo cans banging against my legs, leaving bruises, as I pushed to finish, for others that might have been a deterrent. My arms ached after I pushed out a measly 37 ammo can lifts. I was a runner, I didn't know a thing about lifting or working out aside from one foot in front of the other for miles on end.

I wasn't the worst. I beat several of the poolees and it felt good. A handful of them beat me and that didn't feel as good. I could do better. 

It was a challenge and more importantly, I was too stubborn to back down.

I got a membership to a gym. I got stronger, faster. I did my first pull-up and pushed my 3 mile run time to under 19 minutes. I was the recruiting station's secret weapon for putting guys who came in declaring they ran track and wouldn't tire easily in their place. We'd start the 1.5 mile run on the initial strength test and they'd take off, but by the halfway point I had left them behind.

By the time I left for boot camp, I felt ready, but I don't think anyone is ever really ready for Marine boot camp.

BARRIER

Boot camp was both exceedingly slow and went by in a blur. 

Days were marked by the passing of each meal. Breakfast was first thing. Lunch meant we were halfway through. Dinner meant that we were close to the freedom of lights out. 

At the time it seemed slow. By the end, it was all just a blur of drill, classes and physical training. 

My platoon had the misfortune of going through many different drill instructors during our three months on the island. Each one was unique, inspirational and more than a little terrifying.

Despite the rotations, Drill Instructor Sergeant Lakisha Harris stuck with us the longest and changed what I thought I could do. What I thought I wanted to do.

Before she came to us, we'd been told that, as female recruits, we had an opportunity.

In January 2013 then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen Martin Dempsey signed an order to integrate women into infantry military occupational specialties. The order gave each branch until 2016 to plan for integration and submit any objections. The Marine Corps initial response was a trial, to send newly enlisted women through infantry training and see how they fared. 

We were told that we could volunteer to be a part of that. The risk of injury was there and the graduation rate meant that most of us would fail. At the time, I felt supportive of anyone who wanted to try, but not sure if it was worth it for me.

Harris changed that.

She was a powerhouse. She had been in the Marine Corps for a decade by the time she became a drill instructor and did her best to instill what she experienced and learned on us.

What I took away is that if we, women, wanted to be respected as Marines, we needed to step up. We needed to be as good, if not better, than our male counterparts. We needed to challenge ourselves.

The path from civilian to Marine is marked in phases. Boot camp has three phases. It's often joked that the School of Infantry is phase four. At Camp Geiger, North Carolina, non-infantry Marines experience this phase through Marine Combat Training. For those going to the infantry, there's Infantry Training Battalion. 

I volunteered for the trial. I would be in Infantry Training Battalion.

BREAKING DOWN THE BARRIER

Charlie Company, Infantry Training Battalion, started with 26 females. By graduation there were six of us.

As volunteers, the females were given rules. 

1. We had one recycle, meaning if we failed once we got one more chance then we'd be out. Males would be given more, but the study didn't allow for the time or resources to give us more.

2. If we failed before the 15 kilometer hike, a requirement for graduating Marine Combat Training, we could choose to drop out of the study and go to Marine Combat Training with our non-infantry peers. If we dropped after the 15 km hike, we would just go to our military occupational specialty school with a graduation from Marine Combat Training on our record.

3. We had to pass by the same standards as the males. 

The first week in the field was rough. 

It was hot, an unfortunate back and forth between dry and humid, and the platoon never seemed to move fast enough for our instructors.

We got through it and the weeks that followed. 

We lost some along the way. Testing, hikes, and injury forced some to drop. Around 25 percent of the company was weeded out, but sheer stubborn determination, luck and the ability to do at least three pull-ups was all we really needed. 

I'm not saying it was easy, but certainly not impossible.

As for myself, I made mistakes. I wore a new brand of socks on the 15 km hike. After the halfway mark I didn't even need to take off my boots to know I'd messed up. Each step felt like walking on hot coals and the weird sensation of liquid on the back of my heels told of burst blisters and bad days ahead.

Over the next week I protected my feet as best I could, but the damage was done. I lost most of the skin from the bottoms of my feet and the back of my heels. Walking was painful, running was worse and boots were a nightmare. 

I was feeling down, but not out. I sucked it up.

The 20 km hike, our graduation requirement, took place a week after the 15 km. I spent most of the night before cutting strips of mole skin to bandage my feet, begging it to work. I got over half way before I fell behind enough to not notice when I took a wrong turn. I was told I wasn't going to get to catch up and to drop my pack. 

I was crushed.

But, I didn't quit. A week to graduation, those who didn't complete the 20 km hike the first time set out early one morning for another go. This was it.

I wasn't going to fail.

Some Marines didn't make it. One was injured. I finished at the front of our meager formation, running, as best I could under a pack nearly my body weight, the moment the finish was in sight. 

We made it. I made it, but graduation was bitter sweet.

The males prepared to go to their units. To be grunts. Riflemen, machine gunners, mortar men and assault men. The six of us prepared for more schooling, for our non-infantry military occupational specialty. 

We made it, but we couldn't be it.

Still, I finished and no one can take that away from me.

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