WASHINGTON (Circa) - The U.S. Marine Corps is the only branch of the armed services that trains men and women separately during boot camp. It's also the only service branch that requested a waiver from the Pentagon to not integrate women into some combat roles after then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter opened military combat roles to women in 2016.
As the smallest branch of the military, one might think the Marine Corps can't afford to discourage new recruits from joining and rising through the ranks, but according to former Marine Lt. Col. Kate Germano, that's exactly what it does to women.
"You join because you want to be a part of a team and then you serve, and you realize you're never really part of the team, even if you try really, really hard. That's a struggle and that shapes all of the experiences women have in the Marine Corps," she said.
In June 2014, Germano took command of the only all-female training unit in the entire Department of Defense, the Marine Corps Fourth Recruit Training Battalion at Parris Island, S.C. A year later she was the first woman ever to be fired from the Fourth Battalion.
Why? According to the Marine Corps, it's because Germano created a hostile work environment by being too hard on the women, but Germano, who documented her experience at Parris Island in a new book "Fight Like a Girl," says she was only trying to hold female recruits to the same standards as their male counterparts.
"When you have a strong woman who's saying the standards and the expectations need to be higher for women, men who believe women should be protected think that that is being too hard on the women," Germano said.
Training better Marines
Not long after she first arrived at Parris Island, Germano said it became very clear to her that the culture in the Fourth Battalion was very different from other training units.
She recalled being told by the outgoing commander "This place is either tears or cupcakes," meaning "the women are either sitting on your couch crying or they're at home baking you cupcakes...anywhere else in the Marine Corps, that wouldn't be ok," Germano said.
In addition, Germano says she was shocked when she reviewed performance scores for the eight tests recruits have to pass during training. These include things like physical fitness tests, academic testing, and shooting on the rifle range.
"In looking at 40 years of data, the women had never once performed to the level of the male recruits, and no one asked why and that blew me away," Germano said.
So, Germano decided to make changes and hold the female recruits to the same mental and physical standards male recruits were expected to meet.
"We changed how we were training the women. We changed how we were physically ensuring that the women were healthy and were taking care of themselves and stretching," she said. Those changes led to less lower extremity injury rates among the female cruits, which are among the top reasons recruits are discharged from training.
Germano said she noticed the hike courses for the female recruits had not been measured properly and the women were hiking shorter distances than the men, so she changed the courses to ensure the female recruits were hiking the full distances for their training.
"We stopped allowing the recruits to just quit in the middle of training events, which was a big deal," Germano.
One of the biggest symbolic changes Germano said she made was removing the row of chairs behind the formation of female recruits at the end of their final, grueling crucible challenge.
"We started making all of these changes to improve the caliber of Marine we were making and we were successful," Germano said.
"It was very clear that if you just held the women to higher standards, they could achieve amazing things," she said. "We were proving that women were stronger than they were ever given credit for, but, for whatever reason, the rest of the Marine Corps didn't want to adopt policy changes to formalize what we were doing, and in holding the recruits and the drill instructors to higher standards, I was then told that I was being too hard on them, even though these were the same expectations we had for the male recruits."
Loss of confidence
The 1,000 women under Germano's command began to perform to the same level as the male recruits at Parris Island, but Germano says she was still getting push back from some of the drill sergeants and from her boss, Brig. Gen. Terry Williams, who ranked her last of any lieutenant colonel he had ever worked with.
Williams, who is now the commander of Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, could not be reached for comment.
Germano says she requested a formal meeting with Williams' commanding officer to contest the ranking. Instead, the U.S. Marine Corps conducted a command climate investigation into Germano's leadership and conduct.
"I faced a double bind and it's the same double bind that women elsewhere in the workforce face, and that is that when you are an aggressive leader, when you are direct, when you are ambitious, you are interpreted and perceived differently than men who share those same qualities," she said.
Investigators interviewed dozens of recruits and drill sergeants under Germano's command. In their statements, some of the complained that Germano gave harsh criticism when standards weren't being enforced. Some complained that she humiliated people in front of their subordinates, did not return salutes to people she was angry with and rolled her eyes.
Others, however, said they believed Germano had good intentions and was trying to make the Fourth Battalion competitive with the other male training units.
The report, which was completed June 25, 2015, concluded that Germano "created a hostile, repressive, and unprofessional command climate."
Five days later, Germano's commanding officer told her he had "lost confidence" in her ability to lead and relieved her of her command.
"I felt like I had let everybody down, I felt like I had let my Marines down. I felt like I had no control over my life, what was happening, and I seriously had thoughts about killing myself," Germano said.
Looking back, Germano says she feel like there were two reasons why she experienced so much push back on her efforts to improve training standards for female recruits.
First, she says the Marines often recruit in the South, and end up with a wealth of recruits who come from conservative, religious backgrounds.
"In their minds, they have an idea of the roles that women should play," she said.
Second, while Germano was at Parris Island, the Marine Corps was in the middle of it's combat integration taskforce, which was charged with studying the performance of gender-integrated combat units.
In September, 2015, the taskforce released the results of the study and concluded that gender-integrated units did not perform as well as all male units. The study, which was widely criticized, became the basis for the Marine Corps request for a waiver from the Pentagon to exclude women from certain combat roles.
Germano said the improved performance from female recruits under her command would have challenged that study.
"I think prior to my arrival, the expectation was that the person who went to Fourth Battalion would be tagged to become a general officer but they were not required to change things," she said. "The status quo was the status quo."
"Efforts to maximize integration"
In a statement given to Circa, a spokesman for the USMC Training and Education Command said all training standards are "gender-neutral, aside from annual physical fitness testing, which is gender-normed, and compliant with Department of Defense policy."
The statement said male and female recruits are trained together "to the greatest extent possible" after the first three weeks of training.
"The development of the recruits’ character, discipline, and core values takes time, and we consider it important for male and female recruits to develop healthy bonds with same-gender role models, their drill instructors, specifically during the first three weeks of training," the statement said.
In addition, the statement said over the last two years, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island has "has advanced efforts to maximize integration of the Marine Recruit Training" and said more than 60 percent of training is "conducted by male and female recruits at the same location, at the same time when training cycles permit."
Germano says it's been amusing to see see the Marine Corps begin to implement some of the changes she made at Parris Island.
"It's like being mansplained."
Despite the changes, Germano says she doesn't think the Marine Corps is really willing to fully integrate troops.
"If it were genuine it would be reflected in policy statements in black and white in writing," she said, adding that Congress should demand policy action from the Marine Corps.
Now, Germano says it will take good mentorship and leadership to truly change the culture for the Fourth Battalion at Parris Island.
"I can tell you that one of my biggest regrets in the Marine Corps after 20 years is that I realize now that I fell in to the trap of thinking I didn't want to be associated with struggling women because I wanted to be seen as the exception," She said. "I think if we change that and rethink what good leadership is by women and men for women, It's going to change the culture."