View Full Version : Facing New Fight

03-17-03, 05:01 AM
The Sept. 11 Marines
Finally In, Facing New Fight

For Female Recruits, the Struggle Begins Long Before the Battlefield

PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. -- The sandy grass is wet and swarming with fleas. Candice Fleming takes her place on a slight ridge that looks across a long, narrow field. It is early morning. She tries to concentrate. She is aware of the wind, the elevation, the way she is breathing.

She raises her rifle, semiautomatic and loaded.

Not very long ago, she could have barely imagined this place, this gun, this moment. Before January, she was 19 and tired of college, in love with a guy named Tony. Her friends thought of her as a "girlie girl." She liked pink and matched her outfits and kept stuffed teddy bears and Eeyores on her neatly made bed in Fredericksburg, Va.

Now, she is armed with an M-16, wearing camouflage and combat boots. Seven weeks into boot camp, she is a marker of generational change -- learning to shoot with killing proficiency, in a nation at war, in a military that deploys women to hostile zones.

She is determined to become part of the Sept. 11 Marines.

Fleming's transformation began on a wintry day 75 hours into the new year, when she and 425 other men and women arrived by midnight buses at Parris Island, the storied boot camp on the Carolina coast. They enlisted at a turning point in American history, as the nation launched a war on terrorism amid the anguish and anger of the terrorist attacks.

They chose the path most likely to lead to combat.

For women in particular, this was a historic choice. They were part of the first generation to come of age when their country came under attack and when they could have an integral place in the war that followed: They could see women as colonels and combat ship commanders, and were able to choose most military careers open to men.

While women are still barred from direct-combat jobs on the ground, in Afghanistan they have flown missions over Taliban targets and manned weapons atop Humvees as military police. They have been combat engineers, intelligence analysts, aviation mechanics and air-traffic controllers.

With more than 50,000 U.S. troops deployed in the region in the war on terrorism, women have played a visible part. If there were ever a large-scale ground war, many experts agree that large numbers of women could die side-by-side with men.

In January, Sgt. Jeannette L. Winters, a 25-year-old field radio operator, became the first female Marine ever killed in a hostile-fire zone when she lost her life in the crash of a KC-130 tanker plane in Pakistan.

As skirmishes in Afghanistan go on and the war on terrorism unfolds, a steady procession of women from across the country shows up at Parris Island, a marsh-covered sea island in the shallow waters of the Atlantic where Marines have been made since 1915.

Halfway through training, they arrive at the rifle range. Here, they are given a matter of days to master their M-16s, to shoot with accuracy at distances up to a quarter-mile.

Candice Fleming bears up to this on a humid day when fleas are biting and pressure is building inside her head. If she fails to qualify on her rifle, she knows, she will not become a Marine -- a goal she has clung to in spite of her fiance's ambivalence.

Her husband-to-be, Tony Molina, headed to Marine boot camp two monthsahead of her and urged her not to take on two difficult jobs at once: Marine and Marine's wife.

Fleming pondered his words but stood by her decision. "I need to do this for myself," she thought.

Now, she closes her left eye. She places her face on the stock of her rifle, peering through the rear aperture, at the front sight post. She knows the guiding principle: Rely on your natural point of aim.

Slowly, ever so slowly, she squeezes the trigger.

Then again. And again.

A New Generation

Like the men of their generation, the women who showed up at Parris Island after Sept. 11 came for an array of reasons. There was the military's promise to help pay for college. The idea of job training. The allure of travel. The example set by their fathers or uncles -- or aunts or mothers.

Then there was the singular horror of that day -- and the concern and anger that consumed them in its aftermath.

"Males are not the only ones who are patriotic," said Sara Pujols, 19, of Union City, N.J., whose close friend lost her father at the World Trade Center. By October, Pujols was at a recruiting office, determined to enlist. "I decided," she said, "there was no time to waste."

Many of January's recruits grew up with the assumption that women were part of the military. They were in grade school during the Persian Gulf War, when 37,000 women were deployed and broke down job barriers as never before -- and when stories about them made headlines.

Still, enlisting was a complex choice: more widely accepted than it has ever been but freighted with social tension. Across the armed forces, women are a minority of 15 percent. In the Marine Corps, which prides itself on being first in the fight, women are rarer still, at 6 percent of the ranks.

Stephanie Flint, 19, made her way to a recruiting office in upstate New York after Sept. 11 with the Army in mind. When she did not spot an Army recruiter, she looked at the nearby offices of the other branches and decided: "If I'm going to join something, I'm going to go all-out."

To her, the Marine Corps was the elite -- the most disciplined and respected. She signed up for motor transport.

"I had to change my life, and September 11 pushed me to do it," she said. At the time, Flint was waitressing, attending college and drinking with friends. "I was stuck at 18," she said. "I was not getting older."

For Shannon Desmond, 19, the Marines was a longtime goal -- made more meaningful by Sept. 11. A swimmer and soccer player from the Chicago suburbs, Desmond's police officer stepfather had been a Marine. She loved her stepfather's stories. She loved the Marine uniform -- dress blues with gleaming gold buttons. As a little girl, she dreamed of joining. At about 13, Desmond asked: "Am I allowed to be one?"

"Yes," her stepfather said. "There are women Marines. I've never talked to one, but they're out there."

When Desmond enlisted as a high school senior, she told a recruiter she wanted to work in ground combat, which is still off-limits to women. "I want to be out in the field with them," she announced.

"Bad news: You can't," the recruiter told her.

Shorter than average -- at 5-1 and 109 pounds -- serious and single-minded, Desmond went on to become the only boot camp honors graduate her recruiter ever signed. While she came to feel quite happy with her selected occupation, aviation electronics, she says even now: "If they called me up and said I was going to combat, I would say, 'Okay, let's go get some.' "

'You Can't Do That'

Candice Fleming's decision to become a Marine stunned her family. As her mother, Loretta, put it: "I was in shock probably for a month. I didn't know what the mold of a Marine woman was, but this didn't seem to fit."

Candice was 5-4 and fashion-minded, with thick brown hair that she blow-dried, the kind of young woman who collected ceramic Snowbabies and kept an entire drawer filled with nail polish. She was fond of the movies "Cinderella" and "Snow White," her mother said, and had daydreams of a knight in shining armor. Her car had a pink steering-wheel cover that said "Princess."

"Not Candice!" family and friends responded at the news of her enlistment.

Whatever others saw in her, Candice had long defied expectations. As a freshman at Marymount University in Arlington, she got her tongue pierced. In high school, she marched with the band's color guard, persevering in practices that could last eight hours in the summer heat. She dyed her hair a purplish shade of red. She once had a memorable evening in a mosh pit.

Throughout her girlhood, her father had teased: "You're just a girl; you can't do that." For Candice the joke became an open challenge, a test of her considerable will. But much of that was before she became serious with Tony Molina.

Last August, Candice and Tony decided, after a friendship of four or five years, that their feelings for each other were romantic. They became inseparable. But by then Tony had enlisted in the Marines.

Some friends concluded that Candice enlisted because of Tony. Wrong, she says flatly. She had left Marymount University after a year, enrolled in community college and was still not content. She wanted a change, and the military seemed best, maybe a steppingstone to a job with the FBI.

After Sept. 11, she felt the pull of "wanting to do something and help out."

Not until she signed the paperwork -- with a job specialty in legal administration -- did she even tell Tony. "He was kind of in shock with everyone else," she said. Even in her job category, Marines could be deployed overseas.

When Tony left for Parris Island, the two promised to write letters, thinking they might not see each other for 10 months. For the first four months, they could not talk by phone either -- calls are strictly forbidden at Parris Island.

So, in December, before her own start date at boot camp, Candice found another letter from Tony in the mailbox at her parents' house. She read it as she was walking down the stairs. She nearly fell.
I love My God and my Corps too

I love my family and I love you

I have lived 19 years and to this day

About anyone else, I've never felt this way.

Since I'm not there in person, imagine I'm on bended knee

Saying, 'My little princess, Will you marry me?'

Candice wrote back right away. On one side of her letter were sentences she cannot remember. On the other side was one word in large bold letters.



03-17-03, 05:02 AM
A Revolutionary Change <br />
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Just hours after Candice Fleming, Shannon Desmond, Stephanie Flint and Sara Pujols arrived at Parris Island -- before they had a full night's sleep or a shower or a hot...

03-17-03, 05:04 AM
Teaching style is a big factor for female recruits, said Lt. Col. Mary Hochstetler, commander of the all-female battalion. "Some [instructors] they click with, and others they tense up with," she said.

For many women, the pressure to perform as well as men starts before they arrive, and it does not subside in boot camp.

Their drill instructors urge them to shoot better than the men, the recruits say. March tighter. Sound off louder. Run faster. Dress neater. Show more teamwork. "We try harder so we don't look weak," said Candice Fleming.

Valerie Hawver, 20, of Green Bay, Wis., said she felt a general resistance in spite of women's efforts. "The men don't really feel you belong here, that Marines aren't really for the women," she said.

Shannon Desmond, describing a drill instructor's advice, put it this way: "It's a man's world in the Marine Corps, and you have to step up and prove yourself that much more as a female Marine."

Hoping to show the way, 4009's Staff Sgt. Anne Marie Pieters, the senior drill instructor, is all can-do thinking and forward bearing. A tall Californian and military police officer by training, Pieters herself went from cheerleader to Marine. Now she helps teenagers such as Fleming adjust to the realities of war.

Some women, Pieters said, show up at Parris Island and "don't realize that's what we do." Other women come in so gung-ho, she said, they would love to lead the way and go into direct ground combat.

"The majority are trying very hard," she said. The dropout rate for women is 15 percent, compared with 10 percent for men. Pieters has already lost two recruits -- one to pregnancy, the other to a suicide threat. Most women who drop out do so because of injuries.

On the rifle range, Jennifer Goger, 22, of Middletown, N.J., struggles to avoid becoming one of the medical casualties. On crutches, with a stress fracture in her hip, she continues shooting anyway -- hobbling from the 200 yard line, to the 300, then the 500.

Goger keeps up with her platoon, not forgetting why she enlisted. After Sept. 11, when her community became one of the hardest-hit outside New York City and lost several dozen residents, Goger decided: "If there was a war to break out, I wanted to have something to do with it, not be one of those people sitting back."

Put to the Test

The day before the big test, Fleming's score is not what she had hoped: 174 of the possible 250. She has flunked -- or "unq'd," as in unqualified, as they call it here.

She tells herself with resolve: I will shoot better tomorrow. I will pass.

A drill instructor asks a group of other recruits how they did.

No one looks very pleased.

The first woman tries to hedge, not admitting that she failed.

"By a couple of points, ma'am," she reports.

"Pass or FAIL?!" the drill instructor repeats sharply.

"Fail, ma'am," she responds quietly.

The drill instructor asks the next recruit.

"Pass, ma'am," she reports.

The drill instructor nods.

Then, asking the next in line, the drill instructor shakes her head.

The young woman is struggling for her voice.

"Forget it," the drill instructor spits. "I can tell by looking at your face."

Soon, the results are in. Of 63 women, just 10 have scored the required 190 points or more.

The 4009's senior drill instructor, Pieters, takes this in stride. "I'm hoping they pull it off tomorrow," she says. Many of those who scored poorly, she predicts, will rise to the occasion on qualification day.

'You'll Make It'

The women as a group improve markedly on test day. Pieters is right.

Shannon Desmond, inspired to join by her stepfather's stories of his life as a Marine, passes, though not as easily as she wanted. Sara Pujols, whose friend's father died at the World Trade Center, passes, and so does Jennifer Goger, whose community lost so many lives Sept. 11.

Valerie Hawver, who after Sept. 11 wanted to drop everything and start boot camp right then, brings in the highest marks, at 232, qualifying as a range expert. Her score is better than the highest-ranking male in four of the six men's platoons that were formed the same day.

In all, 22 members of the all-female platoon 4009 are good to go.

But not Stephanie Flint, from upstate New York.

Not Candice Fleming, from Fredericksburg.

Later that night, just before bedtime, Fleming can no longer keep up the stoic face she has maintained through the sharp pangs of disappointment. Thinking over her mistakes on the range, her voice begins to break.

No matter how hard she tried, she could not quite get it. Now she has let down her platoon, she thinks.

Tears roll down her cheeks.

"I had a bad day," she says in a near-whisper.

Before she can say much more, Sonyga Young from Cincinnati, standing nearby, reaches over and puts a tight arm around her shoulder. "It'll be okay, Fleming," she assures. "You'll make it."

That is not what happens the next firing day, or the one after that.

But on the third try, Fleming squeezes the trigger slowly.

Then again, and again.

This time she hits the mark squarely, scoring enough to become a Marine.

2002 The Washington Post Company