They felt that they owed it not only to themselves, but for Marines past, present and future.
Three enlisted Marines — Pfc. Cristina Fuentes Montenegro, Pfc. Julia Carroll and Pfc. Katie Gorz — became the first women to graduate from the Infantry Training Battalion during a Thursday morning ceremony aboard Camp Geiger, which is home to the School of Infantry East. The graduation marked the end of a 59-day training schedule focusing on infantry tactics, weapons and more. Delta Company, the graduating training unit, started with 266 male and 15 female Marines. On Thursday, 221 men and three women graduated.
The integration of women at Infantry Training Battalion comes after a decision in January by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to eliminate a long-standing policy prohibiting women from serving in combat-related specialties within the military. Delta Company is one of 17 training cycles that will include women in the next year, though the women must volunteer for the training and will not receive the infantry designation or be assigned to infantry units even if they successfully complete the training.
Currently there are 39 additional women training with the Infantry Training Battalion across three training companies. The companies totaled 44 women when training began in October.
The students of Delta Company learned 16 weapon systems, fired more than 30,000 rounds and completed three hikes totaling 50 kilometers while carrying more than 80 pounds of gear each time. Land navigation, patrolling and simulated combat drills are among the topics covered at the school.
“For me, I never felt like I was going to drop out,” said Montenegro, 25, of Coral Springs, Fla. “Yes, we had tough moments, but there were moments that we had to remember why we were doing it but dropping out was never an option.”
The women were screened for the School of Infantry during recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. More than 100 female recruits were asked if they were interested in attending infantry training. Out of the group, 49 met the eligibility physical fitness criteria of three pull-ups, 50 crunches in two minutes and a 28-minute three-mile run. Of that 49, 19 volunteered. Four of those women voluntarily dropped out of the course once they arrived at the School of Infantry. Two were removed from Delta Company for failing the required fitness tests on training days one and two. Six more voluntarily removed themselves after training day 29 — a benchmark that means they are basically trained and eligible to continue on to their specialty schools. The remainder of the women were dropped for injury or failure to pass the 20-kilometer hike.
“I would do this all over again,” said Montenegro, who will now move on to aviation mechanic school. “The training we got was amazing, and we had instructors who know so much. They were very knowledgeable and every time they talked to us we learned something new. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
She said one of the things that kept her going was the bonds that formed among all the students from the very beginning. Not once, she said, did she feel bad vibes from her peers but felt like part of the unit from the very beginning. Happy to be part of the research, she said that as long as women are held to the same standards as men, then women are “very ready” for the infantry.
While Montenegro said she would need to think about volunteering to go to an infantry unit, Carroll, 18, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, said she would volunteer in a heartbeat as a mortarman now that she has graduated ITB. Her inspiration to serve and her motivation to push through, she said, came from her father’s service with Marine Corps reconnaissance many years ago.
“I don’t really feel anything too special just because (the men) did the same thing that we did,” Carroll said. “A lot of them did it better than us. Some of us did better than them. I don’t really feel any different than them, I would think.”
For both of the women, being followed by media through the duration of their training was the biggest stressor, they said. After a few weeks, they said they were able to forget about the media’s presence.
“I did this for the extra training,” Carroll said. “It’s very valuable especially given that a lot of females in non-combat military occupational specialties will see combat. ... I don’t know how to explain it. We are trained to take care of each other, and I wish I could take care of them.”
Despite her determination, Carroll admits that she was nervous of failing the graded events. The sense of belonging she felt among her peers made her not want to let them down, she said.
“Altogether it was just training, day in and day out,” Carroll said. “Keep your focus on the training — that’s the key to success.”
The third woman to graduate, Gorz, 19, of St. Paul, Minn., did not wish to be interviewed by media.
The male students responded well to the integration of the women, according to Pfc. Trent Wetzel, 18, of Hedgesville, W.Va. While everyone has their own opinions, he said, Marines work hand-in-hand with women every day, so integrating the infantry is not a big deal. Besides, he said, some of the women performed better than some men and vice versa.
“You’re all in it together,” said Wetzel, who also graduated Delta Company and will next report to 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines at Camp Lejeune. “All you have is each other and that’s a bond you will never forget.
Thomas Brennan is a reporter for the Jacksonville Daily News.