Sgt. Stephanie Fahl is shouldering great expectations.
Eight years ago, the 33-year-old San Diego resident went through boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina. Her drill instructors inspired her then and she hopes now to carry that same motivation forward as she helps to forge the Corps’ newest Marines.
On Wednesday, Dec. 16, Fahl and two other women, Sgt. Ikea Kaufman and Sgt. Stephanie Jordi, made Marine Corps history by becoming the first females to graduate from a gender-integrated drill instructor course at the 100-year-old Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.
Marching to the center of the stage, they received the signature felt drill instructor hat and recited the drill instructor’s creed penned in 1950.
In February, the three will again make history by joining their male counterparts to train the first gender-integrated company of Marine recruits in the West Coast depot’s history. Female Marine recruits have traditionally all been sent to Parris Island for boot camp.
“As enlisted Marines, we never forget our drill instructors,” Fahl said just minutes after her graduation. “I still remember them vividly. Their demeanor was the epitome of what I wanted to become. I can only hope I can work hard enough to inspire these young men and women in the same way they inspired me.”
Earlier this year, the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act required the Marines to begin training both genders together. Parris Island led the way and has graduated nine integrated companies from boot camp.
When new recruits arrive in San Diego in February, they will become part of Lima Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion.
Of the company’s six 60-person platoons that will all train together, one will be made up of women. While the genders will be housed separately, the boot camp training, including physical fitness, Marine martial arts, academics and etiquette in the chow hall, will be done as a mixed group of men and women.
It takes recruits 13 weeks to become Marines.
First they learn how to act, march and how to properly conduct themselves. After two weeks, they go to Camp Pendleton to train on the firing ranges, learning to operate and shoot an M-16 rifle. They learn land navigation and how to live and operate in the field. Before returning to the recruit depot, they encounter a final challenge known as The Crucible, after which they receive the eagle, globe and anchor insignia and become Marines.
They then go back to the depot, work on academics and graduate. From there they start to train for whatever their Marine Corps jobs will be.
By having the new recruit men and women train together, military officials said they will be better prepared to serve together and rely on each other as they go into the fleet and even on deployments.
“In an effort to forge Marines of the highest quality, we must give them every opportunity to succeed,” Brig. Gen. Ryan P. Heritage said. “This is the first time we are able to give Marines who graduate from MCRD San Diego the same integrated experience that many of their peers at Parris Island have received already. This also will get us one step closer to understanding the facilities and personnel needed to make this a sustained reality.”
Plans to have a second integrated company are in the works for next summer. But to train women there regularly, the base would need to have more facilities built.
“This is a proof of concept,” Capt. Martin Harris, spokesman for the recruit command, said of the first training groups. “We know it can be done. We just need to know what we need to have here.”
Full gender-integration is also about numbers.
Typically, about 17,000 male recruits ship to the San Diego depot over 40 weeks a year. Comparatively, at Parris Island about 4,000 to 5,000 female recruits enter over 26 weeks annually. If a recruits’ training company is to be fully integrated, the Marine Corps will need to recruit more women.
Fahl said she is looking forward to her challenge molding the new recruits — male and female. And boot camp is the best place to start.
“That gets rid of any awkwardness different genders might have for when they go to Marine Combat Training, A-school (specialty school) and the fleet,” she said. “It only makes sense to me.”
Fahl recalled her own duty experience and some men who said “they had never seen a female Marine before.”
It became a brief issue for her as a squad leader, she said. “There were males who were hesitant to listen to me and follow my direction.”
Best in the Corps
Marines who graduate as drill instructors represent some of the best from throughout the Corps, Harris said. Their peers select each for exceptional mental, physical and moral fitness.
Fahl, who previously served at Camp Pendleton and Marine Corps Air Station Miramar handling flight and emergency gear, left active duty in 2013.
“I knew when I was getting out, I was making a big mistake,” she said. “I missed the Marine Corps before I was handed my end-of-contract papers.”
But, she did it because her husband was also in the Marine Corps and had been transferred to Hawaii. When the couple returned to San Diego, Fahl signed up for the Marine Corps Reserves in 2019. Her husband is also a drill instructor at the depot.
“He’s extra happy for me,” she said about her new history-making job. “He kind of pushed me to join the Reserves.”
Becoming a drill instructor is demanding: It’s 16 hour days, seven days a week for 13 weeks. There is one week off and then the same cycle starts again over. And it lasts a period of three years.
Still, it was something Fahl wanted.
Her course included 54 male Marines and while she said competing with them physically wasn’t a challenge, time management was.
“In the fleet, we have our regular jobs,” she said. “Here, we’re learning a new MOS (military occupational specialty) in 11 weeks. A plethora of information is being fed to us through a fire hose. Learning how to grasp that and the uniform preparation, that was the hardest.”
But, even more challenging than that is the pressure Fahl said she felt to succeed.
“Me and the two other women being the first ones to go through drill instructor school, we’re setting expectations for others to follow,” she said. “It wasn’t keeping up with the gentlemen by yelling and screaming, it’s can we live up to the legacy we want to establish for future female Marines coming through drill instructor school.”
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