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Women begin boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego for the first time in history

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Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego’s (MCRD) color guard marches in formation during a graduation MCRD, Feb. 5, 2021. Graduation took place at the completion of the 13-week transformation including training for drill, marksmanship, basic combat skills and Marines Corps customs and traditions. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Grace J. Kindred)

Andrew Dyer

The San Diego Union-Tribune

Recruits piled off buses Tuesday to the urgent shouts and barks of Marine Corps drill instructors.

They took their spots on the fabled yellow footprints to begin their transformation from civilians to Marines — something that has happened countless times in the San Diego boot camp’s almost 100 year history.

Only this time, for the first time, 60 women were among those scrambling recruits. Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego was no longer a men-only institution.

In 2019, Congress ordered the San Diego boot camp to integrate women into its training battalions by 2028. The Parris Island depot must do so by 2025.

Until now, all female recruits have attended boot camp at the Marines’ East Coast training base in Parris Island, S.C. It also has been home to the occasional integrated recruit company.

Staff Sgt. Ayesha Zantt, a Marine drill instructor, recently transferred to San Diego from Parris Island, where she has led recruits since 2017. Women training in San Diego is a big step for the Marines, she said.

“It’s history,” she said. “It’s important.”

Though she will not be this cohort’s drill instructor, she was the first one they met upon arrival at the depot. Zantt boarded the first bus of men and womenand yelled instructions as the new recruits disembarked.

The arrival was typical for new recruits coming through during the pandemic.

Recruits arrived in San Diego two weeks ago, received a medical screening at the depot and were quarantined at a local hotel. On Tuesday, they surrendered their civilian clothes and received uniforms and footwear they’ll wear throughout training.

Recruits made their last phone calls home and the men had their heads shaved. The women wore their hair pulled back in buns.

The 60 women will form one of the six platoons that comprise Lima Company. Just like the all-male companies trained in San Diego over the years, the women’s platoon will live in a squad bay in the company’s barracks.

Capt. Ashley Sands will oversee three Lima Company platoons as lead series commander, including the women’s. Sands said that while she’s excited to be a part of integration, she does not think things will be that different.

“It’s no different — we’re going to be training essentially the same ways that we have been for years,” Sands said. “But I think it really is just a big moment in terms of being able to do this for the very first time.”

Col. Matt Palma, the commanding officer of the recruit training regiment, said the women of Lima Company will endure the same training obstacles as the men — including the grueling “Reaper” hike at Camp Pendleton that is part of the last phase of training. During the hike, recruits traverse rugged terrain and charge up a steep ridge while carrying 55-pound packs.

“We’re going to train them so they can be successful — they’re gonna do it,” Palma said. “They’re gonna hike the Reaper with the pack just like the males and we’re gonna train them to do it.”

The Marines are decades behind other military services, which integrated their recruit training by the 1990s.

Palma said that the depot has most of the facilities needed to integrate in San Diego, but there aren’t enough women recruits to have integrated companies all the time, he said. Women only comprise about 8 percent of the Marine Corps.

Lima Company will serve as a “proof of concept,” which means it will be used to demonstrate that San Diego can effectively train women alongside men. The depot has requested to train another cohort of women this summer but is still waiting on a decision, Palma said.

Anne Frazier, 19, of Poway, was among the new recruits Tuesday. The 2019 Poway High graduate said her father, a retired Marine, played a big role in her decision to join the Marines.

“I feel like I’m meant to be in the Marine Corps,” Frazier said. “I feel like it’s a challenge.”

Frazier, who waited almost a year to go to boot camp, said she only recently found out she’d be training in San Diego instead of Parris Island. While she had her sights on South Carolina — to get out of the San Diego “bubble,” she said — she’s excited to be one of the first women to finish the Reaper hike.

“I’ve heard all about it many, many times,” she said. “I’m excited, but there’s definitely some nerves. I’m just trying to go day-by-day.”

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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