Best Defense

Why leadership will either make or break combat integration in the Marine Corps

Expectations can be dangerous when they are low, as we have seen in recruiting and on the drill field, especially when low expectations become codified via low standards. Yet expectations can be liberating when they are high, as we have seen by the performance of Marines, male and female, in combat.

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By Kate Germano, Jeannette Haynie, and Kyleanne Hunter
Best Defense guest columnists

Kyleanne Hunter showed up to Officer Candidate School eager to become a Marine. She had been training for months, honing her physical skill and tactical knowledge. After running the first physical fitness test, clocking in at under 17-minutes for the 3-mile run, she was proud of her accomplishments. However, upon returning to her barracks, she was met with a ton of “just who do you think you are? You know the female standards is 21 minutes!” from her platoon commander. From that moment forward, rather than being encouraged to excel and reach her personal potential, Kyleanne was reminded that there are lower expectations for women, and that a Marine is in no place to question those expectations.

* * *

Kate Germano checked in as Commanding Officer of the Marine Corps’ only all-female unit, the 4th Recruit Training Battalion, excited to shape and lead the Marines of the future. While observing the conduct of training in her first few months in command, she repeatedly pointed out problems related to gender bias and the complete segregation of female recruit training to her leadership. She raised concerns about the overt prejudice towards women’s performance, including one of her peers calling female recruits “hike distractions.” When she addressed the decades-long poor performance of female recruits across the spectrum of graduation requirements compared to their male counterparts, her commanding officer’s response was that he didn’t understand why she was concerned about the impact to their credibility. Nor would he entertain any conversation about why improving their performance was necessary. Lower expectations, and an acceptance of lower performance, was simply the norm.

* * *

When Jeannette Haynie checked into her first squadron as a brand-new attack helicopter pilot, she was apprehensive but excited. She was confident in her abilities and training, but her new squadron had never had a female pilot before. Up to that point, male Marines’ reactions to women in other specialties had been all over the map, from accepting to ambivalent to downright hostile, which gave her pause. Upon checking in, however, she was relieved to find no drama: Neither the commanding officer nor his executive officer was concerned about her gender. As they would be with any boot pilot, both were only interested in her ability to learn how to fly and fight the aircraft. Their professionalism and high expectations for all pilots, regardless of gender, set the tone for the tight-knit unit. Her peers felt free to support and include her from the start, and the mid-grade and senior instructors in the squadron followed the leadership’s lead. Within a few months she was completely assimilated, and she went on to have a fantastic tour over multiple deployments. Her commanding officer had made clear to the squadron his intent regarding their conduct and professionalism, and all of the Marines followed suit.

* * *

We share these personal stories because we believe they teach us a lesson that will be critical to successful integration of the Services: that the expectations held and communicated by our senior leaders can be either dangerous or liberating. Expectations can be dangerous when they are low, as we have seen in recruiting and on the drill field, especially when low expectations become codified via low standards. Yet expectations can be liberating when they are high, as we have seen by the performance of Marines, male and female, in combat. In watching the responses of the Services to Secretary Carter’s decision to open all military fields to women, we must pay close attention to the tone, and thus the expectations, set by the military leadership, especially senior leaders of the Marine Corps.

To be sure, the decision on whether to integrate or not has been made: change is afoot and the time for debate is over. Integration is happening, but whether it happens cleanly and with clear benefits to effectiveness, or clumsily and painfully, depends on the tone set by our leaders. In order to truly make the integration of women into ground combat roles a success, military leaders at every echelon of command will have to immediately and publicly endorse high expectations for the performance and conduct of all service members, regardless of gender, and reinforce their commitment to professionalism. Of all moments in history, now is the time for leaders to put aside personal feelings about the change and step off smartly in pursuit of excellence. Indecisive or easily misinterpreted statements by leaders at this critical juncture have the potential to greatly harm the ability of the services to harness the b+enefits of gender integration.

Examining the differences in tone of the reactions of senior Service leaders thus far is instructive of this point:

General Joseph Votel, the commander of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), recorded a lengthy message with his Command Sergeant Major in response to the SecDef’s decision. Within the first 15 seconds of his eight-minute statement, General Votel set the tone: “Today, Secretary Carter announced his final determination to fully integrate all military positions, career fields, and specialties to women. I want to take this opportunity to state that I stand behind Secretary Carter’s decision, and fully support opening all Special Operations specialties and units to female service members.” He then proceeded to clearly list and explain his reasons for supporting this change, and followed up with statements that directly respond to the rumors and myths surrounding the decision, including the results of the Marine Corps study released earlier this year.

General Votel’s unambiguous support of Secretary Carter’s decision makes it abundantly clear to those who serve under him that this change is happening and that it is welcomed by the leadership. He exemplified the professionalism that is essential for the success of an all-volunteer force in today’s challenging world. His statement shows an embrace of the coming changes, and an objective, dispassionate way ahead focused on leveraging the capabilities of all — men and women — under his command in order to ensure the most effective military force.

With this top-down tone set, small unit leaders, trainers, and junior enlisted like will be expected to welcome and properly train new female recruits to the high standards expected of SOCOM personnel. General Votel’s statement left no room for emotional rhetoric about the potential (yet unsubstantiated) harm women may cause, and it sets the Special Operations community up for successful integration and a stronger force as a result.

Contrast that with the recorded statement from General Robert Neller, the Commandant of the Marine Corps. General Neller, accompanied by the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, offered a brief statement on Secretary Carter’s decision, setting a very different tone: “Yesterday we received the Secretary of Defense’s decision, and we will immediately begin full integration of our force…. We have a decision; it’s time to move out.”

While General Neller’s statement does not communicate obvious dismay at the decision, it offers no clear support for it either. The difference might be subtle to an outsider but will be clear to Marines, especially those who consider this a bad or political decision. General Neller’s closing statement specifically suggests to those searching for direction and leadership on this issue that while the decision was made, he doesn’t agree with it, although as a professional he will follow orders. The failure to unequivocally state support for the decision to integrate suggests that the Commandant of the Marine Corps does not like letting women into the combat arms. Rather than focus on the most efficient ways to make an effective combat force and harness the benefits of the population now available, his statement is one of begrudgingly following orders.

Given this tone, Marines who do not think women belong in their ranks now have the space to believe that their leaders stand behind them in dissent. Without a single woman setting foot into the infantry, artillery, or armor jobs, dissension will already have been sown due to the leadership tone that was set, however unwittingly.

Since so much of the ongoing debate has focused on presupposed differences between men and women, it is important to note the potential differential impact of the tone. What does it look like from the view of a 19-year-old female Private First Class? A 20-year-old male Lance Corporal? Simply put, Marines will do what they are allowed to do, and if they suspect that their leaders do not support integration, they will magnify this belief in every action they take. The end result? The female Marine will notice the lack of confidence displayed in her abilities and will doubt herself and others, while the male Marine will feel that if the Commandant thinks women are incapable of serving in the combat arms, then women clearly do not belong and are less capable than male Marines. If our leaders allow doubt to seep in and do not lead from the front, the tone will be clear, and the resulting dissension in the ranks could negatively impact the cohesion of the force in a way that gender integration never could.

Earlier this fall, then-Commandant General Dunford quietly requested an exception to policy from Secretary Carter, following the release of portions of the Marine Corps’ vaunted integration study. Given that these events led to mistrust and discord palpably felt within the ranks, one would expect the Marines to aim for the strongest, most mature leadership possible in the wake of Secretary Carter’s decision. Instead, junior Marines have General Neller’s noncommittal statement, and the absence of General Dunford from the Secretary of Defense’s side for the announcement, to guide their behavior and expectations. These leadership actions, or lack thereof, set the tone just as General Votel’s statement does, and they send a loud and clear message to female Marines as well as theirmore numerous male peers. This is dangerous.

The odd thing is that we are Marines. We lead. As young candidates at Officer Candidate School or midshipmen at the Naval Academy, we were taught that, as leaders, we were responsible for everything that the Marines did or failed to do. On becoming Marine officers ourselves, we learned to have high expectations for ourselves and all Marines that we met along the way. We expect hard-charging leadership from the front, and believe the Marine Corps leadership traits of JJDIDTIEBUCKLE do not distinguish between men and women. That is why the bland and cautious responses of our senior leaders is baffling and disappointing.

When the Marine Corps requested an exception to policy this fall, they broke from the rest of the Services in doing so. While senior Marine leaders may have believed they were justified in asking for this exception, they sent a clear message to all Marines simply by requesting it. To female Marines, the message was, “We don’t think you have what it takes, and we don’t have confidence in your abilities, regardless of your individual qualities.” And to male Marines, the message was, “Women can’t hack it, and we don’t want them here.”

Well, Secretary Carter has spoken, and the decision has been made. And if you are a Marine, and want the best for your Corps, then — regardless of your personal feelings toward gender integration — the only logical choice is to lead from the front with a strong presence. As with most challenges, good leadership can combat the gender-bias currently institutionalized in the Corps, and can make integration a success. The Marine Corps prides itself at being a highly adaptable force, capable of doing everything required to combat ever-changing environments and complex enemies. If our senior leadership really does believe we are now heading down the wrong path in allowing qualified women to serve alongside men, and up against a new enemy, wouldn’t the logical response be to step up and lead them through it?

That is what Marines expect, and that is what Marines deserve. They deserve strong leadership, a united front, and clear guidance. Marines are out there, waiting to be led through this turbulent period in our history. The question is, which leaders will take the bull by its horns?

Kate Germano is a Lieutenant Colonel has served in a variety of challenging assignments in her 19 years in the Marine Corps, including commanding officer of 4th Battalion at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island. She is a vocal advocate for the end of gender bias in the military and the implementation of high standards for all.

Jeannette Haynie is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves, a Cobra pilot by trade, and a combat veteran. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the George Washington University, studying domestic terrorism and inequality.

Kyleanne Hunter served over a decade as an officer in the Marine Corps. She is a cobra pilot by trade, serving multiple combat deployments, and was the Marine Corps’ Liaison Officer to the House of Representatives. She is currently a Ph.D. student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, studying military gender integration and political violence.

Photo credit: Cpl. Anna Albrecht/U.S. Marine Corps/U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. Fifth Fleet/Flickr

Corrections, Jan. 11, 2016: Jeannette Haynie is female; an earlier version of this article referred to her as a “he” in her bio and misspelled her first name in her byline. Also, the first three paragraphs of this article were omitted when it was originally published; those paragraphs have since been added.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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