CAMP PENDLETON — The official military shorthand for these leathernecks is "WMs"--women Marines. There is no official shorthand for males: They are Marines, pure and simple.
The Marine Corps, the elite branch of the U.S. Armed Forces that entices recruits with the slogan, "We're looking for a few good men," currently has 10,000 women among its 200,000 members. Given the corps' ingrained macho image, a WM is a curiosity, a contradiction in terms and, ultimately, a Marine who must work that much harder to make the grade.
Women Marines recently interviewed at Camp Pendleton in the presence of public information officers said they wanted more than anything to fit in--to do their job, pull their weight and enjoy being part of what one woman called "the best fighting force there is."
That has always been a tall order for WMs because the United States, unlike Israel and Denmark, excludes its military women from all combat positions. Even as Iranian women, shrouded in traditional black mufti, are training with weapons to defend their country, American women Marines in khaki trousers are still relegated to the sidelines as support staff.
'Why Shouldn't You Go?'
"It's a touchy subject," said Sgt. Kathleen Ereth. "It comes up a lot."
Added Cpl. Judy Powell, "I've had a few male Marines say to me, 'Well, you're a Marine, why shouldn't you go on the front line like everybody else?' "
These days, WMs are feeling even more out of sync with the corps image after a highly publicized report that military women stationed in Pacific outposts have been prey to widespread sexual harassment and discrimination.
Released by the Department of Defense in August, the report cited instances of military women in Pacific posts denied promotions for which they had qualified, propositioned by male and female superiors, badgered off base by male peers and, in one of the worst cases, offered "for sale" to local Koreans by a ship's captain (who has been relieved of command pending investigation).
In both the Navy and the Marine Corps, said the report, "the encouragement of a 'macho' male image contributes to behavior that is at best inappropriate and at worst morally repugnant."
'Blown Out of Proportion'
The report emphasized that such behavior occurs far less frequently in domestic military posts, a finding confirmed by the women at Camp Pendleton. "There are a few isolated incidents," Powell said, "but it was all blown out of proportion."
The WMs here believe the ensuing negative publicity about treatment of female soldiers is bad for the corps and especially bad for its female troops.
"I didn't appreciate it," said Ereth, who was in Okinawa when members of the Pentagon Advisory Committee on Women in the Service were compiling the report. "I'm sure there have been cases everywhere, but it's like walking along a street in the civilian world: You tell him to back off."
Cpl. Theresa Gilliam said the report "did bother me to a certain extent. It's really not happening and it put a bad focus on the corps. We're supposed to be the best fighting force there is and here comes this."
It is not surprising that Gilliam has not been harassed by other soldiers. She is an MP (military police), a job that opened to women Marines in the late 1960s. Anybody who thinks that a woman cannot be as tough as a man should try driving at breakneck speed past Gilliam while she is on patrol.
"I apprehend men a lot," she said dispassionately. "You just have to put them in their place. You have authority over them and you have to use that authority. If they don't like it, you can use physical force or intimidate them. One of the two always works."
Like most Marines of either sex, Gilliam decided to enter the corps because it promised her hands-on experience in her chosen field (criminal justice) without sitting around in classrooms first.
"I just didn't have the motivation to finish college because it was boring and I wasn't learning anything," she said. "I like practical experience myself. I still read a lot about criminal justice but I prefer to go out and do the job."
Like any civilian cop, Gilliam sees a lot of drunkenness and domestic violence, often hand-in-hand. "Sometimes being a woman helps," she said.
In one case, she and three other MPs had to coax a drunken Marine into handing over the infant he was carrying before they could handcuff him and lead him away.
"The first thing you do is separate the husband and wife, put them in two different rooms and get them away from each other. If you do that, you'll have everything under control."
Respond in Kind
Then what, Gilliam was asked. How do you handle a big, drunken Marine?
"Very carefully," she said with a slight smile. "If he wants to get belligerent and combative, you get belligerent and combative. I see it as an advantage if they're drunk and you're smaller than they are, because they're not going to have the quickness they have when they're sober."