There’s a new commander on this sandy, swampy spit of land that has transformed rawboned recruits into macho Marines for nearly a century. Brig. Gen. L.E. Reynolds, a 6-foot-tall Baltimore native and a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, is the latest in a long line of no-nonsense leaders to take charge here.
But she’s the first woman.
And for the tradition-bound Marine Corps, which endlessly promotes a tough-guy image and built its recruiting on the search for “a few good men,” the idea of all those ruthless Parris Island drill instructors having to salute a leatherneck named Loretta could take some getting used to.
“I am sure that some Marines, especially those who served many years ago, were disconcerted that a female Marine general would take over Parris Island,” said Maj. Jim Franks, who served under Reynolds as her executive officer when they were deployed to Afghanistan. “But if they had the opportunity to meet her, they would quickly see that she’s eminently qualified to do that job. . . . Take the female part out of it. She’s an outstanding officer.”
The granddaughter of a Marine and daughter of a steelworker, Reynolds, 46, lacks the high-and-tight buzz cut that is a Corps trademark but otherwise comes across as a typical Marine commander: confident and blunt.
“I am not here by mistake, because it was time to put a girl here,” she told local reporters after she arrived in June. “I was the right person for the job.”
Reynolds’s command of what is considered hallowed ground for Marines is the latest example of how the remaining job barriers for women in the military are gradually falling by the wayside.
Last year, the Navy announced that it will permit women to serve on submarines for the first time. Last month, the head of the military’s Special Operations Command said he favors allowing women to join the elite Navy SEALs, the epitome of highly trained warriors.
In March, a congressional commission recommended that a long-standing ban on women serving in ground-combat units be overturned as part of a broader effort to bring greater diversity to the armed forces, particularly in the officer ranks.
Separately, Congress has directed the Pentagon to review its 1994 policy that prohibits women from serving in units whose primary mission is “direct” ground combat, such as artillery, infantry and tank companies. The Defense Department was originally scheduled to respond with a report in April but has pushed back the delivery date to October.
Part of the reason for the delay is that the military is simultaneously girding for another big social change: the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law that prevents gay troops from serving openly. That ban will lapse on Sept. 20.
The restrictions on women in combat units will take longer to fade, but some defense officials say it is just a matter of time, despite continued resistance in some corners of Congress and the military. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in March found that more than seven in 10 Americans support allowing women to engage in direct combat.
“I’m confident that this is an area that is going to change,” then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in April. “Time scale of the change, I have no idea.”
The reality on the ground, however, is that women are taking on combat missions anyway, thanks to policies that permit them to serve in support units in war zones.
More than 271,000 female troops have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, flying aircraft, leading convoys, collecting intelligence and working as medics, among other duties. As of Monday, according to Pentagon statistics, 141 women had been killed and 809 wounded in the two wars.
Reynolds returned in March after spending a year in Afghanistan as commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force’s headquarters group. As a colonel there, she oversaw the expansion of Camp Leatherneck, the sprawling Marine base in Helmand province. The Corps says she was the first female Marine to command “battle space.”
Previously, Reynolds led a communications battalion in Iraq, where she worked in al-Anbar province in hot spots such as Fallujah. In June, she was promoted to one-star general and took command at Parris Island, which is iconic for its unforgiving basic-training course.
In an interview, Reynolds played down her status as Parris Island’s first female general. She said her Marines have taken it in stride, although some of the men still stumble on occasion and address her as “sir” instead of “ma’am.”
“We’ve been at war for 10 years with this generation of Marines,” Reynolds said. “We’ve seen women do a whole lot of things between the war in Iraq and the current war in Afghanistan. The fact that I’m sitting here making sure that we continue to put out the best young Marines is just a matter of it being 2011.”
“I don’t think that there’s any Marine out there that says she can’t do the job because she’s a female,” she added. “I’m the commanding general. I got here after 25 years of a lot of command time. It’s a performance-based culture. I’m here because my record says I can do this job, and I think the Marines understand that.”
Reynolds graduated from the Naval Academy in 1986, in just the seventh class at Annapolis to include women. She said she had been warned before her plebe year that some midshipmen would do their utmost to make her cry, to prove that women were weak.
“I got through four years. I was not going to let those guys make me cry,” she recalled. “Given that I was successful at not letting them break me . . . I wanted to just keep pushing myself. I wanted to be able to say I was a Marine.” She was one of two women in her class who could.
Today, a quarter-century later, she’s one of two female generals on active duty in the Corps. The other, Maj. Gen. Angela Salinas, previously commanded the Marines’ recruiting depot in San Diego — the West Coast counterpart to Parris Island.
Further down in the ranks, women are slowly becoming more of a common sight. About 7 percent of the active-duty Corps is female.
Although the program of instruction is identical, the Marine Corps is unusual because it is the only service that separates the sexes for basic training.
Parris Island is the only place where enlisted female recruits can become Marines. (The San Diego recruit depot is restricted to men.) During their 12 weeks here, women are assigned to all-female platoons and trained exclusively by female drill instructors. Although there are far more male recruits here than women overall, the two rarely cross paths.
Reynolds said she has no plans to change any of that.
“We need the absolute attention of those recruits, without distraction,” she said. For female recruits, “there are things you maybe could get by a male drill instructor that a female instructor absolutely is never going to let you get away with. Women are harder on women.”