Recruits with Lima Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion practice drill formations on the Peatross Parade Deck on Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., July 25, 2023. Recruits learn close-order drill as a means of instilling discipline, teamwork and spatial awareness and as a base to execute combat formations.

Recruits with Lima Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion practice drill formations on the Peatross Parade Deck on Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., July 25, 2023. Recruits learn close-order drill as a means of instilling discipline, teamwork and spatial awareness and as a base to execute combat formations. (Casey Cooper/U.S. Marine Corps)

The Marine Corps should train male and female recruits in gender-integrated platoons at both of its recruit depots and the Pentagon should adopt new polices to protect the careers of pregnant troops, a Pentagon panel focused on issues affecting women recommended in a report released Friday.

The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, or DACOWITS, recommended Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin order the Marines to train male and female recruits in platoons together and institute gender-integrated drill instructor teams. Committee members wrote they believe better integrating recruit training efforts would improve male Marines’ acceptance of women in their ranks and better prepare them to serve together in integrated units in the fleet.

“DACOWITS commends the Marine Corps for the steps it has taken since 2020 to increase gender integration at recruit training,” the panel wrote in its newly published 2023 annual report. “However, the committee feels more integration is necessary to better prepare male and female recruits as they become Marines, to operate within an integrated operational force and to better align the Marine Corps with its service counterparts.”

The Marine Corps-focused recommendations were among more than two dozen proposals that the committee sent Austin in the report, which ranged from efforts to better recruit women to expanding their opportunities once in uniform. The committee has existed since 1951, and its recommendations have long driven change in the military, including its suggestions that resulted in the Pentagon’s 2015 decision to open all military jobs and units — including front-line combat posts — to female troops.

The Marine Corps has long been the slowest U.S. military branch to adopt women-focused changes. It was the lone service to recommend against opening close-combat jobs to women, and it is now the only branch that does not train male and female recruits together in platoon-size units.

For decades, the Marine Corps trained women only at its East Coast recruit training depot at Parris Island, S.C., where it segregated them in a separate training battalion where they interacted little, if at all, with their male counterparts during the 13-week course. Last year, the Corps deactivated the all-female training battalion at Parris Island and opened all its training battalions to women at Parris Island and Recruit Depot San Diego, Calif.

The Marine Corps has integrated women and men into companies at both recruit depots, but it has pushed back on desegregating at lower levels. Its recruit battalions are each currently made of four all-male companies and two all-female companies.

A Marine official said maintaining gender-segregated platoons allows the service to optimize its training to include the time when recruits are in their sleeping quarters. But DACOWITS argued in the new report that the Army, Navy, Air Force and Space Force have all found success in training male and female recruits together in platoon-level units, while separating them for sleep and hygienic routines.

The Army has found integrating recruit platoons prepares soldiers to better work together with the opposite gender when they reach their first unit and “eliminates any perception that recruits went through different training experiences,” according to the report. The committee said the Navy reported similar findings.

The panel argued the Marine Corps’ current model “does not meet a true definition of [gender] integration nor the intent” of a 2020 congressional mandate that the Marines “not segregate training by gender” at MCRD Parris Island within five years and MCRD San Diego within eight years.

The Marine Corps has long had the smallest percentage of female troops. In 2023, the Marines were about 9% women, while the total military was roughly 19% women, according to the report. The Air Force had the highest percentage of women in its ranks, with about 23%.

The committee said it observed during visits to both Marine recruit depots last year that male and female Marine recruits rarely interacted. A female recruit told the panel that they are instructed not to speak with members of the male platoons in their company.

“They threaten to drop us [from recruiting training] if we speak to the males in the same company,” the DACOWITS report quoted a female recruit. “The guys are forbidden to speak at us.”

The committee argued the lack of gender integration at recruit training could foster biases among male Marines. It also said the committee believed the Corps should adopt the gender-integrated drill instructor teams to help male Marines better accept instruction from women.

“Male Marine Corps recruits showed statistically significant higher levels of sexist attitudes, both benevolent and hostile, compared with their male peers in other services and female recruit counterparts,” the report reads. “These attitudes are not transformed during their time at MCRDs and therefore will persist in follow-on integrated training and operational environments.”

The panel’s report also included nearly a dozen recommendations focused on pregnant service members.

Among its recommendations, the committee suggested the Pentagon needs a more robust directory of women’s health care services on Military OneSource, its website and call center that provides details on benefits available to troops. That directory should include “topics such as reproductive health, pregnancy, mental health, and contraceptive care.” The panel argued such information can be difficult to track down for service members and would be best presented in a single location.

It also suggests the Pentagon adopt clearer policies for parental leave, including minimum lengths for maternity convalescent leave, better defined circumstances for commanders to deny parental leave, and raise the rank to at least O-6 for the commander permitted to deny parental leave.

The panel wrote current policy grants “too much leeway, and service women could be denied this essential form of leave.”

It suggested Austin direct a review of maternity uniforms across the service to ensure they “present a professional, modern appearance while providing functionality, comfort and ease of movement for the wearers.”

The committee also recommended Austin direct a study aimed at determining the practicality of allowing active-duty service women to transfer temporarily into the reserve components while pregnant and postpartum. Female troops have long reported that pregnancies have derailed their careers because of lost opportunities for promotions, issues meeting fitness requirements and lost opportunities for key training or deployments while pregnant or postpartum. The panel said a temporary move into the Reserve or National Guard might be a way to keep mothers on track if they can then return to the active-duty military.

“Lost time and work experience from pregnancy and the postpartum period compound, affecting servicewomen’s evaluations and promotion potential, leaving women at a disadvantage relative to their male peers,” the report reads. “DACOWITS recommends the [defense secretary] take more proactive action to identify and remove unnecessary career barriers and employ innovative solutions to ensure servicewomen’s careers are not impacted as a result of a temporary medical condition, such as pregnancy.”

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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