Yup, welcome to more than 3,000 words of venting… long overdue.
This memoir is my response to the latest Marine Corps scandal involving male Marines treating WMs with disrespect. I want to share what it was like for me. It is only my experience and from my limited time as a Marine. I do not in any way understand the challenges of the new combat women Marines but they have my utter respect and support. Does it deserve a place on a writer’s blog? Well, I’m writing it. Consider it a study in character and behavior of a segment of the military no one really talks about.
I proudly say I am a Marine, I learned a lot from the Corps. I learned leadership that was unavailable to women in my era. But, I have never said I loved the Corps. As a female veteran, I am not welcome or invited to join any of the local veterans groups. I asked once but the women said they were wives of veterans and made cookies, there was no place for me. I only asked to refuel my irritation, I would never have joined. I look at my sisters who still struggle to fit into the Marine Corps. I fondly remember the bonds and camaraderie of women Marines, we had each other’s backs.
When I was 18, I raised my hand and swore my allegiance to the President of the United States and to the Marine Corps. In those days, we were the President’s own, which is why he never had to ask Congress for permission to do anything militarily -thank god that’s changed under today’s… never mind, not the topic. I got on my first airplane and flew to South Carolina, to be honest, I was very hung over. I then waited in the airport lobby with hundreds of other kids -most of us hung over -hey, it was 1974 -we were the last of the hippies. The boys wore hair long and everyone wore bellbottoms. When I enlisted in the Marines, I assumed rather incorrectly I was joining the Merchant Marines and would be working on a cruise ship. By the time I arrived on the South Carolina coast, I was straightened out by a Grandfather who had guffawed at the idea. My family seemed to think I needed a dose of discipline, my teachers and mentors convinced me I needed to be removed from an abusive situation, whatever. I was definitely not in New Hampshire anymore.
Back in those days, New Hampshire behaved like a typical frigid New England state, 99% white, large ethnic neighborhoods of Lebanese, Irish, Polish, Italians, Canucks and Greeks with short summers, cold oceans and deep snow winters… Parris Island, South Carolina was my first complete, pass-me-a-defibrillator, full-system, culture shock. According to WeatherUnderground, the humidity in Charleston was 87% the high that day was 90º and winds were 12 mph –the devil’s breath! I had left Manchester, NH early that morning it was a balmy summer morning 63º winds 6mph –an angel’s breath… You could tell the people from the nordic climes, we resembled fish out of water… there was no oxygen to breathe on our planet. I wore my usual cutoff jeans and t-shirt and a gallon of sweat. But, none of that mattered as we all sat quietly, awaiting we knew not what. There were no cell phones, there were pay phones. But, no one was using any. We were all Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children (USMC) we had no-one to call. Unbeknownst to me, a girl who read books and painted, the Vietnam was still happening. For some reason, I thought it had ended, but it was actually more than a year before they evacuated Hanoi.
The most amazing thing to me about Boot Camp at the time was hundreds of pimply, average teenagers entered and months later, clear skinned, strong, lean Marines left. We stuffed our faces on eggs, bacon, steaks, meatloaf, french fries, all the ‘bad’ foods and we ran miles in the sweltering heat each day, did hundreds of sit ups and pull-ups, sat in airless classrooms and marched everywhere. It was my one health lesson take-away. A healthy life was pretty much up to you and moving your ass. Sadly, that lesson was forgotten decades later.
Busses arrived at the airport and we piled in, the boys sat in the back and the girls in the front, no one told us where to sit, we just did and no one spoke. We rode in silence. Most of us arrived at the airport in the afternoon, some early morning -the bus arrived late, we saw the sunset on the way to Parris Island. According to Google Maps, it was a two hour trip, I remember it was very late and dark when we drove onto the Island and through the gates. Our first stop was at the men’s barrack’s. A man in a smokey hat, like the NH State Police wore, got onto the quiet bus and it eerily got quieter. Everyone one was holding their breath. He screamed for all the men to get off the bus immediately, his voice inflicted horror and terror in all. We saw the men falling over themselves to rush off the bus, we felt little compassion for them, we were too terrified of the greeting awaiting us.
As the bus pulled away, we heard the drill instructors screaming and yelling. It was a shot of adrenaline, by the time we arrived at the wom,en’s barracks we were frozen in terror. The doors opened and two sweet girls got on and welcomed us and asked us to follow them to the barracks. I have to hand it to the Marines, they knew exactly how to do, what they did, very well. But, I also know from my own experience, most of these boys learned their misogyny from Marines, they loved their mothers, sisters and girlfriends when they arrived. They may have been raised with odd ideas of the roles of men and women but not to target or hate them –those who did learned this learned it from their superiors (I use that term in the military ‘senior-rank’ sense of the word)
Of course, back then, the world was changing. Archie Bunker was the must-see TV show and we all wondered how they’d captured our Dads so well. Women’s libbers, like Maude, were giving Archie headaches and we all laughed. Women were patronized and condescended to but still loved and treated with a version of respect. We still wanted more but we didn’t feel hated, we felt like everyone was our big brother or father and their paternal protection was smothering.
We were led into a large open room with two rows of double metal bunks running down the sides and a large open avenue in the center. The beds, we were told, were ‘racks’ and we looked at them with appreciation. Our first word in a new language. The bathroom was to be called the ‘head’ an odd choice and it seemed we all agreed because there were giggles. The women smiled. They said if we were told to ‘hit the head’ it meant anything normally done in there even taking a shower. Then, we were told to make our racks and get dressed for sleep, they would see us in the morning. We all smiled at each other until we realized we were expected to undress in front of each other. Imagine a hundred women undressing under their sheets before making their beds, sorry, racks. The following night, our beds were already made and it seemed everyone undressed with their eyes closed.
In less than a week, we were crammed into showers scrubbing each others backs and modesty was limited to the ‘head’. That first weekend was nice, we were treated gently, more like a sorority. We formed lines to march here and there. We were issued PT jumpers (basically the same romper you put a toddler in) and we learned how to arrange our footlockers then our suitcases were taken away and locked up. They contained things we weren’t allowed to have, like novels, make up, and sunglasses.
Then Monday arrived, at some ungodly hour around 5 am, we were awaken by a lady in full dress uniform with lots of stripes on her sleeves flanked by two of our friendly helpers, no longer friendly and banging trash can lids. We fell out of our racks and stood yawning and terrified. We then began our hard-learned military way of life. You are told you have five minutes to get washed, dressed and be in formation -there was no room for not complying. The first day involved politely standing inline with tooth brush in hand waiting your turn… which resulted in most not brushing their teeth, rushing to tie shoes before running outside to get in formation. The first few days involved terrifying consequences involving Jedi mind tricks. Oddly, being singled out by the SSgt Goddess in her perfect uniform, looking like a Hollywood actress and speaking with a cultured, southern drawl was the worst most humiliating thing you can ever imagine. Okay, imagine Nurse Cratchet looking like Emma Stone and leaning ever so slightly towards you and speaking in a lovely voice that you are the most disappointing, piece of crap she’d ever stepped in… Your whole entire life revolved around being perfect so you never fell under her heels.
My first experience with racism involved me, during the that first week. After breakfast, she called out two names and we were to take two steps forward, turn and march towards her. One name was mine, but she spelled it out, which now I know is BS because she was from Louisiana and had to be familiar with pronouncing Desrosiers. But, she called out a Private Laney and Private D – E – S – R – O – S -et cetera… to come front and center. I wanted to pee my pants but in true Cris fashion my survival gene convinced me I was getting a reward for doing something perfectly… No, no reward awaited me… no, not a good thing at all.
As I marched down the aisle, flanked by terrified women afraid to make eye contact, coming towards me from the other end of the barracks was another woman, who I assumed, without a mirror looked as terrified as me. She was the exact same height as me with beautiful blue-black skin and a nearly shaved hair. She later told me that was as long as her hair grew. We met and turned to face SSgt Goddess and tried to breathe.
“What we have here, ladies…” She said slowly drawling the liquid honey on her tongue, “is the blackest and the most Yankee marines in my platoon.”
You could hear a pin drop, actually –you could probably hear an atom drop.
“Ladies,” she said as she leaned forward, “please, give me an excuse to toss you out of my Marine Corps, it would please me to no end.”
I hade no idea what was going on with Laney but I was pissed and I guess it showed.
“Hmmm, please tell me how to speak that awful Yankee name of yours…”
“Deh-rose-yers, M’am.” I said, with a mix of terror and anger. Truth be told, no one knows how to pronounce our name, Dad pronounced it like the baseball player, others pronounced it with a cloying Parisian whisper… I was eager to someday get married and change it, especially after that day in bootcamp.
“Is that a Yankee name?”
“No, M’am, it’s canuck, I mean French Canadian, but I’m just American.” I said feeling and sounding stupid, and on thin ice.
“Do you know what your people did to my South, recruit?” She asked, barely containing her hatred.
“We won?” I asked timidly, not sure what I was supposed to say. Well, I learned immediately, it wasn’t that!
The next eternity involved Laney and me doing pushups at her feet like grunting worshippers.
Of course, Laney and I became fast friends. When I tried apologizing for getting her punished, she said it was worth it. She also asked for more information on these french people, who were apparently lower than N****s up north.
Being a Canuck, no one had to tell me that even though Laney used the n-word, I couldn’t and she never used canuck. I know people will correctly say there is no comparison but in my defense having a French Canadian name in Manchester NH was not… well, as our 7th grade French teacher said, “I shall teach you Parisian French, not the bastardization, you filthy Canucks speak.” Senator Musky thought he’d bond with New Hampshire by joking about the French living on the west side of the city using lily pads to hop across the Merrimack River -to his detriment.
In bootcamp, we learned tolerance and compassion the hard way. Laney and I were singled out every week for unfair treatment, which seemed to only make us stronger. I know now, we were tools she used to scare everyone else and hopefully she saw something in us that she knew needed to be broken before we could become Marines –or she was a sadistic bitch. I prefer to believe the former.
As women, we learned how the Marine Corps felt about us from our male drill instructor who taught us military history and parade drill maneuvers. We were to be tolerated, we were not welcome and unfortunately only needed because a real Marine would rather fight than file or type. How did we learn this?
He stood in the posture called ‘at ease’ at the head of the class. He was an old man, maybe even as old as our fathers, more likely thirty years old but maybe older, maybe younger. The odd thing about a Marine is their experience and rank ages them more than time.
In a very cold hard voice he yelled: “You women are not welcome in my Marine Corps, you are not accepted but you will be tolerated. Why? Because, we have been given an order to treat you as Marines, whether we like it or not. So, you will be Marines but no one wants you in the Marine Corps, so don’t go belly-aching about life being unfair. You now know where you stand in my male Marine Corp. You are only here to free a man to fight. Because a Marine would rather fight than file papers or type letters and that’s why you are here.”
I can only speak for myself but the words of my recruiter kept repeating in my head: “It’s a 8-5 job, just do it and party on the weekends. Then, after three years, you are out and in college with that GI Bill in hand.” Wise advise.
At my first duty station, 29 Palms in the middle of the Mojave Dessert, another culture shock for the little yankee. The boys were much different than the sleepy hippies we saw sleeping in the Charleston Airport, they were now squared away Marines. Our Platoon leaders were more often than not just back from Viet Nam and tough as nails. And as time went on, we women were wore down. We were tolerated. I grew up in that particular frame of mind, so it was okay but I saw a lot of heart ache.
As a woman in the Marines in the seventies, life was unfair but it seemed to mirror our civilian lives. Abusive dangerous men preying on women, who were always at fault for how they dressed like they were ‘asking for it’. A young woman was raped and murdered off base when I was a barracks sergeant in Virginia, we were told it was her own fault for living off base. While I worked with the Military Police, fixing their radios, I saw many a male Marine brought in after beating his wife. He’d be given coffee and sympathy while the wives sent to see to his family. If he was an officer, he’d get a room in the Officer’s barracks but no one seemed to think beating your wife was anything criminal, it was seen as a weakness and often blamed on the wife, who just didn’t understand.
Women Marines used to say that we had to be twice as good to be accepted as a Marine and ten times as good to be seen as a good Marine. Every single day was a test. I remember when I first met the SSgt who’d years later become my husband. He needed a crew to work on a radio tower, I was picked randomly with three other male Marines. They were all over 6 feet and in very good shape. I was 5’2″ and 120 pounds in damned good shape too. We had to carry a heavy extension ladder up a steep hill. I was put on the bottom end alone, to carry the ladder up the hill, which I did without a word of complaint. The other three men carried the front end and laughed at me. They asked how I liked being an equal. This is what we women did, given jobs that were made as difficult as possible and if you were angry and stubborn like me, you fit in. It shouldn’t be that way but it was an dI suspect still is.
To this day, I am stunned by women who tell me they know exactly what being a woman Marine is because they were married to a Marine or their father was a Marine. Let me be very clear, you were a Marine wife, not a Marine –I won’t go into defending that statement because I shouldn’t have to. We were the low of the low in the Corps. We shivered in thin blue sweaters on freezing windy days while the men wore field jackets, why? Heavy jackets seemed masculine. We marched for miles in high heels while men wore shoes or boots. One morning I got hit with the flu, during morning formation, I vomited and passed out. I learned later an ambulance came to peel me off the tarmac and I was brought to the base hospital, where they were told to prop me up against the wall on a chair in the back of the lobby. In those days, women Marines had to wait for all the civilian dependents had been seen by a doctor before we could see one. So, I sat shivering with a 104º fever for three hours, waiting to be told I could walk back to my barracks and get into bed for a week.
So, 30,000 Marines had a secret invite-only database to view photos taken of women Marines without their knowledge or permission… it’s forty years later and I just shake my head. If you really want to see how tough a fucking Marine is -look to a woman Marine, we were the ones who went to hell and back just by being Marines.
Women Marines are your sisters and daughters, they offer their lives in peace and war for you. They deserve so much more.
Mothers you raised your boys better than this.
I married a Marine who’d served in combat in Viet Nam and who died in a VA hospital and is buried in the Quantico Military Cemetery. Obviously, this culture of women-bashing and disrespect is not all Marines and I think even 30, 000 is a very small minority but there is a culture that’s been nourished and tolerated, it’s wrapped around a misguided machismo that is embraced by the Corps. It’s going to take all these other Marines, like my late husband, who respect women to change things and stop ignoring it with their damn silence. The Corps needs to heal from within, whether you like or want women in the Corps, is no reason to try to make that uniform fit a pig.
My final thought: As a Marine I was told we did not have cute names like the other services, WACS, WAVES, etc… supposedly, this was because all Marines are Marines. This is a lie. We were called BAMs, not often to our faces but always to our backs. I once went to a party were a table of old men, all former Marines sat drinking. I was introduced as a former woman Marine and I sighed when I heard the word, BAM, and then the laughter. What is a BAM? It is a Broad-Assed Marine and this is supposedly said in a brotherly manner, no offense intended. Trust me if no offense was intended it would never be said!
Ex-service member denounces trove of ‘indecent photos’ of military women circulating among Marines -they say there are no former Marines, that once a Marine, always a Marine –except for women as this Marine is now an ‘ex-servie member’. You can guess how this article be titled if it was a male Marine –certainly noe an ex-service member.
When I was looking for images and links for this post, I kept coming across Marine Corps articles on ‘lowering standards for women’ or ‘all male battalions perform better than mixed sex battalions’ – what no one mentions is the reality of women trying to do their jobs in a hostile environment. My husband once remarked to a guy who said he could never sit in a fox hole with a woman, “Why not? I’d just see her as another Marine.”
And When he gets to heaven,
To Saint Peter he will tell;
One more Marine reporting, sir.
I’ve served my time in Hell!
The Marines are fond of this poem. Yet, they have no problem making a woman Marine’s service her time in hell.