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The U.S. Marine Corps has decommissioned its all-female Fourth Battalion

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The U.S. Marines have decommissioned the recruit training battalion that for decades was the only one open to women. It's part of an effort to end gender segregation. WHRO's Steve Walsh reports.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) They will find the streets are guarded by United States Marines.

(CHEERING)

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Women Marines and veterans packed a field house at Parris Island, S.C., to watch the decommissioning of the historic 4th Battalion. Sergeant Major Christine Henning says she'll miss the one entity run almost entirely by women.

CHRISTINE HENNING: That female legacy of only training in one company, training on one battalion, is no more. There is no more women-only entity in the Marine Corps.

WALSH: Under one name or another, the unit trained nearly every woman recruit to join the Marines since they were allowed to join in the 1940s. The Marines opted to shrink the number of battalions at Parris Island after women finally began training on the West Coast in 2021.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Inaudible).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Inaudible).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Inaudible).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Take a stance.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Reform.

WALSH: After lightning was spotted, a platoon of women recruits train inside their barracks. Normally, recruits would be outside among platoons of men. Men and women were kept largely separated until 2019. The lack of contact shows up in their attitude, says Sidra Montgomery. She led a two-year study commissioned by the Marines looking at how to end gender segregation.

SIDRA MONTGOMERY: We measured recruits' sexist beliefs and attitudes. And we found that male Marine Corps recruits have higher sexist attitudes than their female Marine Corps recruits and also than their other male service recruit counterparts.

WALSH: The other services integrated boot camp in the 1990s. Marine drill instructors train around the clock, even in the shower, saying it's part of what makes a marine. The vast majority of platoons are men only. The independent study recommended having at least one woman drill instructor, says Montgomery.

MONTGOMERY: You know, the drill instructor is so important in the training process. They are the apex role model, what it means to be a Marine. I think it's critically important to establishing a culture that signals that men and women are to be equally respected authority figures.

KYLEE GREGOREK: Open your eyes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Aye, ma'am.

GREGOREK: OK.

WALSH: One problem is there aren't enough women recruits or drill instructors. Women make up roughly 9% of the Marine Corps, the lowest percentage of any service. Gunnery Sergeant Kylee Gregorek was urged to report to Parris Island. Working as an instructor at the pool, she says she was initially reluctant, but the role has grown on her.

GREGOREK: I love Marines. I love mentoring them. And because you're kind of like that mom. You know, they look up to you for everything. It's frustrating at times, but so is being a parent.

WALSH: Lieutenant Colonel Aixa Dones joined the Marines before all combat roles were open to women throughout the military in 2015 - at the time, over the specific objection of the Marine Corps.

AIXA DONES: Once I was in the Marine Corps, I fell in love with the institution.

WALSH: Dones ran marine recruiting in LA before taking over as the last commander of 4th Battalion at Parris Island. The Marines have targeted having 10% of its force be women since 2017, but progress has been slow.

DONES: We don't have a medical service within the Marine Corps. And a large number of the female populations for the Navy, the Air Force and the Army - they go into the medical field.

WALSH: A group of three women who graduated from boot camp in the 1970s came back to Parris Island for the ceremony. After being brought in to fill desk jobs, each of them eventually earned master's degrees, says Teri Meteak.

TERI METEAK: We were recruited as free a man to fight. The Marine Corps wanted a few good men, and that's the way we were actually recruited. There was not really such an active recruitment for females at our time, but it was just determination.

WALSH: It's always been difficult, she adds, for women to gain a foothold in the Marines.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh at Parris Island, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.