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For First Time In History, Female Marines Graduated Boot Camp In San Diego

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A group of female Marines has graduated from a San Diego boot camp for the first time. That's right, the first time. And it was congressionally mandated. Steve Walsh with KPBS in San Diego has more.

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STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: It was history in the making.

EMILY ZAMUDIO: I was not expecting to cry this much (laughter).

WALSH: Nineteen-year-old Emily Zamudio of Madera, Calif., is part of the first female platoon to graduate Marine boot camp in San Diego. The female platoon had the top scores in physical fitness and combat fitness over the five male platoons in their company.

ZAMUDIO: That I'm just one step closer just to becoming a better Marine, a better leader. You know, this is just step one.

WALSH: Female Marines call themselves the fewer, the prouder. And even fewer of them are in the infantry.

ZAMUDIO: I love challenges. And finding out that infantry is even a bigger challenge, I was like, give it to me. I want it.

WALSH: Zamudio says the women felt accepted by their fellow male recruits in San Diego. She will soon be headed to an even more male-dominated environment. All the more reason, she says, to integrate Marines before they graduate out of boot camp.

ZAMUDIO: I think getting us exposed as much as possible with each other would be beneficial. Putting females in San Diego is a good start as well because the males that train here on the West Coast don't have any exposures to working with females.

WALSH: In 2020, Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California put a provision in the defense bill requiring the Marines to integrate east coast boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., by 2025 and integrate San Diego by 2028.

JACKIE SPEIER: I think that the new younger generation gets it. They have no problem with it. It's the baby boomers that are still stuck in this mindset that is, frankly, 50 to 75 years old.

WALSH: Speier says that means ending the separate female platoons the way the other services did years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Execute.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Execute.

WALSH: The Marines continue to push back. Their leaders talk about having a secret sauce for building Marines, traditions built up over time; traditions that have also kept women from overseeing platoons of male recruits.

IKEA KAUFMAN: Since before I joined the Marine Corps, I wanted to be a drill instructor.

WALSH: Sergeant Ikea Kaufman was told she would never be a drill instructor in all-male San Diego. Then last fall, the Corp decided to experiment with having a platoon of women trained on the West Coast. Kaufman and two other women were quickly sent to drill instructor school. Their only option before the women arrived was to oversee a male platoon.

KAUFMAN: This is all normal to me. Like, I was a part of sports all my life - track and basketball. And that was men and women's. I have five brothers, so (laughter) nothing new to me, sir. I didn't treat them any differently, and they didn't treat me any differently.

MATTHEW PALMA: I think from my perspective, the biggest lesson we learned is it can absolutely be done.

WALSH: Colonel Matthew Palma is in charge of training in San Diego. He made only minor adjustments for this first class of women. The standards are the same as they would be for the men. Still, the Marines are drawing the line at ending gender segregation entirely.

PALMA: There's something about our indoctrination process that is unique to us. I do think that it's - the value of that squad bay, keeping it the way it is, is going to be our position.

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WALSH: Keeping the squad bay the way it is means female-only platoons. And despite the success of this recent class, female recruits are again on hold in San Diego. The law still says the Marine Corps must fully integrate by 2028, but senior drill instructor Amber Staroscik doesn't want to wait that long.

AMBER STAROSCIK: This isn't breaking away from tradition, it's introducing something to the tradition. It's allowing us to be part of that, which ultimately could have been done a long time ago.

WALSH: For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE INNER BANKS' "ELECTRIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.