The few, the proud: Women Marines define themselves

Women talk about their service, how it has affected their lives

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It’s never been easy to be a woman in the Marine Corps, which is the most physically demanding branch of the military and the one with the smallest percentage of female service members: 7.6 percent. Disturbing revelations in March made it even tougher: Male members of the 30,000-strong Marines United Facebook group had been soliciting and posting explicit photos of current and former female Marines without their permission, often accompanied by violent and obscene comments.

The Corps continues to grapple with the fallout. Thus far, it has disciplined 44 Marines, strengthened its policies for addressing social media misconduct and established a task force to look at how it recruits, trains, assigns and mentors service members in an effort to eliminate gender bias. As it was taking these steps, The Washington Post reached out to current and retired female Marines to find women interested in posing for photographs that would let them define how they were portrayed, as individuals and as service members. The Post also spoke with them about their experiences in and out of the Corps, and about what they hope the photographs convey. (The interviews have been edited and condensed.)

There were areas of commonality: All but one said they were inspired to join the Marines in part because they had relatives who were in the Corps or another service; some said they’d had this desire since they were tiny children. All spoke about becoming a Marine in terms of the challenge — of proving they had what it takes, and often, in the process, proving others wrong. “It just always seemed like if you could do the Marine Corps, you could do anything,” said Capt. Lauren Finch Serrano.

To varying degrees, being a woman in the Marine Corps has tested all of them. Stephanie Schroeder said she was discharged after reporting a rape and spent years fighting for the Veterans Affairs disability benefits she now receives. Others have stories of enduring insults, being propositioned, being stared at, feeling like they couldn’t be themselves, having to prove themselves over and over. “As a young woman in that time, you were easy prey,” recalled retired gunnery sergeant Carrie Ann Lynch, who enlisted in 1990. “It would have been easier to be a Marine if I was just invisible,” said Justine Elena, a captain in the reserve who left the service a few years ago. Five have combined their careers with parenthood. Four are married — all to current or former Marines, which comes with its own set of complications.

Even women with negative experiences said the Marine Corps gave them a lot: It made them tougher and more disciplined; it provided meaningful, rewarding work. Several cited supportive commanding officers. Many mentioned military benefits that have allowed them to further their educations.

All of the women were outraged by the Marines United scandal, though some weren’t surprised. Elena started a “Female Marines United” campaign to raise money for Headstrong, which provides mental health support to military members. But many in the group also noted that most Marines don’t engage in that behavior. “I’m proud of my service,” said Schroeder. “I respect my service. I have honor. I respect the Corps values. And a lot of Marines do. Just some don’t. And the some that don’t f— everything else up. I don’t know any other way to say that.”

As we prepare to mark Veterans Day on Nov. 11, here are the stories of eight dedicated Marines.

Tracey Fetherson

Age: 29

Military status: Active-duty captain

Years served: 6

Duty station: Quantico

The Marine Corps presented the best challenge for developing a leadership style, and both of my parents retired from the Marines [as sergeants major]. So I always knew I would join the Marine Corps. I knew that no matter what, I was able to succeed, because I have seen examples in my life.

The numbers are significantly slim when you’re talking about African-American women officers; the last number I heard was about 108 from 2nd lieutenant to colonel. I feel even more that there will be nothing to stop me because there are so few of us in this position. I want to show other black women not only can you join the Marine Corps, you can be successful in the Marine Corps.

As a young professional, I haven’t reached that point in my career when I have completely separated my personal and professional lives. Being a Marine is very much 24/7; there is a sense of leadership that follows me even when I take the uniform off. So we tried to re-create the same face in uniform and in civilian attire.

Stephanie Schroeder

Age: 36

Military status: Disabled veteran

Years served: 2 1/2

Location and occupation: Greensboro, N.C.; advocate for victims of military sexual assault

Even after everything I’ve been through, I still love the Marine Corps. Who I am today is the direct result of the Marine Corps. It taught me a lot of bearing, it taught me a lot of discipline, it taught me the things that I needed, actually.

The rape was different; things changed then. If I would’ve been smart, I wouldn’t have said anything, and I would’ve just kept right on going and I probably would still be active today. It was overwhelming. The photo of the drenching is exactly how I felt: When it rains it pours. How much more can I take?

The other photo, that’s more me like who I am today — the courage it takes to put that face on and put that business suit on and have that debate one leader at a time. It takes courage to talk about rape with people who don’t really think much wrong is going on. I’m not fighting on the ground, but it’s a battlefield nonetheless.

My best girlfriend, she looked at me and she said: “How can you go back and be around them?” And I said because change. Change is worth more to me. I know that I am broken. I won’t ever be the same again. But I can make the best of what I have. So that’s what I do.

Justine Elena

Age: 32

Military status: Captain, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve

Years served: Active duty, 4; reserve, 5

Location and occupation: New York City; audience supervisor for “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah”

My parents were born and brought up in the Philippines, and my dad joined the U.S. Air Force. My uncles joined all the different services of the U.S. military. I ended up being the only American in my family and the only woman to join a military service and the only U.S. Marine and the only officer. When people met me, even if I was in uniform, they would ask, “Oh, are you really in the Marine Corps?” I don’t know if it was because I’m a minority, I’m a woman or I have a very feminine look.

I have so many interests. One of those was, “Do I have what it takes to be a Marine?” But I’m more than just a Marine. I’m a comedian, I’m a musician, I’m an artist. With the civilian photo being so much about expressing the different sides of me, the uniform photo was kind of like no side: This is what you are, and there isn’t a whole lot of room for the rest of your personality. But I am going to express myself in different ways because that’s what life is about. Someone out there may be wondering if they have what it takes. If I don’t hold to my authenticity, it can be a deterrent to someone else.

Bambi Bullard

Age: 64

Military status: Medically retired as staff noncommissioned officer

Years served: 15

Location and occupation: Murrells Inlet, S.C.; semiretired business owner and former business professor

A lot of people didn’t even know women existed in the Marines. After I got out of boot camp, some woman in an airport asked me if I was in the Girl Scouts.

I volunteered to be an instructor at Parris Island. That was a little bit rough, but I made it through. In two tours, I probably had one or two recruits that I raised my voice to. I didn’t need to: I was 6 feet 2 inches tall. I found it more effective to walk up behind them while they were standing at attention and just whisper.

If I had not had that military background, I would have never been as successful in business as I was. The paintball industry was more open and less misogynistic — absolutely less — than what I experienced early in the Marine Corps. I went from a locker box of plastic pistols when I first bought into it to a nationally recognized operation. They just created the Paintball Hall of Fame. I was in the first class, and the first female, so that was pretty cool.

I hope the photos convey that Marines can be hardcore in one respect, but we know how to have fun and we’re humans and we enjoy activities just like everybody else does.