It’s been more than four months since Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that all ground combat jobs would be open to women who qualify. The Marines had asked for a partial exemption for areas that included infantry and machine gunner, but Carter said no. He wanted all four military branches treated the same.
A few women are now signing up for jobs in the war zone, including Marines at Camp Pendleton.
Cpl. Angelique Preston, 22, a marksmanship coach at Camp Pendleton, has submitted her application for field artillery. She's an avid weightlifter and expert shooter who takes pride in her muscular arms.
“This is going to come as a surprise, but I was a cheerleader for five years," said Preston, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. "I was kind of the black sheep though of the squad."
Another Marine going for a combat role is Capt. Brittney Boucher, a logistics officer at Camp Pendleton.
“When it came out in December, I immediately went to my commanding officer and said, 'I want the opportunity to be a tracker,'” said Boucher, a 26-year-old Naval Academy graduate and triathlete from San Antonio, Texas.
Both women are committed Marines.
Preston signed up for the military straight out of her high school in Fremont.
“I joined the Marine Corps ‘cause I wanted to do Marine things, like go to combat,” Preston said.
Her inspiration was her dad — an Army artillery officer who taught her to love howitzers and do battlefield crawls.
“Growing up and wanting to be in the Marine Corps and wanting to do artillery, and people are like, ‘Well, you shouldn’t do that because you’re a female, you’re a woman,’” Preston said.
Now she can. Preston wants to be a cannoneer — one of the most demanding and dangerous jobs in a war zone.
“I’m good at it, and I can do it better than some of the men can. And a lot of times they get kind of butt hurt,” she said.
Preston proved herself last year in the California desert when she was part of a historic experiment to see if women could handle the rigorous requirements of combat. Alongside men, she carried 100-pound rounds for distances of 200 meters and loaded and fired howitzers.
“Coming into these jobs you have to be emotionally and physically strong,” Preston said. “You can’t just be one or the other.”
If her application is accepted, she’s prepared to prove to her male counterparts she’s worthy to serve beside them in combat.
“If a guy gets shot and a female picks him up and drives him off to safety, he’s not going to care anymore that she’s a female,” Preston said.
She said her determination comes from people who’ve tried to discourage her.
“Like even my dad when I was younger. I said, ‘I want to do that.’ And he said, ‘Not in my lifetime.’ So I think part of my drive comes from me just being defiant,” Preston said.
Besides Preston, a couple hundred other women are eligible for the newly opened jobs — they’ve completed infantry or other ground combat schools — but few have applied.
“There’s interest, and Marines ask about it, but I think it’s more inquisitive," said Gunnery Sgt. Rachel Edwards, a military career planner at Camp Pendleton. "It’s not that they want to jump on board. It’s just that they want to know what it’s all about."
Edwards said she didn’t expect applications from women to pour in because most of them are comfortable in their current jobs.
“They like what they do,” Edwards said. “Or maybe they’ve already spoken to females that have gone through it.”
In coming months and years as more women pass physical assessments, complete training and become qualified for combat roles, Edwards is prepared to get them ready.
“We’ll go through and make sure you’re qualified. And if you’re qualified, we’ll push it forward, and if you’re not, we’ll do whatever we can to get you qualified if it’s what you really want."
Before women like Preston are integrated into combat forces, more female leaders need to be put in roles where they can lead by example and serve as mentors. That's what Capt. Boucher hopes to be.
She's asked to become an Assault Amphibious Vehicle officer, commanding personnel carriers that swim out of Navy ships and onto invasion beaches.
“So they’re going in and they’re clearing the enemy left, right, forward, behind, dropping the infantry off in a safe position and setting up security,” said Boucher, who placed third last year in the military division of the Ironman World Championships.
“The Marine Corps trains you to have a mind and body that is prepared to go into the front lines if you’re called to do so,” Boucher said. “So If I’m in the front lines ... I’m ready to do so."
She said she's eager to lead a ground combat platoon and enforce physical standards for men and women.
“If I were to be one of the first combat arms females, it’s my standard and my internal challenge to be the most effective officer that I can be,” Boucher said.
She blazed a similar trail in 2013 when she commanded a motor vehicle platoon of roughly 50 male Marines. Her yearlong assignment was part of an initial trial to bring women leadership into combat units.
“Never had one issue when I was there. Not one,” Boucher said. “I took them out for a run, I went out and PT’d with them, and the communication piece with getting down and really knowing your Marines.”
If her application is accepted, Boucher said she could begin an extensive 10-week training as early as June, followed by a deployment soon after. She anticipates a trial period as more women join the ranks of combat.
“There will be challenges, and I think everybody knows that in the Marine Corps and in the military in general,” Boucher said.
That’s why Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the process will be gradual. This month, he talked to 1,200 entry-level Marines at Camp Pendleton’s School of Infantry about his plan for screening and training Marines, including women, for battlefield jobs. His message: a more diverse force is a stronger force.
“We don’t want everybody to think exactly the same way, we don’t want everyone to come from the same background, we don’t want everybody to have had the same experiences — that makes us weaker,” Mabus said. “What makes us stronger is more diversity of thought, more diversity of experience, more diversity of how we get the job done.”
In coming months, as more women like Preston and Boucher apply for combat roles, they’ll begin training alongside men and then be assigned to the artillery, infantry and armor positions.