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To Earn The Title: Women In The Marine Corps (2)

First Posted: Dec. 19, 2015, 5:47 p.m. CST
Last Updated: Dec. 20, 2015, 4:18 p.m. CST
Marine Lance Cpl. Erin Liberty (from Niceville, Florida), an ammunition technician with Ammunition Company, sustained several injuries when an improvised explosive device blew up near her convoy near Camp Fallujah, Iraq, June 23 2005. “It was extremely hard to accept, knowing all the people that had died,” said Liberty. “It's nothing you can train or practice for, and you always receive it under the worst circumstances.”

Anything else is just support. When I was in, the grunts were known to say that anything other than grunts was just support. As the war dragged on and US forces sought to control, re and police large urban areas, as well as larger open rural areas, grunt units became the foremost units in the conflict. Grunt units were needed for the larger military offensives, like the battle for Fallujah. This includes all the Special Forces in the US Military. But with a two front war, both being waged in extremely difficult regions of the world, such tasks as convoy escort and operations fell to non-grunts like Military Police units. Early on in the conflict it was common in the army and Marine Corps to cannibalize artillery, armor and engineer units, put them through a crash course in small arms and infantry tactics and send them to search for IEDs, maintain detention centers, kick down doors and root out insurgents, and assist in patrolling and policing urban areas. Non-grunt female Marines were also tapped to man check points and assist in searching vehicles and individuals to free up male counterparts for more direct combat roles.

If you look at the female casualties of the war, a good percentage of them were in Military Police units either conducting urban patrols or escorting convoys. Marine Military Police Officers undergo a 9 week primary MOS training at the same location as the Army’s Military Police Officers’ Basic Course at Ft. Leonardwood, MO. Marine MPs provide essential support to their commanding officers with all facets of law enforcement. Officers begin this MOS either on-base, providing security and law enforcement, or on deployment, supervising maneuver and mobility operations and internment operations, as well as providing area security and law enforcement. However, combat zone responsibilities were strikingly different from the law enforcement duties conventionally associated with the Military Police units, instead they closely resembling mission loads traditionally assigned to infantry units. These responsibilities consist of, but are not limited to, patrols including mounted and dismounted patrols as well as LP/OP (Listening Post/Observation Post) "static patrols", movement to contact, route reconnaissance, raids, cordon and search operations, and convoy and personnel escorts.

Despite the 1993 ban on women in combat roles, every woman killed or injured during the war on terror, was in a “non-combat role.” The ban was irrelevant and did nothing to prevent their death or injury. CNN noted in 2005 was the deadliest year for female Marines in combat. CNN military sources reported a suicide car bomber struck a U.S. convoy in Fallujah. A vehicle loaded with artillery shells laced with napalm struck the 17 ton truck carrying the women and detonated in a fireball. In the chaos following the explosion, insurgents attacked the surviving Marines with small arms and machine gun fire. The attack killed at least four Marines -- three of the four were women. Of 13 Marines wounded in the attack, 11 were female. The women were returning to Camp Fallujah after manning checkpoints or entry control points to the city. All the women were taken from non-grunt units in support capacities. They were then transported outside their secure bases and man check points and control points outside the secure perimeter of a fortified compound. CNN identified a female Marine killed in the attack as Lance Corporal Holly A. Charette, 21, from Cranston, Rhode Island. L/Cpl. Charette served as a mail clerk at the Marine Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi. Corporal Sally Salmaan, one of those wounded and despite of her severe burns and wounds, engaged the insurgents during the ensuing firefight with an M-16 while other Marines loaded up the wounded for evacuation. She had lost her own weapon in the blast that overturned the 17 ton truck and obtained a weapon from another Marine from the escort vehicle. All the wounded Marines, male and female, received the Purple Heart.
The three women killed were later identified as Navy Petty Officer First Class Regina Clark, a 43-year-old single mom whom another female Marine had tried to pull away from the truck. Another was L/Cpl Charette, a 21-year-old ex-cheerleader. As a male Marine took Charette in his arms, she'd hoarsely whispered, "Help me," before going limp. She died later that evening at Charlie Surgical, a field hospital. Valdez, the outspoken corporal from the Bronx, was killed immediately when the suicide bomber hit the seven-ton truck.
Female Marines were not only barred from direct combat or infantry units, but from the schools, such SOI, and thus training critical to fulfilling these combat zone responsibilities that they have to fulfill in times of war. In addition, the Marine Corps began employing Female Engagement Teams or FETs in 2006. Much like the Army’s Lioness program, these all women units would be attached to infantry units on patrol to engage, question/interrogate, and search local females. FETs are strictly voluntary, and females from a wide range of non-grunt occupational specialties could volunteer. They would then be given a ‘crash course’ on select skills like small arms use, small unit operations, and interrogation techniques. There is no formal training for FETs, like SOI or MCT, it is largely up to the individual units how and what skills they choose to train FETs.
According to the Marine Corps own website, prior to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) setting sail for its tour of duty in Gulf of Aden, it sought and recruited female Marines from a range of different military occupational specialties and various units. These Marines were pulled together to do hands-on training, patrols, or actions that males cannot do in the Middle East, such as searching women and children, due to cultural boundaries. “The FET was on a volunteer basis,” said 1st Lt. Jennier Mozzetta, a team leader with the 15th MEU’s FET. “[We] passed the word that we are looking for females that are very engaged, have a lot of initiative, who want an opportunity to go out and do something different, and want to better themselves professionally.”

“We thought we’d only get about five or six females, but we actually got 23 applicants who were really excited and really wanted to do this,” said Lt. Mozzetta. Marines such as Lance Corporal Chevon Ferrell, a female ammunition technician with Combat Logistics Battalion 15, and Sgt. Jeanette Ventura, an airframe mechanic with Medium Marine Tiltrotor Squadron 161, were among the 18 female Marines that will make up the two FETs for the MEU. Their training did not start until they had set sail for the Gulf of Aden and was conducted by individual Marines from the MEU’s ground combat units. That training, according to the Marine Corps article, included small arms marksmanship, detainee handling, and public speaking.

During the wars, Marine FETs, much like Army Lioness teams, deployed in small detachments with male infantry units in order to collect information from families and communicate with women without breaking cultural taboos. While combat deployments have formally ended, the need for such teams remains strong as Marines continue training and advising Middle Eastern partners. In an article for Marine Times, it was reported that despite the ‘end’ of the war, Marine Corps Central Command (Forward) saw requests for support from female troops regularly get sent to U.S. Special Operations Forces. But with no women in their ranks, the command had no way to fulfill them. The requests would occasionally get passed onto MEUs in the region, but they would often go unanswered because the units weren't prepared for those missions.

Although the 15th MEU’s FETs will primarily act as instructors to partner forces in the region instead of doing more patrolling and infantry-type work as seen with previous FETs, there is an escalation in the conflict with ISIS and the old crows at Capitol Hill are once more banging on the drums of war. There remains a force of 3,000 US troops in Iraq, some close enough to receive mortar fire from ISIS forces. When the next MEU sets sail, their FET training may be entirely different from the 15th MEU’s training. Some Marine Corps officers say that this gives FETs flexibility to adapt to changing mission parameters. But being an effective warfighter comes from structured and repeated training that ingrains in the warfighter automatic and reactive responses in time of conflict or combat. Without a set policy or training program there is inconsistency in training that can cause unnecessary loss of life, and is very much uncharacteristic of the Marine Corps whose very specialty is warfighting.

Women Marines such as those in Fallujah and others are placed at the tip of the spear, as Army Lt. Gen. Patricia D. Horoho pointed out, and they do so without the critical training that all male grunt units have access to. In fact, often as in the case of the 15th MEU, these women get nothing more than often rushed and piecemeal training on their way to a combat zone. The US Army has awarded two Silver Stars to female soldiers for conspicuous gallantry and valor in combat. One of the recipients was the first woman to receive the medal for close combat action. Inconspicuously, the Marine Corps has not awarded such an honor to any of its female Marines. Remember Corporal Sally Saalman? Who despite of her wounds engaged enemy insurgents and provided covering fire for the wounded allowing them to be evacuated.

Marine Sergeant Kent Padmore was driving the truck directly behind the vehicle Cpl Saalman and the other female Marines was riding in. When he rushed toward the overturned burning twisted truck that carried all the female Marines, he thought he would find them all dead. The first person he saw emerge from the carnage was Cpl. Saalman. She staggered towards him, her charred, flayed hands held up before her, her eyes vacant and set in a blackened face. She'd lost her rifle during the explosion. "Sally, pull yourself together," Sgt. Padmore said to her. "You are not going to die I promise: You are not going to die. But we need some leadership." Sgt. Padmore reports he watched her expression change instantly from shock to rage. "Somebody give me a fucking weapon!" she screamed. "I need a fucking weapon!" The adrenaline obviously masked her pain. Sgt. Padmore handed her his own M16 and headed off to find other wounded Marines, with Cpl. Saalman firing her weapon toward the insurgents. Cpl. Saalman, wounded, engaged the enemy in close combat and assisted in repelling the enemy with direct fire allowing the wounded to be loaded unto the surviving truck and being evacuated from the kill zone. All she received was a Purple Heart for the wounds she suffered.

The Marines had received intelligence that the insurgents had plans to specifically target “female US troops” in the region. They were in possession of this intelligence in the weeks prior to the attack on the convoy. Yet the Female Marines were not spread over the three vehicles of the convoy but were placed into a single open 7 ton truck making a lucrative and tempting target. Despite the 1993 Ban, these Marines were pulled from their posts inside their secure and fortified bases, and placed in control points 40 miles west of Baghdad. This same region was the site of violent fighting as U.S. troops attempted to oust militants.

Weeks after the ambush, every female Marine who'd been on the truck was awarded a Purple Heart, an honor that also confers financial benefits for the recipients. However, at a ceremony Gen. Douglas O'Dell Jr., the two-star Marine general who bestowed those Purple Hearts, wept during the ceremony. Two years after General Dempsey’s observation in 2003, Gen. O'Dell said he was moved, not by special sympathy for the women, but because he saw standing before him an unprecedented display of equality of the sexes. That day in Fallujah had been a "crystallizing moment," he says. The Corps’ leadership had always believed women Marines would conduct themselves just as bravely as the men under deadly attack, Gen. O’Dell explains, but they'd never before had an opportunity quite like this one to prove themselves. "It's the difference between believing in a miracle," he says, "and then seeing one." His words almost echoing the sentiments of General Vandegrift at the Battle of Saipan. The women, like the ‘Negroes’ before them, had proven their mettle in the bloody crucible of battle. They had earned the title of a United States Marine.




This article was written by Joaquin Rafael Roces. Joaquin is a Marine Corps Veteran, is active in his faith community, and has served as a Eucharistic Minister and Religious Education Instructor for over 15 years. He is a member of the Knights of Columbus, and recently became involved in the parish’s Youth Ministry. He has a dual diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Borderline Personality Disorder and has been in recovery for three years. In 2015 Joaquin was trained by the National Alliance for Mental Illness to be an In Our Own Voice Presenter. Joaquin travels throughout Northern Nevada working with NAMI to change attitudes, assumptions and stereotypes by describing the reality of living with mental illness and sharing his recovery story. Through the In Our Own Voice presentations, people with lived experience with mental illness share their powerful personal stories.

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