In a historic first, women begin Marine boot camp in San Diego

A female Marine recruit stands at attention
A female recruit waits her turn to call home to tell her family that she has arrived safely at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Recruits piled off buses this week to the urgent shouts and barks of Marine Corps drill instructors.

They took their spots on the fabled yellow footprints to begin their transformation from civilians to Marines — something that has happened countless times in the San Diego boot camp’s almost 100-year history.

Only this time, for the first time, 60 women were among those scrambling recruits. Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego is no longer a male-only institution.

Marine recruits run off a bus.
Recruits exit the bus quickly after arriving at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

In 2019, Congress ordered the San Diego boot camp to integrate women into its training battalions by 2028. That process is already underway at the Marines’ Parris Island, S.C., depot, and until now all female recruits have gone through boot camp there.

Staff Sgt. Ayesha Zantt, a drill instructor, recently transferred to San Diego from Parris Island, where she has led recruits since 2017. Having women training in San Diego is a big step for the Marines, she said.

Recruits stand in line during intake processing
Recruits stand in line during intake processing on their first day of boot camp.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“It’s history,” she said. “It’s important.”

Though she will not be this cohort’s drill instructor, she was the first one the recruits met upon their arrival at the depot. Zantt boarded the first bus of men and women and yelled instructions as the new recruits disembarked.

The arrival was typical for recruits during the pandemic.

Recruits arrived in San Diego two weeks ago, received medical screenings at the depot and were then quarantined at a local hotel. On Tuesday, with quarantine complete, they reported to the training center, surrendered their civilian clothes and were issued uniforms and footwear they’ll wear throughout training.

Staff Sgt. Ayesha Zantt, a senior drill instructor, addresses recruits.
Staff Sgt. Ayesha Zantt, a senior drill instructor, orients recruits on their first day of boot camp.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Recruits made their last phone calls home, and the men had their heads shaved. The women wore their hair pulled back in buns.

The 60 women will form one of the six platoons that comprise Lima Company. Just like the all-male companies trained in San Diego over the years, the women’s platoon will live in a squad bay in the company’s barracks.

Capt. Ashley Sands will oversee three Lima Company platoons as lead series commander, including the women’s platoon. Sands said that while she’s excited to be part of the integration, she does not think things will be that different.

A masked recruit stands at attention.
A masked recruit stands at attention.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“It’s no different — we’re going to be training essentially the same ways that we have been for years,” Sands said. “But I think it really is just a big moment in terms of being able to do this for the very first time.”

Col. Matt Palma, the commanding officer of the recruit training regiment, said the women of Lima Company must overcome the same training obstacles as the men — including the grueling “Reaper” hike at Camp Pendleton that is part of the last phase of training. During the hike, recruits traverse rugged terrain and charge up a steep ridge while carrying 55-pound packs.

Female recruits carry their seabags.
Female recruits carry their seabags and await their next orders during processing on their first day of boot camp.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“We’re going to train them so they can be successful — they’re going to do it,” Palma said. “They’re going to hike the Reaper with the pack just like the males, and we’re going to train them to do it.”

The Marines are decades behind other military services, which integrated their recruit training by the 1990s.

Palma said the depot has most of the facilities needed to integrate in San Diego, but there aren’t enough female recruits to have integrated companies all the time, he said. Women comprise about 9% of the Marine Corps.

Recruits have their bags inspected.
Recruits have their bags inspected for contraband during their intake processing.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Lima Company will serve as a “proof of concept,” meaning it will be used to demonstrate that San Diego can effectively train women alongside men. The depot has requested to train another cohort of women this summer but is still awaiting a decision, Palma said.

Anne Frazier, 19, of Poway, was among the new recruits. The 2019 Poway High graduate said her father, a retired Marine, played a big role in her decision to join.

“I feel like I’m meant to be in the Marine Corps,” Frazier said. “I feel like it’s a challenge.”

Recruits stand at attention
Recruits stand at attention waiting to be issued their gear.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Frazier, who waited almost a year to go to boot camp, said she only recently found out she’d be training in San Diego instead of at Parris Island. While she had her sights on South Carolina — to get out of the San Diego “bubble,” she said — she’s excited to be one of the first women to take on the Reaper hike.

“I’ve heard all about it many, many times,” she said. “I’m excited, but there’s definitely some nerves. I’m just trying to go day by day.”