The changing nature of the conflict in Iraq means that more women soldiers are facing life-threatening situations. More than 160,000 women in the U.S. military have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002, including those from the U.S. Marine Corps. All women who enlist in the Marines take their basic training at a military base on Parris Island in the southern state of South Carolina. As VOA's Deborah Block reports, it takes strength and determination to become a Marine.
It is early morning on Parris Island, and women Marine recruits are showing the strain of their 12-week basic training, also known as "boot camp."
Of the average 4,600 new recruits on the base each day, only 600 are women. Although separated from the men, their intense training is almost the same.
Hope Quintana, 19, from Colorado has been at boot camp for six weeks. "I just wanted a new experience. My mom gave this idea to me also, and said it would be really good to see a whole new look on life and a challenge," she said.
Quintana found the challenge harder than she expected. The recruits must meet high physical-fitness standards, including long-distance running and swimming in their uniforms, boots and backpacks. They must also become skilled at shooting an M-16 military rifle, and pass a 54-hour combat endurance test, known as "the crucible."
Jackie Joe Anderson grew up on another U.S. military base with a father who is in the Marine Corps. She thinks the training is more difficult for women. "Males just have that natural confidence. They know they can do it, and they don't care what everybody else thinks -- they'll do it. The women, they tend to be nervous -- 'I don't think I can do this' -- they overanalyze everything. You've just got to keep a one-track mind, and do what they [drill instructors] tell you, and do it right the first time," she said.
The recruits, who are led by female drill instructors, are pushed to react under pressure, and to perform tasks to instill teamwork and leadership.
Drill instructor Sergeant Melissa Rieff has been in the Marines for seven years. She says some women drill instructors have a reputation for being tougher than their male counterparts. "When I scream and yell, my voice carries more than a male's does. I'm a little louder, because I have a higher pitch to my voice. If I yell at a recruit a certain way, I know how to get to her in a woman's sense," he said.
Anderson says it takes time to adjust. "It was hard at first, because I'm not used to the yelling and screaming, but you grow used to it. The drill instructors -- they care about us, they really do. If it is an order, you take care of the mission or whatever they tell you to do. But if it's like calling you names, or something, you just let it go," she said.
Women in the American military are not allowed in front-line ground combat. But they work in supporting roles, from manning vehicles to flying combat planes -- jobs that put them in dangerous situations, especially in Iraq. Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, more than 3,000 American military personnel have died, 75 of them women.
Anderson says she is prepared to go to Iraq. But 19-year-old recruit Andrea Boseman, from South Carolina, is concerned. "If it was my choice, I wouldn't go. But if they send me, that's fine, too. I'd be proud to go over there and serve as a Marine for my country," she said.
Sixteen percent of the female recruits on Parris Island do not complete basic training, mostly because of injuries. But many of those who do say they get a sense of pride, honor and self-assurance they did not have before they became a U.S. Marine.