CAMP LEJEUNE, NORTH CAROLINA - Marine Pfc. Maria Daume's life story reads as if she came straight from the pages of a superhero comic.
Born in a Siberian prison. Orphaned at age 2. Adopted by Americans at age 4 and raised in New York.
And now, she's just done what many naysayers believed a woman would never do: She's the first female Marine to join the infantry through the traditional entry-level training process, a process made available to women just a half-year earlier.
“I like to prove people wrong,” Daume told VOA in her first interview since completing her training at the Marine Corps School of Infantry at Camp Lejuene, North Carolina. “No matter what your belief is, you can't argue that I didn't do it, because I did.”
WATCH: Maria Daume provides a first for the Marines
Top of the pack
Not only did she graduate from the School of Infantry on Thursday, she completed what Infantry Marines argue is one of the most difficult military operational specialties the school has to offer, at a time when instructors say the standards have become “even harder.”
As a Mortar Marine, she and her peers represent the most rapid response to indirect fire for an infantry unit.
And to pass the training required to become one, she and her peers scaled a 142-cm-high (56 inches) wall in full gear within 30 seconds, lifted a 36-kg (about 80 pounds) MK19 heavy machine gun above their heads, evacuated a 97-kg (214 pounds) casualty within 54 seconds while wearing a fighting load, and passed various knowledge skill tests and gun drills.
She also had to hike 20 km (over 12 miles) while carrying a 60 mm mortar system with four simulated rounds.That cold night was the moment she knew that she had made the cut to be a Mortar Marine.
“I went to sleep that night and I'm lying in my rack, and I'm just like, ‘I did the 20k,' " she said, smiling. “It felt good.”
Daume didn't just pass the training. She often crushed it, according to one of her trainers.
“She was right at the top of the pack,” Marine Sergeant Matthew Schneider, a mortar instructor at the school, told VOA.
Tears of joy welled up in Daume's mother's eyes as people gathered around to congratulate her on graduating from the School of Infantry. A retired Marine walked up to Daume Thursday and asked if he could just shake her hand.
“You know, you're part of history, you know that, right? And that's amazing,” he told her.
History made, hardship ahead
However, not everyone is as positive about military females and their abilities. Daume's major milestone for the Marine Corps comes amid a massive photo scandal inside the service branch. A private Facebook group called “Marines United,” which included tens of thousands of Marines and retired Marines, posted links to explicit images of military women, often with sexist, derogatory comments. Some even referenced rape and molestation.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has launched an investigation, which has reportedly spread to other military branches.
Marine Corps Commandant Robert Neller told lawmakers last week that he was disgusted, shocked and angry when he heard about the scandal. He said some members appeared to “have forgotten that every member of our team is an equal and valued member of our Corps.”
“How much more do the females of the Corps have to do to be accepted?” Neller said. “We all have to get rid of this perversion to our culture. Enough is enough.”
Daume, who was in training when the scandal broke, said she trusts the Marine Corps to handle the scandal appropriately, and will continue to do her thing no matter how other people may put women down.
“It kind of just gives me more motivation to show them that we can do it,” she told VOA.
She hopes that her trailblazing will convince more women that they could be tough enough to join the Marine infantry, too, adding that her experience with her company at Camp Lejeune was one of unity and trust.
"Throughout training they realized that I was just one of them. It wasn't Daume, the female. It was just Daume," she said.
Katherine Kidder, a fellow in the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security, said she sees Daume's graduation as “the beginning of a wave of women” coming into the Corps, despite the cultural issues that she said have plagued the branch for some time.
“This [women entering the infantry] may be the way to bridge the gap,” Kidder said.
Assigned to Camp Pendleton
The Marines now have four women in the infantry. Three female Marines joined 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment at Camp Lejeune in January after making a lateral move request to join the infantry.
Daume left with four of her fellow graduates on Thursday for 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment in Camp Pendleton, near San Diego, California.