From ‘Beauty Queens’ To Warriors, Young Women Make History On Parris Island As First To Graduate With Infantry Contracts

Daume's father, John, died nearly two years ago, but there were plenty of surrogates to stand in for him Friday. Her brother, a college student studying forensics, was there with her cousin, Thomas. Arnold Reyes, the father of her best friend Brianna Reyes, was there and in his Army uniform. Scott Doherty, a veteran Marine and father of another of Daume's best friends, Shannon, was there too along with his father, Martin, also a veteran Marine.

They all drove 16 hours to see her graduate, alongside her mother and grandmother.

"Everybody loves this girl," Scott Doherty said. "She excels in everything she does. As far as I'm concerned, she'll be the toughest Marine, but put her in a dress and she's a beauty queen."

Daume looked over at us talking.

"Oh God," she laughed, "You're getting info from him?"

Martin Doherty had not been back to Parris Island in nearly 60 years and was still taken by the expanse of sky.

"It never ends," he said, looking up. "It's bee-yoo-tee-full."

"I'm not even her blood," he said of Maria, but he was proud nonetheless.

Over the past month, I had been keeping up with the stories of women Marines and the infantry. A year earlier, Defense Secretary Ash Carter had opened all jobs in the military to women, something the Marine Corps initially opposed. The Corps asked Carter to keep infantry, reconnaissance and machine gunner roles male-only, but he rejected the request.

This past summer, the Corps trained commanders and senior enlisted personnel in the ground combat gender-integration plan. And the first female Marine recruits with infantry contracts didn't start training until this past October.

Inevitably, on every story that has been written, there are the comments.

Some are in support of the change.

But, as expected with any change, many are not happy about it.

The move infuriates some and feels uncomfortable to others. Mostly, the comments come from men who feel the civilian world misunderstands the unity required on the front line and how gender affects that.

The comments run the gamut, but mostly sound like this:

"This nation is going down the drain fast," written by someone who also lamented racial integration and women getting to vote.

"Marines used to run toward the sound of gunfire. Now they run like girls toward the sight of a shopping mall," written by someone who clearly doesn't know that malls have been overtaken in popularity by outdoor shopping centers.

"Well, with luck Mattis will be in place before they graduate and it won't matter: they will be all dressed up with nowhere to go," written by someone who went for the jugular.

The argument against women in combat typically centered on physicality -- women can't physically do what men can, they assert.

Now, as some women have proven they can meet the same standards as men, the argument has honed in on sexual relationships and "eros," something Defense Secretary nominee Gen. James Mattis has said concerns him about mixed-gender combat units. It's also a notion that was brought up during the 2016 presidential debates when a woman asked now-President-elect Donald Trump about his stance on women in the military and referenced an old tweet of his that linked sexual assaults to women being permitted to serve with men in the military in the first place.

During his confirmation hearing Thursday, Mattis said he has no plans to bar women from serving on the front lines. Trump's position is still unclear.

But none of this reflects the thinking of a man like Martin Doherty, who took a break from marveling at Parris Island to talk about women in infantry.

"I love it! I love it!," he said loudly.

Fifty-six years ago, he learned a lesson, Martin Doherty said, when he got out of the Marines and saw a pretty girl standing on the corner in the Bronx. He married her and had six kids. She died last summer, leaving him heartbroken.

"She was the greatest part of my life," Doherty said, pulling out his wallet to show me black-and-white photos of them as a young couple.

His wife, Carol, he said, showed him that women are strong and tough, tougher than men.

"She could do anything," he said.

'I was wrong' Last summer, Daume was working in a bar for some extra money while counting down her days to Parris Island with excitement and training at an MMA gym.

One day, a man started asking her about her decision to join the Marines.

He pummeled her with questions.

Why the Marines?

Why not the Navy?

Why not the Army?

She told him her reasons.

She has wanted to be a Marine since she was 12, and she learned to do pull-ups with Marines at an event to raise money for brain cancer research, a cause that meant a lot to her because of a neighbor who was sick with the disease.

She wanted to be in the infantry.

She wanted to fight ISIS.

"I thought he was a weirdo," Daume said of the man.

She turned her back to him and when she looked back she saw that he was gone.

He had paid his bill and left this enthusiastic poolee, who had been giving him the side-eye because she wasn't quite sure what he was up to, a $150 tip.

Daume's determination and certainty are formidable. Her countenance almost challenges anyone to say she can't do something.

She has met all ground combat standards in boot camp, which are tougher than before and are the same standards men must meet.

Of her peers, only one female recruit out of five with an initial infantry contract did not meet those standards. One male recruit out of 147 with an infantry contract did not meet the standards.

She's physically ready, an athlete and a mixed-martial arts fighter, and she rejects the idea that "eros" will get in her or any other determined female Marine's way.

They're not going to mess this up for themselves.

"They've got to get a new mind-set," she said of the people who might have a problem with women in infantry roles, "... without automatically thinking (grunts are) sleeping together."

When she finishes infantry school, she hopes to become a rifleman. She had not fired a weapon before coming to Parris Island, but it was the thing she was looking forward to the most since she had made the decision to become a Marine.

The feel of the rifle. The sound of the shot. The quest for absolute accuracy in her target every time. It all lived up to all her expectations.

She wants to eliminate the enemy, and she knows she has what it takes to do it.

During training, Daume and the other three women with infantry contracts were treated no differently from the other recruits in their platoons, but the drill instructors were eminently aware that they were training these four for a tough road ahead.

During Battle Warrior Training, it was especially on the DI's minds. These women need to be ready.

Even though I get the sense from the Marines I've spoken to that most grunts don't really seem to care that women will be joining them in roles they hadn't before been able to fill, the four women at Parris Island will no doubt face negative comments.

But, as one drill instructor was overheard telling Daume on Friday, there will always be those negative comments to contend with. Just ignore them. Look ahead.

Which shouldn't be a problem for Daume.

Everything about her personality and her being seems to be set on the future. She has a good sense of humor. And she frankly doesn't seem to care one bit what people think about her. That's their problem, not hers.

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