Guest post by Captain Ryann Engholm, USMC.
Throughout my life, I have never shied away from a challenge. I was continually encouraged to pursue athletics by both of my parents. They stressed the importance of an active lifestyle and taking advantage of opportunities that were once unavailable to females. My father showed his support by volunteering to coach many of the sports I participated in.
After high school, I chose the college where I would spend the next four years of my life because I thought it gave me the best chance to become a national champion. Softball had been my passion since I was eight years old, and this was my chance to compete at the highest level available to me.
The recent decision by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter regarding removal of restrictions on females serving in combat roles is long overdue. The leadership principles that come to mind in the wake of this decision are “know yourself” and “seek self-improvement.” All Marines are required to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, be self-aware, and possess a comprehension of group behavior. However, it seems as though sweeping assumptions, complacency, and negativity have become commonplace in the military of today. Rather than leaning on the traits and principles that have been carefully selected to carve out the most professional and capable warfighters, we have chosen to go through the motions and crumble under the adversity.
As an athlete, a Marine Corps officer, and a female who has led by example not only physically, but has served shoulder to shoulder with male infantry units in combat, I think it is time to do more than just set the example. I believe it is time to set the bar where it needs to be for all Marines. The following article serves as an insight into my experience and is dedicated to the women I served with on the female engagement team in Afghanistan in 2011—those who have already proven they possess the physical tenacity, mental acuity, and moral courage necessary to serve in male infantry units in a combat environment.
When it came to academics, I chose the field of exercise science and became an intern strength-and-conditioning coach. I chose this route due to the head strength-and-conditioning coach, who became my mentor throughout my college career. He still is by far the best leader I have ever had the opportunity to learn from. For some time, I was the only female involved in the strength program, yet I was never treated any differently than my male colleagues. I assisted in the development and implementation of strength and conditioning plans for both the female and male teams at the college. Our mentality was not to think of the teams as male and female.
In the Central College weight room, we trained athletes. Some of the most respected athletes on our campus happened to be females. The school currently holds 11 national team championships, with only one of those belonging to a male team. It was no surprise that when it came to choosing which sports teams we wanted to work with, every one of my male strength and conditioning cohorts asked to work with the women’s softball team. With four championships on their resume, there was a certain tangible dynamic to the way we trained in the weight room that directly translated to performance on the field. Although we never won a national championship during my four years at Central, we still carried ourselves as champions on and off the field. We consciously controlled the thoughts we allowed to enter our minds, and believed that all of our individual actions, whether positive or negative, could affect the team as a whole.
I made the decision to attend Officer Candidate School between my junior and senior year of college, and was first introduced to the basic Marine Corps physical fitness and body composition requirements upon arrival. The farthest distance I had run on a consistent basis at that time was the 60 feet from home to first base. Yet, I never fell out of a run. Due to my experience in the weight room, I found the comparison of the flex arm hang and standard pull-ups to be that of apples to oranges.
I personally preferred pull-ups because I had been doing them since high school, and it wasn’t a matter of one being more difficult to perform than the other. Pull-ups require a concentric/eccentric contraction, and the flex arm hang requires an isometric contraction. You are demanding your body to operate in very different capacities. If you were to task a 250-pound male with a flex arm hang from a bar, it would be a very difficult assignment without some prior training. There wasn’t a single female athlete at my college that wasn’t expected to perform pull-ups, and we chose that movement for all sports programs due to its functionality and direct correlation to performance on the field of play.
The 100 crunches in two minutes proved to be more of an excruciating obligation rather than an actual test of fitness. I always wondered why we never focused on the other six trainable components of the torso, which should be trained equally. If you were to choose only one of those components to test strength that is most critical to a Marine in combat, it would be the ability of the individual to use their abdominal musculature to stabilize their spine. This will greatly decrease the likelihood of injury when carrying a heavy load and also create a rigidness in the core which enables the ability to adequately transfer force from one half of the body to the other. A good example of this is how the wrist should be locked to transfer force from the shoulder through the hand to execute a punch. Without this necessary skill, it will not matter how strong your legs are if you cannot transfer the force from the ground to where the weight rests on your shoulders. This ability is not innate to most individuals and needs to be trained.
The first time I stepped on a Marine Corps scale, I was labeled ‘fat’ by their standards. At the end of the day, I made peace with the number on the scale and the even more bogus number from the subsequent taping session, which measured my body fat percentage. I knew better. Muscle weighs more than fat and no one but me would have to live with the consequences if I chose to worry about an obsolete standard. I made the choice to keep my muscle and always be physically capable of carrying a fellow Marine to safety.
Once training was complete at Officer Candidate School, The Basic School, and the Logistics Officers Course, I departed for my first deployment to Afghanistan. I could not have asked for a better team of Marines to deploy with than the group that was chosen to be on the female engagement team. They reinforced my belief in the roles female Marines could fill in combat on a daily basis. They were asked to conduct lengthy foot patrols, advise senior battalion staffs on counterinsurgency operations, engage the enemy, and operate in harsh locations. These women impressed the battalions they supported with their work ethic, professionalism, and dedication to duty.
Physically, they always held their own. It is worth noting that the females embedded in the all-male infantry units provided a unique skillset to the battalions they supported. The female Marines were able to reach key leaders in the Afghan community on a different level by providing a unique perspective other than that of their traditional male counterparts. They proved to be expert negotiators with the Afghan females and males which allowed the battalions additional capabilities because of that culturally sensitive component.
One of my two-person teams maintained composure during a time when their foot patrol was hit by an IED. The radio was tossed back for the female Marines to flawlessly execute the critical 9-line to MEDEVAC a fellow Marine to safety. Another team had the wherewithal to triage and assist in carrying Marines and civilians to safety when a suicide bomber wreaked havoc in a bazaar, even though one of the females was injured in the blast herself. They truly made a positive impression on the male Marines around them. I recall receiving countless reports of accomplishments from the male infantry lieutenants in the battalions who wanted to make sure my Marines received the awards they deserved for their tremendous accomplishments.
One of the most telling stories of the engagement teams’ time in combat was of one Marine who could not seem to earn the trust of her supported battalion’s operations officer. She tried to prove her worth every single day while working with this battalion and never gave up. Due to a shift in the support needed in another area of the battlespace, she was moved to a battalion farther north. The first person to make a phone call on her behalf to the receiving unit was the stubborn operations officer who advised his counterpart, “You’re about to get one hell of a Marine.”
Success breeds success. That theory holds true for not only my collegiate softball team, but for the Marine Corps as well. We have high standards for a reason, and they should not be lowered to accommodate weaker individuals. If we want to maintain our status as the nation’s elite fighting force, we cannot afford to make compromises, and we also cannot afford to continue to exclude more qualified Marines in certain positions, regardless of gender. We need to take a hard look at the standards we have in place in all areas, and ask ourselves if they really do adequately equip us to be our best.
We must recruit the caliber of individual who is ready to meet these standards, who will strive to exceed them, and who will have the courage to lead a more efficient and effective fighting force. Just as champions are not made on the field of play, warriors are not made on the battlefield. It is a process, one that requires dedication, discipline, and support to carry out the intent and ensure the success of this decision to the utmost. To be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for a fellow Marine is a kind of love that most people will never know, a brother and sisterhood unlike any other.
Having the courage to step up to the plate when the game is on the line is hard enough without feeling as though your teammates have all turned their backs on you. I have seen firsthand the power of what simply believing in your fellow teammates can do. It brings out the absolute best in the individual, which the Marine Corps should exemplify in the highest regard. The battlefield has evolved over the years, and we too must evolve. If we allow ourselves to sit back and admire our work, we will fail not only ourselves, but an entire nation we have been entrusted to protect.