I’ll never forget waking up late one morning in the field to the sound my tent being unzipped. I had been working all night, but as a platoon sergeant, it wasn’t uncommon for one of my Marines to come and get me if an issue arose that needed my attention. As painful sunlight tore through the darkness of my tent, I can only assume how angry I must have looked… until I saw one of the most beautiful things a Marine can see peering through my tent flap back at me: an unopened Monster Energy Drink.
It had been two weeks since I’d left the United States, and just about the same amount of time since I’d come into contact with my second favorite addiction. Adding a bit of vodka to the can would have appeased both of my biggest vices, but beggars can’t be choosers, and I didn’t care if it was Adolf Hitler himself offering me that beautiful black and green can… I was going to take it.
Thankfully, it wasn’t Hitler, it was Corporal Dawson. She was a member of a Public Affairs team that had been assigned to cover our short deployment – but because she and the PAO (Public Affairs Officer) she was with were both female and our victor unit didn’t know how to handle such strange creatures, they were staying in hotels three hours away. To be fair, they also needed internet access to do their jobs, and we barely had comms up. It did make logical sense for them to make the commute. It also meant they spent their evenings in civilization, where energy drinks were sold in stores and I can only assume people had to worry less about snakes.
Dawson gifted me with the drink and I climbed out of my fabric cave to greet the day. We talked about what she’d seen in the city the night prior and compared it to what I’d seen from my vantage point, which was mostly dirt, bugs and a radio, and we both set out to do what the United States had sent us there to do in the first place. At no point did we discuss our genitals. You’d be surprised how rarely they come up in civilized conversation.
Now, she and I obviously didn’t share a tent, though we did all sleep in a large hanger together in our last night stateside. We were both in committed relationships, but that wasn’t why gender wasn’t an issue, either. We were both dirty, tired, and professional. We got along in all the same ways I got along with my other buddies, plumbing be damned.
During that time, I happened to be serving in what the Marine Corps refers to as a “Victor,” or infantry, unit. Females weren’t permitted in the regiment unless approved via a waiver (as was the case for our armorer) but there were lots of co-ed units throughout the Corps that already had to address the issue of cohabitation. Marines that doubled up into tents did so out of necessity, and for those of you that haven’t been blessed with needing to wash your body with baby wipes inside a tent, I assure you, there isn’t enough room for it to be a team sport. I never saw any of the male Marines I tented up with naked because you don’t spend much time naked in the field. In my experience, the field just isn’t a very sexy place.
During combat training, I was again in an all-male platoon, but we trained alongside platoons made up of both males and females. They were required to sleep in separate areas at the time, but rumors still swirled about the occasional instance of Marines coupling off into the woods or a porta-potty. If you’re gross enough to want to get sexy with someone that hasn’t seen a shower in four weeks… and to do it in a hot porta-potty… separate sleeping areas would do little to stop you.
These experiences, as well as a wealth of others, left me a bit baffled when I saw headlines over the past two weeks about Marines now being faced with the incredible challenge of having to share tents between genders. What may come as a surprise to those that aren’t card carrying members of Uncle Sam’s Gun Club, is that despite the media thinking it was big news, all the Marines I knew met it with a decidedly uninterested shrug before getting back to complaining about things that actually matter, like a lack of funding for equipment and limited spaces for reenlistment.
Of course, I can’t discuss the blending of genders in the Marine Corps without talking about the possibility for sexual assault. These types of things do occur in the Corps as they do in every other branch, and effort has to be put forth to stop it, but hiding women from male Marines isn’t the answer – especially because most victims of sexual assault in the military are men.
You can’t establish a functional SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) under the assumption that your troops won’t be able to control their baser urges. That’s the type of reasoning that leads to mandating females to cover their faces in public for fear of the dreaded male libido… it’s the kind of ideology we don’t support culturally as a nation, nor should we in the military.
Gender issues exist in the armed forces, and will continue to for some time, and while there are some topics I can’t help but get riled up about (such as lowering standards to make tests easier to pass for females), sharing a tent just isn’t one of them. Marines adapt and overcome, and while this change may feel rocky for some at first, it will inevitably be forgotten as a new normal sets in.
I will always be more concerned about fighting alongside a well-trained, well-equipped, and well-cared for Marine than I ever will be about their gender, and I’d be willing to bet most Marines would say the very same.