July 2017

To Get Out, or Not to Get Out?

Gender crisis in the Marine Corps
Volume 101, Issue 7

Capt Talmadge Mitchell Melton

Mr. Daniel Grazier
The Corps should not punish or marginalize Marines who choose to become mothers.
(Photo provided by author.)

It’s 0328 on a Friday morning, and I’m driving through a snow storm in Kentucky, the adrenaline from multiple cups of caffeine is barely suppressing my utter exhaustion. My husband David, our 4-month-old son Alexander, and our puppy are all sleeping soundly in the passenger seats. Earlier this week, I broke down in tears because David was asked to go back to Iraq next week, only two weeks after returning from a month-long temporary duty in Baghdad. We are driving from Washington, DC, where we are stationed, to Georgia to drop off the puppy at our in-laws’ house so I have one less thing to care for while David is gone. Acting as a single mother so my husband can deploy is one of the most difficult challenges I have ever faced. Since returning to work a month ago (while David was in Iraq), I’ve felt torn at the seams between my roles as a new mother, spouse, and active duty Marine.

As I continue driving mile after snowy mile, a country music station faint in the background, I cannot help but contemplate how dramatically motherhood changed and challenged my life. I knew having a child would be no small feat, but I was unprepared for just how difficult it was going to be to remain a top-performing Marine as a new mother. I am a Marine Captain in the middle of a prestigious fellowship, and my current billet at the State Department is eye-opening, broadening, and unmatched by many other billets across the Corps. I have always assumed that I was a “lifer” and would stay in the Corps for at least 20 years. On paper I am excelling and “living the dream,” but I feel like I am drowning. Why does it feel like the Corps and I are beginning to part ways? Will this feeling pass? Is it time to get out? Although this is a personal decision, the pressure to choose between having a family and a life in the Corps seems quite common, especially for female Marines.

I often see posts on the “Female Marines” Facebook page from fellow servicewomen who are struggling to balance work obligations with motherhood. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see emotionally-charged posts by junior Marines venting about horrible command climates regarding motherhood. Some single mothers have been routinely put on duty shortly after returning from maternity leave, often times forcing junior enlisted Marines to pay absurd amounts out of pocket for overnight care, quit breastfeeding, or bring their infants to duty with them (how effective is that?). Other posts have commented how they had no choice but to bring their infants to 0500 unit PTs because child development centers do not open until 0600, leaders didn’t allow time for pumping, or the fellow active duty fathers choose to take 0 percent of the childrearing responsibilities. Many posts passionately discussed the way in which fellow Marines no longer took them seriously or made their lives exceptionally difficult because they chose to have a child. Regardless of whether the command’s actions are justified/real or not, the simple perception that the Corps is treating them unfairly is enough to drive women out.

Many leaders have identified the Marine Corps’ difficulty retaining women, especially once they hit the captain/major/sergeant/staff sergeant ranks, because many of these mid-career-level women seek to have a family and often shoulder most of the responsibility, especially in early years. One of my colleagues, as a fellow working mother, commented, “If I am excelling at work, I am likely failing at home, and vice versa.” Being a working mother is difficult and requires sacrifice. In order to retain the talents of such capable women, the USMC must adopt policy changes that make balancing these two roles more manageable. Additionally, current politics unnecessarily exacerbate the stresses for female Marines. The Marine Corps is in a gender identity crisis, and female Marines are the casualties.

Over the past couple of years, the Marine Corps has been directed to adopt policies neutralizing gender differences while aggressively endorsing gender integration. These policies are intended to increase equal opportunities, recruitment, and retention of women. While well-intended and with some progress marked, the policies are incomplete and fail to address the real concerns of many servicewomen. Current policies to integrate women into combat arms units and strip women of their femininity target a very specific, generally very young and inexperienced, group of women at entry level. If policymakers want to retain more mid-level servicewomen (in hopes that they will eventually be promoted to general/flag officers) then the policies must account for the priorities and decisions that drive women from the Marine Corps. We lack the data on exit reasons for mid-career women, but anecdotal evidence indicates many women get out of the Service at the mid-career level for family reasons (such as having children) rather than because they were not afforded the opportunity to serve on the front lines in an infantry platoon.

In order to fulfill stated goals to retain and promote female service members, the Corps should adopt the following policies:

Encourage gender equality, not neutrality. Gender neutrality as currently defined privileges non-female and predominantly male traits and standards, ultimately marginalizing women. There are biological and physiological differences between men and women, and accounting for them is not necessarily offensive or repressive. From personal experience, there is nothing gender neutral about creating a baby in the womb. I am currently nursing and am able to produce 32 ounces of breast milk every day—is there a man out there who can match me?

Of course there will be outliers, but in general, women are smaller, curvier, more prone to injuries from basic military training. They are physically structured to do different things with their bodies. Recognizing that women bring different physical strengths to the Marine Corps allows us to better utilize all Marines and their specific talents. Female servicemembers need to be respected and treated as team players without needing to act like men or conform to male standards.

Pretending and expecting that all women and men can perform the same physical tasks to the same effectiveness is ignoring reality. There will always be several exceptional women who can physically compete with men; however, policies regarding physical fitness and standards should reflect the abilities of the masses, not the performances of outliers. Rumor in the ranks is that the Corps is planning to have one gender neutral physical fitness test for all Marines and that the use of gender specific pronouns (he/she) will be banned. If these rumors are true, then female Marines are going to have an even more difficult time competing for promotion, especially as they age. Let’s use common sense.

A recent discussion to rid the Corps of female uniforms (and anything that looks feminine) is repressive. Why does making the Corps gender neutral mean requiring women to look, act, dress, and PT like men? Making one uniform for all Marines is intended to make the Corps more equal across the board, but why does the uniform have to be the masculine version? Last year, women at the Naval Academy were banned from wearing skirts while female Marines were directed to start wearing the male cavers. If all Marines have to wear dress blue trousers from now on, how about all Marines also have to wear skirts and heels with Alphas from now on? For every male uniform item women are required to purchase and wear, men should be required to purchase and wear a female item. That notion is ridiculous, but it’s the only fair option; “fairness” seems to have been the driving force behind recent DOD policies, not common sense. Privileging the male uniform is perhaps more repressive than the separate styles.

I attended graduate school as part of a military fellowship. The uniform for the graduation ceremony was dress blues. At eight months pregnant, I couldn’t fit into my dress blue uniform. Instead, I walked across the stage in a flowery pink maternity dress. It is almost satirical that advocates at that time argued that, in order for women to be viewed as equal, they must wear the male dress blues rather than considering how all dress uniforms ignore the common female experience of motherhood.

This is one illustration of the ways in which the USMC assumes that women must conform to the traditional male standards while femininity is erased in the integration process. Wearing a uniform that covers up feminine features or doesn’t account for maternity tells females that it is not okay to be a woman. It tells women that in order to be equal, women need to trade in femininity for masculinity. As a pregnant and nursing mother, being told to squeeze into a boxy male uniform makes me feel ostracized, as if there is no place for me in this Corps. I am not ashamed of my curves, hips, baby-bump, and busty chest. I love being a woman and should feel comfortable dressing the part, both in and out of uniform.

Female and male Marines should be given the option of taking up to two years of an unpaid sabbatical with each child. This optional period of absence should be decided in advance, but should begin after the 12 weeks of paid maternity/paternity leave. If a Marine chooses to take such an absence, their career would essentially be frozen and current billet back filled by someone else—treat it as an unpaid tour. Once the period of absence is over, the Marine could pick up right where he/she left off (not necessarily in the same billet, but at the same rank with the same time in service).

This period of absence would allow Marines the opportunity to focus solely on parenthood without letting their careers fall to the wayside, or vice versa. The Corps would also benefit from such a policy because it would no longer have to compete with family life for the attention and focus of its new parents. Units would no longer deploy short-handed because one of their Marines is having or just had a child. As the policy stands, when Marines take maternity/paternity leave, others in their unit need to absorb their tasks, often increasing already heavy workloads and sometimes decreasing quality work (not to mention leaving the new parent feeling extremely guilty for burdening their coworkers; no one should feel guilty for having a child). Even when Marines return to work after having children, they are no longer able to work as long as they used to and/or take more days off than they did previously. Even while at work parents are often exhausted or delirious from the countless hours parents are awake with newborns before they learn how to sleep through the night.

Additionally, dieting and intense workout sessions have adverse effects on a new mother’s milk production, which leads many Marine mothers to either give up nursing or sacrifice their PFT (physical fitness test)/CFT (combat fitness test) scores in order to continue producing ample amounts of milk. Many junior Marines rely on breastfeeding as formula feeding is exponentially more expensive (and theoretically less healthy). This recommendation particularly appeals to women as it would allow them time to nurse stress-free and would give them ample time to build their bodies back up to PFT/CFT readiness shape. At the end of a sabbatical, new parents would potentially be well rested, likely done nursing, have a handle on parenthood, and could be expected to return to the fleet mentally and physically ready to work.

For dual active duty couples, allow the husband and wife to share the 12 weeks of maternity leave. At a minimum, policymakers need to rethink paternity leave. Additionally, allow Marines to donate leave to one another. Most government agencies are already doing this, and the military should adopt similar policies.

Ten days is not nearly enough time for paternity leave. Leaders cannot claim everything is moving toward gender neutrality unless they make policies that actually treat both genders neutrality. If I were a man, I’d complain that I don’t have equal opportunity to participate in my family. Equal opportunity in the workplace means there must be equal responsibility at home. Traditional gender roles as they exist will never change if men are not given the opportunity and are not expected to equally participate in family affairs.

I started my fellowship at the Department of State when I was seven months pregnant and the Corps maternity leave was six weeks. I checked-in a week earlier than I needed to simply because I felt guilty that I had six weeks of maternity leave in my future. Although my bosses and co-workers were verbally supportive of my endeavor as a soon-to-be mother, I felt guilty about the perceived unhappiness and burden my absence was going to place on the office. The month before I gave birth, the maternity leave policy tripled to 18 weeks. I thought telling my office I was going to be gone for six weeks was difficult; turning around and telling them that actually I was going to be gone three times longer made me feel even guiltier, as if I was doing something wrong. I made a few comments about how I didn’t think I would actually take all 18 weeks, and several colleagues (who don’t have children) commented that 18 weeks was a very long time to be gone.

My husband and I fought because I didn’t want to take all 18 weeks of maternity leave. I didn’t want to miss out on my limited fellowship time. David was furious that I would sacrifice precious time with our newborn for “just a job.” I was furious that so many of the family responsibilities were defaulting to me and nervous that my fitness report would reflect. David deployed to Iraq while I was still on maternity leave. Although grateful for the time I was spending with my newborn, it would have been much easier if David and I could have shared the childcare responsibilities, especially as I transitioned back to work. Looking back now, it was ridiculous to feel guilty about taking all of the allotted maternity leave. Whenever I have my next child, I will take every second of maternity leave as nothing is as important as being with your newborn. Marine leaders should encourage both male and female Marines to take paternity/maternity leave.

Ensure every unit has a properly resourced lactation room, and support new mothers who choose to breastfeed. Like many new mothers I have confided with, I completely underestimated how much having a child would effect my professional life long term. There is tremendous pressure from doctors and society to breastfeed for at least a year, ideally two. This past year Tricare began paying for breast pumps—a huge step in the right direction! For a plethora of personal and emotional reasons, I am determined to breastfeed for at least a year. In order to do this, I need to pump three times a day while at work. Each session lasts approximately 30 minutes. Spending 90 minutes each workday pumping is an enormous commitment that limits a woman’s ability to attend day-long trainings, go to the field, take a deployment, stand duty, go on some temporary duty assignments, etc.

A few years ago, while stationed in Okinawa, several women in the battalion were nursing mothers. Every time I went to the restroom, one of them was sitting in the locker area pumping. Even as a woman, I didn’t think much about how much time these Marines were spending each day just sitting idly while pumping. Across the Corps, valuable man hours are lost because Marines do not have property equipped lactation rooms. The Fair Labor Standard Act, written in 2010, requires that government facilities have a dedicated lactation space. It is in the best interest of the Corps to take this law one step further and provide nursing mothers a space to pump and be productive.

In order to increase effectiveness, units need to set aside one office (not a bathroom or a locker area) specifically for nursing mothers. The space must be private, secure, and equipped with a computer, outlet, and refrigerator for the milk. This set up will benefit both the women and the units because nursing mothers will be able to catch up on emails, take MarineNet courses, work on briefs, etc., while pumping. Additionally, leaders who have young mothers in their units need to ensure those Marines are afforded the time and opportunity to pump. Yes, it may be inconvenient for your Marine to duck out three times a day for a half an hour increments, but the health of her and her child is worth it. Additionally, new mothers can develop infections, mastitis, and experience severe pain if they are unable to pump or nurse in a timely manner. Mastitis can even lead to hospitalization, further reducing the Marine’s readiness. There is also evidence that shows children who were breastfed have fewer illnesses throughout their childhood. Thus, encouraging breastfeeding ultimately leads to healthier children, reducing long-term parent absences when they are unable to attend work to care for a sick child.

Many young, lower ranking Marines may not feel comfortable asking their leaders for the time to pump. Leaders must ensure new mothers in their command feel that the choice to breastfeed is theirs, not a foregone decision made by the requirements of their job. Having a proper physical space to pump and knowing leaders support Marines who choose to breastfeed will increase retention of female Marines.

Do not punish Marines who choose to have families; promote and retain women and men with families. This statement screams adversity because it suggests the USMC should do some kind of affirmative action for Marine parents. This also clashes with the catchy Marine saying “if the Corps wanted you to have a spouse (or children), they would have issued you one.” Regardless of how it affects readiness, this thinking fails to address modern professional and personal realities. More often than not, today’s policy makers are making the case that diversity increases effectiveness. If so, then more diverse women who have experienced common life choices (like having children) need to be promoted to senior positions. Today’s generation of mid-career women grew up watching women of the generation before “break glass ceilings,” “blaze trails,” and were told by society that they could do anything they set their minds to. The way the current policies are written, that phrase needs to be caveated with “unless you also want to be a mother”.

Today’s female general/flag officers are very impressive. They are competent, strong, smart, driven, and successful in a largely male-dominated world. However, it is difficult not to notice that the vast majority of women in senior military positions seem to be single, divorced, or married without children. Unfortunately, there are no studies to determine if having children has a negative effect on a servicemember’s career. However, there is enough circumstantial evidence to at least prompt the thought. Even the White House’s social aide program, which undoubtedly enhances a servicemember’s career, is biased towards military members who choose to have a personal life. Being single is actually one of the entry requirements! If the highest office in the nation is biased towards married servicemembers, there are undoubtedly trickle down effects.

It is very important to discuss how being pregnant and maternity/paternity leave effects work and evaluations. My husband and I are a good case study. We commissioned only six months apart, have the same occupational specialty, have similar deployment experiences, similar evaluations, recognitions, and awards, were both selected on CCLEB and subsequently selected for esteemed fellowships. Until I got pregnant, we were very much neck-and-neck career wise. Since getting pregnant, I cannot help but feel like he is leaving me in the dust (even if it is just my own perception). He was able to deploy to Afghanistan during my pregnancy, and then to Iraq shortly after the baby was born. Had I not gotten pregnant, I too could have potentially gone overseas. Deploying is perhaps the most valuable aspect of development and education as a Marine. Watching a peer get to take advantage of those career enhancing opportunities while I was “benched” because of my own life choices is incredibly frustrating.

Many women get pregnant while in the fleet and end up missing a deployment or unit exercises. In general, their fitness reports are likely not as good as their peers who were not restrained from operating. Seeing a decline in performance following parenthood does not encourage Marines to stay on active duty. This potential decline in performance and inability to deploy could be mitigated by the sabbatical recommended above. Having more senior level women who have experienced motherhood—and successfully balanced it—while also being on active duty will send the message that it is not impossible to be a mother and top performing Marine. Furthermore, senior level Marines who have children need to mentor young parents and openly discuss parenthood with all Marines to promote awareness and set realistic expectations.

As part of my fellowship, the fellows do a bi-annual update to the DIRINT (Director of Intelligence). This meeting is extremely important for fellowship strategic planning, and it is also one of the few times a year the fellows actually get face time with the leaders at the Intelligence Department (I-Dept) who write our fitness reports. Last fall, this meeting fell three weeks after Alexander was born. I arranged for my in-laws to watch Alexander so I could attend this meeting. Suddenly Alexander began cluster feeding and needed to nurse every 30 to 45 minutes. At that time I hadn’t started pumping yet and was terrified to give Alexander a bottle as all the doctors warned against giving a newborn a bottle before six weeks to prevent trouble latching. My options were to miss the meeting with the DIRINT or bring Alexander with me. I chose the latter.

That day, I headed to the Pentagon with my three-week old baby and in-laws in tow. I nursed Alexander in one of the bathroom stalls right outside of I-Dept, squeezed into my husband’s cammies, and positioned my in-laws and baby in the lobby of I-Dept so I could race out of the conference room if need be. An hour later the meeting concluded and I rushed my screaming baby back to the bathroom stall to nurse again. Although everyone seemed understanding and my three-week old son got to meet the DIRINT, it was still an extremely stressful situation. My fear of being “mommy-tracked” led me to go above and beyond to balance new motherhood with my duties as an active duty Marine. This situation is an example of the reasons why so many women get out of the military to have children or are “mommy-tracked”.


Although these policy recommendations may make the military more family friendly and retain more women, some may argue that they do not directly or immediately make the military better at fighting wars. Some even argue that having women in the military altogether creates more friction and complications than benefits. There is actually merit to this argument; getting rid of women in the military also gets rid of a lot of the aforementioned issues. The military is, after all, a warfighting organization, so why should it care about maternity leave and lactation rooms?

National security and mission preparedness should always be the driving force behind policy change. This article highlights some of the obvious reasons women should not serve in infantry units or be expected to perform to the same standards as men. However, there are absolutely appropriate billets in the military for women. Diversity for diversity’s sake is harmful; however, in many fields having a diverse population of service members strengthens capabilities. Fields such as civil affairs, public relations, intelligence, foreign area officers, and several others would be much less effective without women and men with diverse backgrounds and life experiences. “Fairness” will never be achieved as life is inherently not fair; men will never be able to give birth or breastfeed, period. So, let’s create rational policies that reflect reality.

While adopting the above recommendations may create more administrative work and seem as if the Corps is getting “softer,” the long-term benefits of retaining the best and the brightest thinkers makes adopting these policies worth every penny. Many leaders have said that the most valuable weapon is the brain. Given the significant investment the USMC makes over many years in grooming great thinkers, making the Corps a place where more Marines want to continue working means that it will retain more smart people, who otherwise would take their time, talents, and expertise to another profession that allows them to reasonably raise a family. Increased retention equals increased competition which equals smarter and better senior leaders. One could further argue that happier servicemembers who feel the organization takes care of them and their family makes morale higher, in turn contributing to combat readiness, retention, and overall esprit de corps.

Already on the right track

The military already excels in supporting families in childcare. CDCs (Child Development Centers) on bases are extremely affordable and provide safe, easily-accessible places for parents to bring their children. As dual active duty captains, my husband and I would have to pay the CDC $640 per month to watch Alexander all day, every day. Unfortunately, in my current location, Washington DC, the logistics of bringing Alexander to a CDC is unworkable, which led me to research alternative childcare options. What I learned was astounding. Most childcare centers out in town cost approximately $1,800 to $2,300 a month and have an infant waiting list that takes over a year to get to the top of. Parents are charged several dollars per minute they are late in picking up their child! I applied for the military benefit program to help families who cannot use CDCs pay for other daycare facilities. The program offered us $300 a month, which means we would still pay approximately three times more than what we would have paid the military CDC. Diplotots, the daycare at Department of State, charges military members the “bargain rate” of $1,450 per month per child.

The grass is not always greener on the other side. While State Department is comprised of more than 50 percent women, has had multiple female Secretaries of State, and is largely perceived as one of the most liberal government agencies, their lack of maternity leave is absolutely appalling. The military actually far exceeds most other Federal agencies in terms of maternity/paternity benefits—perhaps this is a result of so much scrutiny and social experimentation directed at the DOD over the past decade? Before policymakers accuse the Services of unequal treatment of women or harp on the need to allow women into combat units, it should take a good look at other agencies.


Senior leaders are well intended in trying to make the military a more desirable career for women. Increased diversity and competition at the most senior levels will reap positive effects on strategic-level planning and policy decisions. By already acknowledging this fact and making some decisions on its behalf, the military is already making strides toward retaining its most talented women. However, there is still a lot of progress to be made; more common sense, holistic policies need to be discussed and adopted. Incorporating women into combat units and promoting masculinity will not translate to widespread retention and promotion of mid-career-level women. Many of these women value parenthood and freedom of self-expression over desires to serve in infantry units or compete in a gender neutral atmosphere where their gender differences are marginalized.

The most difficult part about adopting these policy recommendations will be changing the current military cultural mindset. Traditional gender roles are still extremely prevalent throughout society, and until men are expected to participate equally in family affairs, working mothers will continue struggling to balance competitive careers with motherhood. Men need to be given the opportunities to excel as fathers which means increasing paternity leave and allowing them to take a sabbatical to care for their children in the same way women do. The ideology that women need to trade in femininity to “compete with the men in a man’s world” is not inclusive of all women. Instead, it ostracizes women who want to retain their womanhood and look, act, and be treated like women.

Capt Serrano is an Intelligence Analyst, Middle Eastern Foreign Area Officer, and Weapons and Tactics Instructor. She is currently a Fellow in the Junior Officer’s Strategic Intelligence Program.