Dianne Long Campbell, after more than 30 years, can still remember Parris Island’s suffocating heat and humidity.
Ms. Campbell enlisted in the Marines while still in high school and, like generations of other recruits, received her first taste of life in the Corps at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, just off the southeastern tip of South Carolina.
Running through the swamps of South Carolina under the scrutiny of tough-as-nails drill instructors in the height of the summer takes a toll, she said, even for a leader in her high school marching band only weeks earlier.
“It didn’t matter what day it was — you were running. You couldn’t breathe, and you’re still running,” she said. “But in the end, it was worth it. Every cramp and every pain we endured.”
That rite of passage may be passing, however. Pentagon planners made a stunning announcement that they were considering closing Parris Island and its West Coast counterpart in San Diego.
It’s part of a consolidation move to comply with a new law mandating the end of separate male and female recruit training.
The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act directs the Marines to implement gender-integrated training at their recruit depots at Parris Island within five years and San Diego within eight years. Marine Corps officials said they are exploring all options, including closing both bases and opening a new one where men and women can train together.
“Neither the Marine Corps recruit depots [in] Parris Island nor San Diego are currently able to optimally train recruits in an integrated environment,” Capt. Joseph Butterfield, a spokesman at headquarters, said in a statement. “At this time, any remarks on courses of action are premature, as we are simply exploring all options.”
Blindsided South Carolina lawmakers have vowed to fight any move from Parris Island, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
For generations after its formal designation as a Marine training site in 1915, male recruits who lived east of the Mississippi River attended basic training at Parris Island. Those who lived in the West went to San Diego. All female Marines, who make up about 8% of the Corps, go to Parris Island regardless of their hometowns.
“Nothing in the way we’re organized right now lends itself to integrated recruit training,” Gen. David H. Berger, Marine Corps commandant, told Defense One, a publication that covers national security issues.
The environment is also working against Parris Island. Assistant Corps Commandant Gen. Glenn M. Walters told a 2018 Senate hearing that the South Carolina site was the Corps’ “most critical vulnerability,” with rising sea levels and flooding a mounting concern.
“We are a waterfront organization. Also, we have come to the conclusion that we’re not going to turn the tide,” Gen. Walters said at the time.
Recruit training at Parris Island was tough for everyone — male or female. But in the end, it was the camaraderie with the other Marines that made it possible to endure, Ms. Campbell said.
“It brings back a sense of happiness and melancholy at the same time. There are days when I wake up from dreaming and I still miss it so much,” she said.
Both training locations have issues of concern. Parris Island sits along South Carolina’s coastline, right in the path of Atlantic hurricanes, and Marine recruits in San Diego have to travel to nearby Camp Pendleton for some of their field training.
Dakota Wood, senior research fellow for defense programs at The Heritage Foundation, was a captain the first time he encountered a woman in the Marine Corps.
“Up to that point, I had been essentially in all-male units. Then I got to Washington, D.C.,” said Mr. Wood, who spent two decades in the military. “It was just a shock to go from a field environment — all male — to Washington.”
It made sense to consolidate female training at Parris Island because the numbers were relatively small. The women could have mentors and role models and form bonds with one another.
“You just don’t have that many women. You don’t want them to be completed isolated,” Mr. Wood said.
Parris Island is in the middle of a swamp and San Diego sits in a heavily urban district, so any plan to retrofit the bases to support full coed basic training would be expensive.
“Maybe just building a brand new base would be the smarter way to go. You can start with a clean sheet of paper,” Mr. Wood said. “It can start with 21st-century standards with the objective built right in for integrated training.”
Political leaders in South Carolina blasted any idea of closing Parris Island. Marines were first assigned to the base in the 1890s, and hundreds of thousands of recruits began their military careers standing in the famous yellow footprints outside the receiving barracks.
“It ain’t gonna happen,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is locked in a tight reelection race, posted on his Twitter account. “If you’re looking to save money, let’s start with cutting the people who think closing Parris Island is a good idea.”
Fellow South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott said he was confident that the Marines would eventually conclude that it makes sense to continue basic training at the base. “Parris Island will not close,” Mr. Scott said in a statement.
An editorial in the South Carolina Post and Courier accused Gen. Berger and other Marine Corps leaders of floating the specter of a Parris Island shutdown to try to undercut the new training mandates.
“The fact that [Gen. Berger] is even raising the possibility that the Marine Corps might not be able to comply with that mandate at the existing bases and instead might have to shutter them and build a whole new base suggests either that there’s a serious breakdown in the military command structure or else that he’s not trying hard enough,” the newspaper said this week.
Backlashes and the big picture
Some Marine veterans say the idea of creating an entirely new gender-integrated basic training facility has merit.
Ricky Hill spent five years in the Marine Corps and went through basic training in 2007 in San Diego. Sandwiched between San Diego International Airport and the downtown area, the base where he learned to be a Marine isn’t large enough to handle the entire coed training mission, Mr. Hill said.
“If you’re going to do it, you might as well do it somewhere new,” he said. “I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of backlash, but you’ve got to step back and think about the big picture.”
Creating a training base from scratch is easier said than done, said Mark F. Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel and senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It’s really, really expensive. You’re talking billions of dollars,” he said. “I just don’t see that being worthwhile in an era where defense budgets are either tapped or coming down.”
He said there is no reason that gender-integrated basic training can’t take place at both San Diego and Parris Island.
“There’s room at Camp Pendleton [in San Diego] to do that — building a gender-integrated complex,” Mr. Cancian said.
The Marine Corps is likely looking at several options for gender-integrated programs, including having one platoon of women in each training company. “You can have them sort of together but the company is still integrated,” Mr. Cancian said.
In the end, developing a training program for a gender-integrated Marine Corps will be more crucial than determining which barracks in Parris Island or San Diego will be dedicated to female recruits, Mr. Cancian said.
“How do you design a physical fitness program that 90% of women can pass but is also challenging for men? The Army is having problems with that,” he said. “That’s the really tricky part.”
Ms. Campbell, who spent five years in the Marine Corps, isn’t in favor of closing Parris Island or San Diego and would prefer some other option. She said she would have had no problem going through training alongside male recruits.
“All it would have done is push me harder to make sure I stayed up with them or exceeded them,” she said. “We did everything the guys did. It was just separated between the two.”