Call her a Marine: She passed the test

January 30, 1995|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Sun Staff Writer

On the basis of information supplied by the U.S. Marines, an article in yesterday's Sun misstated the extent of training that female Marine recruits now receive. While women have had chemical and combat instruction in the past, their training is now lengthier and more comprehensive.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

Terri Howard sucked in tear gas, threw a grenade and swam with 20 pounds of gear strapped to her back. She crawled through mud, ate oatmeal that wouldn't come off the spoon and went a week or more without washing her hair.

Now she can call herself a Marine.

Last week, after three months at the infamous boot camp known as Parris Island, S.C., Ms. Howard, a shy 18-year-old from Pasadena, became one of the first graduates of the Marines' new training program for women.


In October, the Marines implemented a new program for women that more closely parallels the men's training and better prepares women to be under fire.

Although they still train apart from the men, women are for the first time being instructed in hand grenades, chemical warfare and basic combat training.

Twenty percent of the 87 women didn't make it through the regimen, but Ms. Howard was one of four women promoted to the rank of private first class -- an honor shown in the red chevron she wears on her dress blue uniform.

"What have I learned about myself?" says Private Howard, whose early days as a recruit were chronicled in The Sun several months ago. "I know now there's nothing I can't do."

She received a hero's welcome home -- or at least a teen-ager's version of it. Star-spangled balloons and banners filled the living room, along with Christmas presents she opened nearly a month after the holiday.

Her mother and stepfather, Linda and Doug Shanks, stocked up on her favorite foods: Snickers bars, Fruity Pebbles cereal and bananas. She gotto listen to her music of choice: Ozzy Osbourne. And her greatest fear was quickly allayed: Smokey, the family cat, remembered her.

After three months of sleeping in barracks that resembled an infirmary, Private Howard was grateful for the little things in life: a water bed, a hot shower and carpeting.

"When we got home, she got down on her hands and knees and stretched out like out a cat," her mother says. "She said she hadn't seen carpet in three months."

Private Howard seemed somehow different to her parents, even beyond the extra weight and longer hair.

She now speaks a different language. The bathroom is "the head." Her bed is "the rack." And "snap and pop" means she's ready to go -- whether it's to the neighborhood pool hall with friends or to a family dinner at a local steakhouse.

But her transformation is about more than vocabulary.

"She has grown up a lot through this," says her mother. "Before, she dated a lot of losers. She was a people pleaser, doing everything for everyone else. But this she did for herself and by herself. It gave her self-esteem."

The most recent of her 29 letters home -- written just after she learned of her promotion -- shows her newfound confidence:

"Now I have RANK! I have authority. I have power. OK, OK, so I'm not the sergeant major, but damn if I don't feel just as proud right now."

Her senior drill instructor, Staff Sgt. Kelly Staton, says Private Howard's pride is deserved. After marching for miles carrying 25 pounds of gear, Ms. Howard developed blood blisters on her heel and had to be forced to get medical treatment.

"She requested not to go to sick call," Sergeant Staton says. "She didn't want to miss any training."

But Parris Island left its scars. Shortly after she got there, a drill instructor for another platoon fatally shot himself in front of his recruits.Word spread quickly through her troop, and some recruits expressed second thoughts about enlisting.

"It affects you mentally," says Private Howard, who graduated from Northeast High School in Pasadena. "You wonder: 'Is that what this is going to do to us? Are we going to lose our minds?' . . . But you have to keep your chin up and keep thinking you can do it."

There are physical signs of the stress she faced. She has lost feeling in her toes -- a problem chalked up to ill-fitting combat boots. Excessive exercise caused her to stop menstruating. And she gained 10 pounds.

One of the most trying events was chemical warfare training, which female recruits faced for the first time. Inside a building filled with tear gas, they had to run in place, remove their gas masks and hold their breath until an instructor signaled them to put their masks on again.

Private Howard said it seemed to last for 30 minutes; she actually spent two minutes in there. "I tried to keep myself calm," she says. "But girls started screaming and flipping out and running for the door. You do feel like you can't get any air, and your skin starts to burn."

Even that wasn't as exhausting as the combat assault course: a minefield of barbed wire, dummy enemies and muddy pits that recruits navigate while the sounds of bombs and screaming echo through the woods.

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