Shooting down stereotypes

After graduation, senior Destiny Lugo is trading in her cap and gown for camouflage and a gun.

Lugo is one of the thousands of high school seniors across the country who will be enlisting in the US military upon graduation. She is entering into a male-dominated field; according to the US Department of Defense, women make up only 14.6 percent of the current active duty military. She will be serving in the Marine Corps, which is the branch with the lowest percentage of women, at just 6.8 percent.

Though the traditional path for a student after high school may be to continue to college, there are many who decide to follow a different route. Whether they can’t afford tuition, their interests lie elsewhere or they feel called to serve, many seniors will commit to military service instead of, or in tandem with, a university education.

Lugo said that the biggest factor in her decision to enlist was the service of previous family members.

“I’ve had some family members in the military, my grandpa was in the Army [and] my brother was in the Air Force, and that kind of peaked my interest in the programs,” Lugo said. “I started researching the branches, and when I met with the Marines, I found that their beliefs and standards lined up with what I wanted best. College was never really a viable option in my mind because it’s not an environment that fits me, [so] the military just felt like the most natural option to take.”

As part of her research, Lugo met with recruiters from each branch, including the one she would eventually join. Staff Sergeant Michael Solomon was Lugo’s recruiter for the Marines. Last year, he recruited in inner Columbus and worked with four girls. This year, he is working in the Olentangy area and Lugo is the only female he’s recruited so far. Solomon said that the Marines are working to address the gender gap through their recruitment process.

“We are definitely more male-dominated,” Solomon said. “When it comes to recruiting, women are a priority for us because we want to be more diverse. It’s hard, because it’s a volunteer force and there’s a stigma around female involvement, but we are making an effort to reach more women.”

To better prepare her for military training, Lugo is a part of the Delayed Entry Program, a path intended to get high school students who plan to go into the military in peak physical condition before they report for duty. After graduation, she will start her basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina. Once she finishes her training, she will go into military intelligence.

Though females have gradually become more accepted in the military over time, women often still receive push-back for deciding to serve. This expansion of women’s roles has only become significant recently, with multiple women each year being the first to take on certain roles. In May of 2015, the Air Force saw its first female F-35 fighter jet pilot, according to the Huffington Post. In August of that same year, the Army saw two women graduate from their prestigious Ranger school. The Army saw its first infantry woman in April 2016, and the Marines assigned a woman to an infantry officer position for the first time in September of this year. Despite these recent expansions, there is still a stigma placed upon women who want to get involved

Lugo said that there are many generalizations made about female involvement in the military, which is why people are surprised to hear she is enlisting.

“There’s a stigma around being in the military,” Lugo said. “But that stigma is different for females. It’s surprising to some people that I’m going into the military, because sometimes I can look really girly and there’s no way people could guess that’s what I’m doing. In general, a lot of females don’t even consider the military. In my training group, out of 60 people, only 18 are female, and from people I know in other branches, there aren’t many females there either.”

According to Lugo, many fears about women joining the military are caused by a lack of knowledge on the subject.

“My grandma was completely against me joining, but my grandpa supported me completely,” Lugo said. “He’s been a part of the military, and he’s had that experience so he understands better, whereas she doesn’t have any experience whatsoever. When people don't think that women should be involved in the military, it’s just because they don’t know anything about the situation. Once people understand it better, I don’t think I know anyone who’s still said women shouldn’t be just as involved in the military as men.”

Lugo said that many people incorrectly assume that women receive easier treatment than their male counterparts.

“Often, I hear people say women in the military don’t have to work as hard, but I don’t feel like we’re treated any differently,” Lugo said. “Everybody is held to the same standard, which might come as a surprise to some people because they expect girls to get easier treatment, but we all have to be just as strong and just as in shape so we can do our best work.”

Solomon said that the Marines don’t make distinctions or change requirements based on what groups a person may fall in.

“Women in the Marines are treated exactly the same as anyone else,” said Solomon. “Male, female, gay, straight, white, black - no matter what you are, you’re a Marine and that’s all that matters. If you want to make a difference, if you want to fight for your country, you should always be welcomed. If you earn the title, you’re one of us, but to get there, you’ll have to work just as hard as the person next to you.”

According to Solomon, this issue of equal treatment came up when a ban was lifted on women in combat roles in 2015, allowing them to serve in any combat position previously denied to them.

“When the discussion of allowing women in combat came up a few years ago, there was a lot of controversy,” Solomon said. “The Marines already had the Lioness program in place for women in the Middle East, and we already saw some women in combat, but it was really when they got approval that we saw a lot more. There were some people who took issues with the standards for women, but we raised our bar and people are still reaching it. We’re able to push them just as hard as our men.”

Though more women are starting to get involved, the standards for these programs remain unchanged. For the women attempting to break barriers, there are still significant obstacles in their way. Combat training is physically and mentally draining, and not all women succeed. According to Fox News, the first and only female to have entered into training to become a Navy Seal dropped out this summer during the selection program that comes before Navy Seal basic training. As a result, many women interested in serving pursue other fields within the military aside from combat, such as careers in military medicine – where females hold 30.5 percent of the positions, double the percentage of women in the entire military.

During their time in the military, many men grow close to the people they’re serving with. Sometimes, this relationship doesn’t come as easy to women, who have to overcome the gender barrier. Though their performance and positions many not be as affected by this difference, the social aspect of military life can be difficult for women facing this issue alone. As a result, working with other females can have many benefits.

Staff Sergeant Kathleen Kissinger joined the Marine Corps eight years ago, and is currently working as a communications officer. Kissinger said that her bonds with females were stronger compared to those she made with men because of their shared struggles.

“I’ve served with lots of women, and our relationships were closer at times (than those I had with men),” Kissinger said. “There are so few of us in the grand scheme of it all, so we were able to bond over that. As a result, I’m definitely closer to the females I work with than the males. Women in the military – no matter what branch – are starting to empower each other a lot more since I first joined.”

Lugo said that having other women in her training groups has pushed her to do better, and that she has gained friendships in the process.

“The relationships I have with people I’ve been training with have shown me the importance of getting more women involved,” Lugo said. “I see these people all the time, and we’re working to hold each other accountable and better ourselves. We really work together to make sure that we’re improving, and it’s a lot better to have people like you to go through it with you than to do it alone. Having those girls there with me, it just creates an environment where we can always push each other to do better.”

Though progress has been made towards true equality for women in the military, there are still barriers to be broken. Women will continue to strive to reach higher and push boundaries, and with that will come more acceptance of their service. Though they aren’t allowed to be drafted and haven’t broken into the most elite sections of the military, the slow trek towards acceptance will continue until women have just as many military opportunities as men.

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