Strength in Diversity: A War The Marine Corps Is Yet to Win | Opinion

The Marine Corps Birthday is a reason to celebrate. Founded on November 10, 1775, Marines across the globe—in garrison or deployed, actively-serving or veterans—gather on our birthday to share a toast, a piece of cake, and join in camaraderie as we honor not only those currently serving, but those that went before us. For most celebrations, it includes a reading of Major General John Lejeune's 1921 message, cake cutting (the oldest and youngest Marine receiving the first pieces,) and a viewing of the current year's Commandant's Birthday Message. The Marine Corps Birthday celebration is a sacred tradition to Marines far and wide, many attending long after they hang up the uniform for the last time.

Ever since I first put on the uniform 25 years ago, I look forward to celebrating a storied tradition of the Marine Corps, whether at a formal Birthday Ball or a small gathering of fellow Marines and friends. This year was no exception. As soon as it was released, I watched this year's Commandant's Birthday Message, eager for the motivating stories by and for Marines. But instead of inspiring, the overall feel was tepid. While the focus on small unit leadership and a return to our Naval roots makes sense given our Commandant, General David Berger's recent planning guidance (now that was a motivating video), this year's Commandant's Birthday Message left me wanting more. Still, not every hit is a home run or pass is a touchdown, so I did what Marines do—I carried on and continued working.

Two days later, within "Actionable Change"—a group comprised of female Marine leaders seeking to work together to make a positive impact on our Corps—another Marine officer commented about the lack of diversity in the video and its impact, challenging us to attempt to see five female Marines, so I spent about 10 minutes re-watching the video. And on reflection, what was initially an uninspiring video actually made me think more about the value of representation and diversity.

Out of the seven minutes and 57 seconds of the video, female Marines are shown during only six seconds of it. There was also a noticeable absence of Marines of color, even with First Lieutenant Patrick Guide's and retired Sergeant Major John Canley's speaking roles at the end. Instead of a video by and for Marines, it looked like a video primarily by and for white male infantry Marines.

To be clear, the issue with this year's video is not about "identity politics," "quotas" or "affirmative action." It is about showcasing and celebrating the talents of all of our Marines, not just "the grunts." As a combat veteran, I recognize the importance of highlighting the contributions of our infantry Marines in taking the fight to the enemy. But, for every round I fired in combat and every mission we stepped off on, there were thousands and thousands of Marines who made it possible. It is important to acknowledge the contributions of our Marines of color and women. After all, female Marines lead small units, too.

In fact, on today's battlefield, more women than ever are leading the charge. From the roughly 600 women serving in the Army's direct combat roles; to the women who participated in thousands of patrols as Female Engagement Teams and "Lionesses;" to leaders like First Lieutenant Marina Hierl and our female infantry Marines—each of these women proved that they can meet and exceed the standards.

I get it—the Marine Corps' focus has long been on the "grunts" and this is the 15th anniversary of Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah, in which I participated as an infantry platoon sergeant; moreover, our Commandant is himself an infantry officer. However, when a group of Marines is noticeably absent or under-represented, it sends a message to those excluded.

It is a fact that diversity makes the military stronger and organizations more productive. The Marine Corps is no exception. Former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus stated in 2015 that he would like more than 25 percent of the Marine Corps to be women. Lieutenant General Reynolds said recently in a speech to information warfighters that "a dramatic mix of talent, of all races, religions, backgrounds and genders will be the difference in the future." She went on to say, "we must talk about diversity as a warfighting necessity and tonight I'm declaring it essential to the information environment."

However, there was always pushback—from General Holcomb's divisive statements in 1941 about desegregation, through the relatively recent backlash at gender integration into combat roles, to ongoing derisive comments made against women and LGBT service members. The Marine Corps has a long way to go. According to DoD data, the Marine Corps is approximately 64 percent white and only 8 percent women. Historically, the Marine Corps struggled with diversity, which drops sharply as seniority increases. Of the 92 active duty general officers, only 3 are women - two brigadier generals and one lieutenant general.

Only 10 percent of Marine colonels are non-white, and only 18 out of 651—2 percent—are female. This is not a problem limited to the Marines—the Air Force has the most representation, but is still under 9 percent for female general officer representation versus total female officer representation at 21 percent. Despite these statistics, the Marine Corps recognizes the need for diversity. There have been Marine-wide official messages, specific recruiting efforts, and retention efforts aimed at achieving this goal; however, without moving to gender-integrated training or expanding female recruit training to both coasts, the Marine Corps can not recruit more than 3,500 women annually due to limited facilities at MCRD Parris Island. Until then, the number of women in the Marines will continue to hover at 8 percent.

When the message we send not only to our currently-serving troops but also our veteran Marines and the public writ-large is that the Marine Corps is a "Boys-Only Club," it makes recruiting and retention that much harder. This is especially salient after the Marine Corps' subsequently-deleted messaging error on Twitter declaring "Saturdays Are For The Boys" (backstory on the saying, celebrating a male-only fraternity,) and then taking over six hours to add in the two additional tweets including female Marines on the thread. Only two years ago, the Marine Corps was rocked by the Marines United scandal, resulting in at least 11 courts-martial and over five dozen career-ending administrative actions. Even operating under this perspective, the Marine Corps again appears tone-deaf to the need for adequate representation of all of our troops. The "One Team, One Fight" mantra includes the entire team.

In addition to the racial and gender disparity, another part of the video caught my attention when retired Gunnery Sergeant David Pauling shared a story of being hazed at boot camp graduation in 1945, describing what apparently was a fond memory for him. He related that after graduation his drill instructor "put a metal emblem in my hand and squeezed my hand until it bled." My early years in the Marine Corps was before most of the scandals that ultimately helped positively change our culture towards hazing.

For example, when I was promoted to Private First Class at Infantry Training Battalion, a fellow Marine climbed up on the racks, jumped off, and "pinned" my rank insignia into me with his elbow. I literally had to use a Leatherman to get the metal retaining pins out of my collarbone. Would I whimsically share that as part of a motivational story during the Commandant's Birthday Ball video? Emphatically no. Actions like that are not "good training" or a "rite of passage," it's assault. In 1995, as a young Private First Class, I didn't know better. But in 2019, we as a Corps certainly know better.

There is good news, though. For the first time this year, after 101 years of women serving in our Corps and countless attempts to correct the narration at the Ball ceremony, the official script now includes "men and women" when referring to Marines past and present.

The saying goes that "if you can see it, you can be it." As such, representation matters. If we don't hold ourselves and our leaders accountable for missteps, there is no drive for improvement. Each of us has the opportunity and responsibility to make ourselves and our Nation better. Regardless of our faults, I am proud to be a Marine and to have had the opportunity to serve along Marines of incredible bravery, self-sacrifice, honor, and intelligence. These are among the many reasons why I continue to work to make our Marine Corps and our Nation better.

Semper Fidelis and Happy Birthday, Marines!

Emma Shinn is a former Marine Corps judge advocate and prior-enlisted infantry leader, beginning her Marine Corps career in 1994 and temporarily medically retired in 2014. She is in the process of returning to active duty to continue her service as an Officer of Marines.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.