Front line female Marines
By Romeo Ranoco
Long before U.S. President Barack Obama allowed female soldiers to be deployed for combat duties, the Philippines has been doing exactly that for several years, in particular among those in the Marines.
I was excited to photograph some of the women during a military exercise at a Marine base south of the capital Manila. This was not the first time that I had taken pictures of female soldiers during training exercises, but I volunteered again because this time I would be documenting new recruits.
I arrived at the base in the afternoon and was immediately briefed by the training officers, discussing my interest and the pictures that I would like to take. I wanted to take pictures of female soldiers trying out to join the “few and proud” Marines, showing their capabilities and comparing their skills, stamina and endurance with male soldiers.
There were 30 new women soldiers, about a platoon-size, trying out to be part of a Marine reconnaissance company to be organized for deployment on a troubled southern island in the Philippines. I found them fumbling over a rubber boat as they responded with confusion to orders barked by a drill sergeant. But, as they kept on rehearsing how to position themselves in a rubber boat, they were able to perfect the drills with amazing precision.
That night, I visited the women’s barracks and my camera captured them cleaning their assault rifles. A female Marine who escorted me allowed me to take some more pictures of the recruits dismantling, cleaning and putting their assault rifles back together.
The next day, I was awakened at 3 a.m. with female voices counting repeatedly from 1 to 8. I went out from my quarters and saw the female recruits doing their morning exercises. I started taking pictures after sunrise and went back to the beach to watch the rubber boat drill. This time, the female recruits did well and were comparable with the stronger, faster and more agile men.
After the mock boat raid, I followed the female Marines on to grassy slopes in the hills of Ternate, Cavite as they simulated a jungle patrol. When they reached a clearing, martial arts instructors were waiting for them for Kali drills. A few hours later, they joined the male recruits in field drills, marching in perfect cadence, before taking lunch. I was surprised to see the recruits eating with bananas placed on top of their head.
I couldn’t help but take pictures of the women eating lunch while balancing bananas on their heads. When I asked an officer why they were doing this I was told that it was a form of discipline and training. The recruits would be forced to eat the banana, including its peel, if the fruit dropped from their head.
There are about 350 women among the 10,000-member Philippine Marines. The women Marines undergo the same rigorous physical, mental and emotional training the male recruits go through. Since 2006, the women Marine officers and enlisted personnel have been deployed on combat duties, taking part in infantry, armor, artillery and even airborne operations. In fact, one female Marine served as a tank commander during a combat operation to free Italian Catholic missionary Giancarlo Bossi in July 2007 near Tipo-tipo town on southern Basilan island, a stronghold of the al Qaeda-linked Abu sayyaf Islamic militants. She was wounded in an assault on their Muslim rebel jungle base.
Women Marines are now volunteering to undergo more punishing and excruciating training to join special operation units, including scuba and sky diving or marksmanship units.
Before returning to the capital Manila, I had the chance to talk to one female recruit and asked her why she decided to risk her life and limbs to join the Marines. “I am doing this for my family and I really love challenges and risks. I cannot imagine myself as a teacher but I love wearing a combat uniform,” the 24-year-old recruit and eldest of three siblings said. “My father is a fireman and I am fascinated with his work. I told myself, if a man can do it, I can do it even better.”
At times, she said she fears for her life and safety but she has learned to control this. “From the start, when I enlisted, I know the risks and dangers, so I have to face them squarely.” When asked if she has regrets in joining the Marines, she quickly and firmly responded” “NO, Sir!”