MOUNT BUNDEY TRAINING AREA, Australia — First Lt. Marina A. Hierl watched a dozen Marines charge toward human silhouettes made of paper atop a nearby hill. Despite the early hour, the troops’ armored vests and camouflage uniforms were soaked with sweat. She stood back as they scrambled up the rocky incline, shouting and firing rifles.
“Push left,” she said after the squad completed its mock attack and assembled around her, gulping from canteens as they awaited feedback. “And make sure you’re communicating.”
It was a fairly routine instruction to Marines training for war, coming from a lieutenant in a role familiar to the men: a young, college-educated officer who had little experience but had direct oversight of their lives.
But Hierl is the first woman in the Marine Corps to lead an infantry platoon — a historic moment for a male-dominated organization that had fiercely opposed integrating female troops into combat, something that still unsettles many within the ranks.
That dynamic has been playing for months inside Echo Company, a group of 175 Marines and Navy sailors recently sent to the Northern Territory of Australia for roughly six months of training exercises and to act as a response force for the Pacific region.
Hierl is one of four platoon commanders in Echo Company. Her presence, first eyed with skepticism, appears to have been quietly accepted.
Thirty-seven women have attended the Marines Corps’ Infantry Officer Course at Quantico, Virginia, for 13 weeks of combat evaluations and mileslong hikes carrying heavy loads. Only two women have passed.
Of those two women, only Hierl has been given a platoon of roughly 35 men to lead.
Capt. Joshua J. Pena, a spokesman for the Marines’ Training and Education Command, said that the men and women attending the Infantry Officer Course are evaluated by the same standards and are provided an “equal opportunity to succeed.”
Last fall, Hierl was among the handful of new lieutenants who reported to duty with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines at Camp Pendleton in California. The battalion is made up of about 1,000 troops divided into five companies, including Echo.
When the commanding officer of Echo Company, Capt. Neal T. Jones, learned that Hierl had been assigned to the battalion, he asked that she be sent to his unit.
“If you’re the first to do something, that implies you have so many positive traits,” Jones said. “And that’s not always the case when it comes to every lieutenant — including myself.”
Jones and Echo Company’s most senior noncommissioned officer, 1st Sgt. Paul G. Quesada, decided not to tell the unit about Hierl before her arrival. She would be treated like any other new officer.
Young enlisted Marines generally view new officers with skepticism and, sometimes, hostility. New lieutenants — the most junior rank of officers — must prove themselves to earn respect as they navigate the pressures of a close-knit infantry company.
Their jobs as platoon leaders are peculiar: They have the most responsibility in the small units but often with less experience than the corporals and sergeants whom they lead.
First Lt. Marina Hierl, …read more