Iowa woman part of first female Marine platoon in San Diego

Iowa woman part of first female Marine platoon in San Diego
Iowa woman part of first female Marine platoon in San Diego
Members of Mackenzy Bilharz's Lima Company prepare to take on the Bayonet Assault course.

When Travis Bilharz began bugging his daughter about getting her applications for college done, he was surprised by the answer he received.

Mackenzy Bilharz wanted to follow in her father's footsteps. Specifically, the yellow ones.

Mackenzy Bilharz, third from left, participates in a team building exercise carrying a log.

On Jan. 25, Bilharz, of Charles City, along with 59 other young women from all over the country, became the first all-female platoon of Marines to train at Marine Corps Recruit Depot-San Diego in California, alongside their male counterparts, in the 100-year history of the depot.

"She's part of the cream of the crop," Travis said.

Mandated integration

Other branches of the U.S. military have been integrating male and female troops for a couple of years now, since Congress required it as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, but the Marines have been the last to do so.

Since women have been allowed in combat, the Marines have trained them at Marine Corps Recruit Depot - Parris Island, in South Carolina. Women comprise about 9% of the total population of active Marines. Male recruits have been split between San Diego and Parris Island, with those living west of the Mississippi heading to California and those east going to South Carolina.

At Parris Island, a female platoon forms a battalion with five platoons of their male counterparts, but they train separately on separate courses.

Early last fall, the USMC announced it would begin gender integrated training at San Diego in February. In December, San Diego graduated its first integrated class of drill instructors, which included three women, all of whom would be based in San Diego to oversee the incoming female recruits.

“This initial opportunity for male and female recruits to train concurrently at MCRD-San Diego will serve as a proof of concept to validate requirements needed to sustain integrated training on the west coast in the future,” the USMC said in its press release.

Mackenzy, who graduated high school in 2020, was scheduled to depart for Parris Island on Sept. 9. That was delayed to October and then January, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The week before Thanksgiving, she found out she would be a part of the unique platoon, her father said.

"She was excited," Travis said. "She likes that challenge."

13-week transformation

The 13 weeks that make up recruit training in the Marines is generally accepted as the toughest of the military branches.

"That's because they train every recruit as a rifleman first," Travis said. He spent four years in the Marines and became a heavy equipment operator. But he well remembers his time in San Diego.

"It's physically hard, but it's really the mind games they play," he said. "It's building that 'Mind over Matter' mentality."

Mackenzy's platoon arrived in San Diego in late January and were immediately quarantined in a hotel as part of the new post-COVID-19 safety measure.

When she arrived at the training depot on Feb. 12, the second she got off the bus, she was immediately subjected to harsh "instruction," as it's called in Marine lingo. After standing on the famous yellow footsteps, the recruits spend a week in "pickup," where they meet their instructors, get assigned to barracks and receive equipment.

KPBS public radio is embedded with Mackenzy's platoon and a video shows the young women's first moments as Marine recruits.

It isn't pretty and it goes downhill from there. According to the training matrix posted on Recruit Depot San Diego's website, after pickup week comes 4X400 running intervals, obstacle courses, combat care and receiving their M-16 rifle.

That's just week 2.

Mackenzy is now on week 7 of 13, which means she's carried a peer on her shoulders while running the length of a football field, trained in the use of not only her rifle, but the bayonet attached to the end, fought her co-recruits using pugil sticks, carried a log on her shoulders with platoon-mates, learned combat water survival and done her first 5K hike.

And don't forget the written exams and constant chaos of a drill instructor screaming in your ear. Those are the head games Travis Bilharz talks about.

"They tear you down in the beginning and then build you back up as a Marine," Travis said.

And she's done it all alongside her male counterparts, on the same courses.

Becoming a Marine

Other than an initial call home to let family know they've arrived at the depot, the only communication family has with their recruit is through letters. Mackenzy has written six or seven, Travis said, and not once has she mentioned her special status. The four-time state cross-country athlete is actually loving it, her dad said.

She thinks it's awesome," he said. "She's had her tough days but she's never mentioned quitting.

"There's a lot of risk being there for her," Travis said. "It's not like there's anyone to take her place if she gets sick or injured. There's not another group of girls to fall back on."

Throughout all of this training the recruits are never called "marines." That title is reserved for those who make it through "The Crucible," which is coming up in a month for Mackenzy.

Recruits spend 48 hours with no sleep and just two military issue MREs (field meals), performing a variety of runs, obstacle courses and exercises designed to push the recruit to the limit of their mental and physical endurance. Near the end, recruits must take on "The Reaper" a 700-foot hill they must climb during their run with a 55-pound sack of gear on their back.

Afterward, in a ceremony that often brings recruits to tears, they receive the heartfelt congratulations of their drill instructors, their new title of "Marine," and their eagle, globe and anchor pin -- the insignia of the corps.

Mackenzy's hope is that after she graduates recruit training on May 7, and an additional four weeks of combat training at Camp Pendleton, she'll be assigned to motor transportation as her Marine job.

Failure isn't in the cards, says her dad.

"I think she's going to make a career of this," he said.