DECEMBER 15, 2016, GARDEN CITY, New York – The first of the Marine Corps’ three tenets is “we make Marines,” and in accomplishing that young men and women from across the varied fabric of American society come together to undergo 13 weeks of intense mental and physical training to become basically-trained Marines. Recruit backgrounds and experiences will vary, but the training is designed to ensure they come together as a single unit.
Recruit training forces people to work together to accomplish tasks they couldn’t on their own. For Maria Daume and Katelen Van Aken, recruits currently in the initial stages of Marine Corps recruit training, such a dichotomy has never been more true.
Daume was born in a Russian prison where her mother was incarcerated. She and her twin brother Nikolai lived in the prison for two years until their mother’s death, upon which they were transferred to an orphanage in Moscow for two additional years. The 4-year-old Daume twins were eventually adopted by an American family and grew up in Long Island, New York.
Van Aken was born in the sleepy New Hampshire town of Dover, where she found an early passion in soccer and being outdoors. As a youth, she was a girl scout and eventually joined the Civil Air Patrol, the U.S. Air Force equivalent of the Young Marines.
The two women had little in common until Oct. 17 of this year, when they both found themselves at airports heading for Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, to begin the grueling recruit training process.
They are among the first female recruits to be sent to recruit training with contracts to become infantry Marines.
“It’s what I want to do, so that’s the end of it, and everyone knew not to try to change my mind,” Van Aken said. “When it became available, I jumped at it. It’s what I’ve been working half a year for.”
“I was driving when (my recruiter) called me,” Daume said. “He said, ’Are you sure you want this?’ I said confidently, ’yes.’ He then congratulated me and told me I got (the infantry contract.) I was so excited I had to stop the car and call my best friend and tell her.”
Daume said the experiences she’s had in life helped shape her desire to become a U.S. Marine. She said her early life in America made her hopeful for the future, but she said the shine quickly faded as it became clear she wasn’t always as welcome as she’d have liked.
“Other kids would bully me consistently from when I was four to my senior year of high school,” Daume said. “It would be for being Russian or being adopted. They would say things about my mom and why she was in prison even if no one knew why. Bullying was a big thing.”
As this adversity continued, she said she grew the mental toughness needed to avoid letting those actions get under her skin. Daume said she views those negative life factors as elements that will contribute to her future accomplishments in the Marines and School of Infantry.
Mental strength helps recruits through the physical rigors of recruit training and life in the Marine Corps overall. Walking miles with load-bearing gear and completing obstacle courses are frequent activities in the Marine Corps, and Daume said she sees her experiences as preparation for what lies ahead.
“I played a lot of sports in my life, like basketball, soccer, lacrosse, and field hockey,” said Daume. “I also did (mixed martial arts) and Jiu-Jitsu. With MMA it is all about staying calm and not getting angry. If you get angry you can make stupid mistakes. I know how to get hit and keep cool. With the team sports, you have to work together. When you’re a team, you’re a family.”
Six hours away in New Hampshire, Van Aken was excelling in soccer during the summer and surviving the harsh New England winters. She said there were no major hardships growing up, but she had a burgeoning desire to constantly do more.
She started playing ice hockey in high school to keep her active throughout the soccer off-season. A year into school, she wanted to try something new, so Van Aken joined the Civil Air Patrol.
It was there she discovered a passion for shooting and an opportunity to do more than expected. Her CAP started a marksmanship program where the participants took monthly trips to a local firing range to learn the fundamentals of shooting. Van Aken said she was in love from the very start with the handling of the rifle, the patience and attention needed, and the break of each shot.
“I was in my happy place where any parts of a bad day or worries were muted as I focused on the shot,” said Van Aken. “It was a totally calm and relaxing experience, but at the same time, I got an adrenaline rush from seeing my shots hit the target.”
Van Aken joined the Air Force’s Delayed Entry Program, a program that prepares applicants for recruit training prior to their graduation from high school. In that time, applicants learn the basics of their selected military branch and physically prepare for their upcoming training periods. She said since she’d been in the CAP, it seemed natural to prepare for an Air Force enlistment.
However, while she was doing what she loved and interested her, she said she felt she wanted more.
“Our DEP wasn’t working out and (only) met once a month,” Van Aken said. “We weren’t really doing much as a group, so I started looking into other options. I had a friend who was in the Marine Corps DEP who told me about the weekly workouts and how much of a family she felt with her group. That was enough for me.”
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter opened all military occupational specialties to service members of either gender, and when infantry became an option, the two women, at this point Marine Corps poolees, jumped at the chance to apply. While they had already been in the Marine Corps DEP for some time, it was a fresh take on what they were preparing to attempt.
“At the end of the day, I just want to be like, ‘watch, I am going to prove it,’” said Daume. “I think my background has given me an edge to take criticism and keep going.”
Knowing what their choices meant and that all eyes were going to be on them, training was the priority, sometimes taking creative turns while waiting to ship to basic training.
“I would take my brother’s books and load them in inside of my bag and just start hiking with them,” Daume said. “I would walk everywhere around town.”
Van Aken continued to shoot, but said she was determined to be as ready as possible for whatever lay ahead.
“I worked out with the recruiters twice a day, five days a week,” Van Aken said. “I shot up from no pull-ups to more than eight in a matter of months and continued to run whenever possible. I’m not going to be caught coming up short due to a lack of strength.”
With their contracts locked in, the big question still remained for friends and family: why infantry? What drove the two of them to not only earn the title “Marine,” but to strive for an infantry MOS?
“You’re out at the front making the difference, being that first line of defense,” Van Aken said. “In the end, it’s just simple for me. It’s what I want to do. I’m just another person joining the infantry, and everyone who does has different circumstances (for) doing so and one of mine happens to be gender. I don’t see it as a big deal though, and I trust in those I’ll be alongside to act the same way and focus on what we have to do.”
And what of the possibility for failure? The question couldn’t even be fully asked before it was answered.
“No,” Daume said. “It is not an option and will never be an option. And I don’t want it any easier just because I’m a female. I know my mental worth, and I know I can make it through this, but it’s not just about me. I hope the females that are there right next to me will take a picture together, saying ‘we did it.’ I don’t want to be like I’m the only female doing this and take all that pride. No, I want as many females to come and we will all get together with the guys and say we are all one team.”
The Marines of Daume’s and Van Aken’s respective Recruiting Substations, along with the support of friends and family, played a big part in their preparation of recruit training. Their recruiters knew they couldn’t send just anyone in with an infantry contract.
“As recruiters, we need to ensure that each poolee we send to recruit training is as prepared as we can make them, and that we would feel comfortable serving alongside them if we run into them as Marines,” said Sgt. James Ralstin, a canvassing recruiter with RSS Dover. “I’m an infantry Marine myself, so with each poolee who wants the infantry contract, I lay it all out for them without embellishment, and the same was done with Van Aken. There will be miserable days, hard leaders, early hours, physically and mentally exhausting trails on a near-daily basis. We train as we fight, and gender doesn’t change any of that. I think that only strengthened her resolve.”
Back in New York, Daume said no one was surprised when she wanted the infantry spot. No one tried talking her out of it or offering her something else; they knew they’d be unsuccessful.
“Almost immediately (once all jobs were open), she wanted it and would not take no for an answer,” said Staff Sgt. John Cosh, the staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge of RSS Smithtown. “I first met her when she was 14 at a community event, and even at that age, I could see she had the mental toughness to make it. Three years later she comes back and says ‘what do I need to do to go infantry?’ She is the type when she says she is going to do it, she does it.”
At the time of publishing, Daume and Van Aken will have been at MCRD Parris Island for approximately two months in the midst of the nonstop training regimen of Marine Corps boot camp.
“I’m not going to fail,” each of them said separately.
Once separated by 300 miles and lifetimes of experiences, they are now working toward the same goal with the same obstacles ahead, striving to be infantry Marines.
By Sgt. Zachary Scanlon and Staff Sgt. Jonathan Wright, 1st Marine Corps District