main story image for facebook sharing


First of Her Kind

New York recruit among first with Marine Corps infantry contract

As the military continues to make history by opening combat roles to women, from Navy submariners to the Army Rangers, some of the first female Marines with infantry contracts have graduated from basic training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina.

One of them is Pvt. Maria Daume, who was born in a Russian prison. Her mother was incarcerated, and she and her twin brother, Nikolai, lived in the prison for two years until their mother's death. Then 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.

Those experiences helped shape her desire to become a U.S. Marine, and she calls it "an honor to fight for this great country." But while her early life in America made her hopeful for the future, the shine quickly faded as it became clear Daume 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. Instead, Daume said those challenges will contribute to her future accomplishments in the Marines and the School of Infantry.

Such mental strength helps recruits battle through the physical rigors of not only recruit training, but life in the Marine Corps. Daume, who even trekked through her hometown with a bag loaded with books, has also prepared for the physical challenges, for walking miles with load-bearing gear or completing obstacle courses, for example.

"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."

Just like the Marine Corps, recruit training is hard because it has to be. The first of the Marine Corps' three tenets is "we make Marines," and to accomplish 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 earn their Eagle, Globe and Anchors. Recruit backgrounds and experiences will vary, but the training is designed to ensure they come together as a single unit. Infantry training will be even more rigorous.
Maria Daume photo collage

In early 2016, when outgoing Secretary of Defense Ash Carter opened all military occupational specialties to service members of either gender, infantry became an option for female Marines just like submarines became an opportunity for all Sailors.

Daume, at this point a Marine Corps poolee, jumped at the chance to apply. While she had been in the Marine Corps Delayed Entry Program for some time, it was a fresh take on what she was preparing to attempt, a new challenge.

"I want to prove to everybody that it's not just a male role," she said in an interview last year. "Females can also be in infantry. It doesn't matter if you're a male, female, anything you want. That doesn't mean that you can't fight. I'm going to do it. I'm going to show them that females can do it. Why can't I do it if men can do it?"

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.

"She wanted it and would not take no for an answer," said Staff Sgt. John Cosh, the staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge of Recruiting Substation Smithtown, New York. "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."

That's not to say no one warned Daume of the challenges she would face. After all, recruiters can't offer just anyone - male or female - 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 from RSS Dover, New Hampshire, who offered another poolee an infantry contract.

"I'm an infantry Marine myself," he continued, "so with each poolee who wants the infantry contract, I lay it all out for them without embellishment. There will be miserable days, hard leaders, early hours, physically and mentally exhausting trials 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."

Daume was driving when her recruiter called to offer her a slot. "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.

"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."
Maria Daume photo collage

With her contract locked in, the big question still remained for friends and family: Why infantry? What drove Daume to not only earn the title "Marine," but to strive for the infantry? And what about the possibility of failure?

"No," she said. "(Failure) is not an option and will never be an option. ... "I'm not going to fail."

Women in the armed forces, with the same drive and determination as Maria Daume, have the opportunity to set goals and face obstacles not offered before - all striving to become who they want to be.

"I don't want it any easier just because I'm a female," said Daume. "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."