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.
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.
Hierl, 24, grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and worked on a horse farm throughout high school. Before graduating, she said, she knew little about the military, but opted for the Marines because, after meeting with a recruiter for the Corps, she thought that it “sounded good.”
“I wanted to do something important with my life,” she said. “I wanted to be part of a group of people that would be willing to die for each other.”
But her recruiter advised her to go to college first, steering her toward the Corps’ officer ranks.
In 2013, during Hierl’s sophomore year at the University of Southern California, Leon E. Panetta, then the defense secretary, announced that women would no longer be excluded from combat roles in the military. The directive would initially have the greatest effect on the ground warfare of the Army and the Marines, especially their infantries, which demand physical strength and endurance.
The moment remains a vivid memory because, Hierl said, it had not occurred to her that her gender could have kept her from leading Marines in war.
“I wanted to lead a platoon,” she said. “I didn’t think there was anything better in the Marine Corps I could do.”
Overall, women make up about 15 percent of the military’s 1.3 million active-duty troops.
Most jobs in the Air Force and in the Navy have long been open to women — except in Special Operations units, like the Navy SEALs. A small number of women have tried, but have so far been unsuccessful, in joining those elite forces. Some training courses for those units have a roughly 80 percent failure rate for all applicants.
The Marine Corps, which had initially challenged the Pentagon’s 2013 order and was overruled, allowed women into its infantry ranks in 2015.
There are 184,473 active-duty Marines, of whom 15,885 are women. Among them are 80 women serving in previously restricted combat roles.
By contrast, 740 female soldiers have been allowed into previously restricted combat jobs out of the roughly 65,000 women in the Army. Fifteen women have graduated from its arduous Ranger school, including Capt. Kristen M. Griest, who became the Army’s first female infantry officer in 2016.
“I do hope that, with our performance in Ranger school, we’ve been able to inform that decision as to what they can expect from women in the military,” Griest said when she graduated in 2015. “We can handle things physically and mentally on the same level as men.”
Hierl has avoided publicity and is reluctant to talk about herself. The training mission in Australia, observed by The New York Times, was the first time that a journalist has embedded with a Marine infantry unit led by a woman. But she repeatedly sidestepped interviews and spoke sparingly for this article, insisting that she instead needed to focus on her job and on the Marines under her command.
But she did say that she wants to be seen by the Marines in her platoon as a leader, not as a trailblazer because of her gender.
Hierl’s arrival to 3rd Platoon was, as some put it, strange.
The platoon quickly became the punch line of what several Marines in the unit described as sexist, if unspecified, insults by others in Echo Company. But the novelty wore off, training continued and, over time, the jabs subsided.
Lance Cpl. Kai Segura, 20, is among the young Marines who make up a majority of 3rd Platoon and is its frequent, if unofficial, spokesman. He was suspicious of Hierl until she led the group back from an exercise in the Mojave Desert soon after she arrived.
Her seemingly casual pace turned out to be deceptively fast, forcing the other Marines into a near jog to keep up. That, Segura said, showed that her physical ability was not in question — one of the many important, if sometimes peculiar, measuring sticks for a new officer.
In the months that followed, Hierl earned 3rd Platoon’s quiet respect. With help from Staff Sgt. Jesse Rodriguez, the platoon’s top enlisted Marine who serves as a sounding board and a mentor, they found their footing.
“She’s one of us,” Segura said.
In April, the battalion arrived in Darwin, Australia. It was a notable change from earlier deployments over the past decade, during which the unit had fought in some of the bloodiest battles in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Two months later, 3rd Platoon and the rest of Echo Company split from the rest of the battalion in the country’s south and headed to the dusty shrub of the Northern Territory for their first large field exercise in Australia.
Wearing her hair in either a bun or a low braid, Hierl alternated with Rodriguez in running 3rd Platoon through the training. As Hierl issued orders against the din of rifle fire, she dropped her usually reserved, soft-spoken demeanor for a firm tone that left no doubt about who was in command.
Over six days in June, Echo Company focused on a series of attack ranges. Initially broken into squads with low-level oversight, the platoons gradually came together, acting as a coordinated front of advancing troops and weapons fire.
Each morning, Hierl woke before the rest of 3rd Platoon and crouched in a nearby tree line, poring over a map and a computer tablet to ensure that machine guns and mortars that were firing from the rear were angled correctly to avoid hitting the advancing Marines.
Toward the end of the exercise, the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Warren Cook, and some of his staff drove three hours to the Mount Bundey Training Area from Darwin.
Cook said he was there to watch the entire company, but he largely appeared focused on 3rd Platoon — even as he took pains to not single out Hierl.
The Marines suspected the unusual level of attention on the platoon was because of the woman in charge — it was not the first time this had happened since she took command.
There are two other female Marines in the battalion, both in enlisted ranks. Cook said their performance has been at least equal to that of the men.
Over the next two days, Hierl led 3rd Platoon into its first attack range in Australia.
Her plan: advance down a sloping hill where combat engineers would use explosives to blow a hole in a fence. From there, the Marines would move to seize a pair of wooden bunkers.
On the platoon’s second and final run of the simulated attack, Hierl, again under the eye of senior officers, led 3rd Platoon into the draw.
Armed with thousands of rounds of ammunition, the Marines pushed toward the bunkers after mortar explosions subsided and machine guns stopped firing from a nearby hill. But as the platoon closed in, the radio operator assigned to Hierl noticed the device’s antenna had snapped off.
Unable to communicate with her advancing squads, the lieutenant first yelled, then jogged to an approaching corporal to issue orders.
Kneeling behind a tree and trying to fix the antenna, the radio operator did not realize he was no longer by Hierl’s side until she was hundreds of yards away. He ran toward his commander, struggling to keep up.
By the end of the nearly hourlong attack, 3rd Platoon had stopped shooting and was spread out atop a hill. One of the officers monitoring the exercise threw a tear gas grenade, forcing the Marines to put on gas masks.
The 38 men and one woman of 3rd Platoon were quickly indistinguishable, a kaleidoscope of green camouflage, tan bulletproof vests and black masks. One Marine struggled to put on the mask. It was not Hierl.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff © 2018 The New York Times