Why Did the Marine Corps Fire Kate Germano? It’s Complicated.

No one seems to know what to make of the case of Lieutenant Colonel Kate Germano, who was the commanding officer of a female recruit training battalion at Parris Island until last month, when she was fired.

Though the New York Times wrote up the story today, in an amusingly slanted piece (more below) the best and most thorough report on the affair ran last week in the Marine Corps Times. Here's the gist:

A Marine officer who led the service's only all-female recruit battalion was fired amid complaints of a toxic leadership environment — but her supporters say she was only trying to make the unit better by holding women to tougher standards.

Lt. Col. Kate Germano, the former commanding officer of 4th Recruit Training Battalion at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, was found to be "hostile, unprofessional and abusive," according to a command investigation obtained by Marine Corps Times. She was relieved for cause on June 30 by Brig. Gen. Terry Williams, Parris Island's commanding general.

Reading this, one might form the impression that Germano, however well-intentioned, was yet another officer relieved of duty for being abrasive—indeed, "hostile" and "abusive"—to those around her, and ultimately tiresome to her boss, with whom she had engaged in a series of bureaucratic dogfights regarding staffing levels, and against whom she reportedly filed an Equal Opportunity complaint.

But read on, and the plot thickens. Germano's crusade had apparently been to eliminate disparities between male and female recruit performance at Parris Island, within reason. For example, there was a gap between male and female performance on the rifle range, for which there seemed to be no explanation other than low expectations. All, including the men who fired her, concede that she made major progress in fixing this. And there's more. According to a command investigation obtained by the Marine Corps Times‘ Hope Hodge Seck, "Germano also ‘reinforced gender bias and stereotypes' in the minds of her Marines by telling them on several occasions that male Marines would not take orders from them and would see them as inferior if they could not meet men's physical standards, the investigation found."

What does one make of that? On the one hand, advocates for women in the military should be pleased that there is an aggressive leader out there who refuses to accept low standards. On the other hand, apparently her drive for raising standards upset the female Marines who worked for her, and who then trashed her in a command climate survey. Germano's supporters point out that it is possible to take the online survey more than once, and argue that a "vocal minority" of Marines working for Germano were able to undermine her leadership.

But wait, there's more!

Allegations that Germano took a "victim-blaming" approach to sexual assault prevention stem from a January brief to officers. Witnesses said she implied that sexual assault is "100 percent preventable" and that "by drinking, you are putting yourself in a position to be sexually assaulted." One attendee said she would not feel comfortable reporting an assault following the brief because she felt it would not be taken seriously.

The investigation found that Germano's personal viewpoints on the issue of sexual assault revealed no malice or bad intent. But, the investigating officer found, her poor choice of words and focus on accountability left room for misinterpretation and left some Marines feeling less safe.

This case has prompted some discussion about whether or not Germano's aggressiveness would be criticized if it were coming from a male officer. Maybe. But one thing I know for a fact is that no male Marine officer, absent some sort of career death wish, would ever utter the words Germano reportedly did regarding sexual assault. Suggesting that female Marines could exercise some agency in matters of sexual assault rather than be helpless victims provided her enemies at Parris Island with a mile-wide advantage.

Also relevant to the story, though not reported anywhere else that I have seen, is that Germano served on the Board of Inquiry for a Marine officer who was accused and, in 2013, acquitted by a court-martial of sexual assault while teaching at the Naval Academy. Though acquitted of the more serious charge, the officer, Major Mark Thompson, was found guilty of lesser charges, including conduct unbecoming. He was processed for discharge from the Marine Corps—until the administrative board with authority over the manner, of which Germano was a member, refused to comply, citing insufficient evidence that any crime had occurred, despite the outcome of the court-martial. (I taught at the Naval Academy at the time, and know Thompson.) The board's decision cannot have endeared Germano to the Marine Corps' senior leaders.

Publications on both the left and right have been trying to appropriate this complicated tale into supporting evidence for their own ideological campaigns. The New York Times write up today is uncomplicatedly pro-Germano, and presents her as a crusader for women's integration, kneecapped by a sexist Marine Corps. It takes a swing at the fact that Marine Corps recruit training is segregated by gender, quoting the ever-present Greg Jacobs of the Service Women's Action Network saying that such a system is "archaic." Feel free to read about what gender integrated recruit training in the Army can look like, and then judge for yourself what the Marine Corps ought to do.

But the Times faces a problem. How can Germano be a warrior for women's rights and social justice in the military if she holds such offensive and retrograde opinions on sexual assault, as the investigation into her conduct argues? No worries: the Times has a solution. It just doesn't mention this part of the story at all.

So why was Germano fired? Was she too much of a progressive crusader? Or too conservative in her blunt opinions, especially about sexual assault? This story is more complicated than a simple morality play wherein sexist bosses grow tired of an abrasive female subordinate. It appears that Germano's aggressiveness, not to say her political incorrectness, made her vulnerable to female subordinates who didn't care for her style, and who then campaigned for Germano's removal on the grounds that she insulted them over poor physical performance, and made them feel "less safe." Germano's bosses, already exasperated by her refusal to shut up and color on a wide array of issues, no doubt felt they were doing the Right Thing by relieving her.

Germano's sin seems to be that she was pursuing actual respect for—and self-respect by—women in the Marine Corps, and not the fictitious appearance of equality that both her bosses, and some of her subordinates, appear to prefer.