Capt. Katie Petronio is interviewed at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., on July 17. Petronio wrote an article for the Marine Corps Gazette arguing against integration of women into infantry units. (Mike Morones / Marine Corps Times)
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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. It was several months into a hellacious deployment in Afghanistan's Helmand province when Capt. Katie Petronio found time for a shower and was shocked by what she saw in the mirror.
The combat engineer officer was leading Marines as a first lieutenant in Sangin district in late 2010 and 2011, a time when the district crackled with violence regularly. A member of 8th Engineer Support Battalion out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., she was attached to Lejeune's Combat Logistics Battalion 8, and overseeing the construction of patrol bases in a region where Marines were attacked regularly.
"I hadn't seen myself in a mirror in about a month, and I realized that, ‘Holy cow, I've lost so much muscle mass in my legs,'" she said. "Everyone broke down over there, and we did it at a different rate and had different medical side effects."
The experiences during that deployment have driven Petronio to step forward as a female voice in opposition to the Corps integrating women into the infantry. Her blunt piece in the July edition of the Marine Corps Gazette, "Get Over It: We Are Not All Created Equal," created a buzz because she, a woman with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, blasted the idea that the service should have infantrywomen.
Petronio lost 17 pounds of muscle during her deployment to Afghanistan and stopped producing estrogen, leaving her infertile, she said. She is now six months pregnant, she said, but it required extra medical treatment for her and her husband to conceive.
"For the long-term health of our female Marines, the Marine Corps, and U.S. national security, steer clear of the Marine infantry community when calling for more opportunities for females," Petronio wrote in the Gazette, outlining how her combat experiences in Sangin broke down her body. "Let's embrace our differences to further hone in on the Corps' success instead of dismantling who we are to achieve a political agenda."
She isn't backing down. Since publication of that piece, Petronio has appeared on national television several times, defending her opinion even as civilian groups in favor of the change criticize her, she said. The article has been shared thousands of times on Facebook and other social networking sites, and discussed on CNN, FOX News and other broadcast networks.
"I knew this had to come from a female because if it came from a man he would be dubbed a sexist, and no one would even give the article the time of day," she said. "I really felt compelled to share my experiences because they were really unique."
Handling the attention
The discussion continues as the Corps continues research required by the Defense Department's ongoing Women in Service Restriction Review. Commandant Gen. Jim Amos is expected to make preliminary recommendations on whether the Pentagon policy banning women from most combat assignments should change. There are several components to the Corps' research, including the controversial temporary opening of the Infantry Officers Course to female volunteers beginning this fall.
Petronio, now the training and support platoon commander at Officer Candidates School here, said she understands the need for the research, but believes there are too many negatives to integrating women into the infantry.
"This is just one of those topics that really grinded my gears," she said. "I wanted to use my experience to educate people, to just get them thinking. You don't have to agree with me, but I'm just a glimpse into what is probably going to happen."
Petronio said she has received about 20 to 25 emails per day since the article was published early in July, including some from senior enlisted Marines and general officers.
"All have been like, ‘Thanks for saying what I couldn't. I've been in for 25 years, and you summarized it perfectly. Thanks for your courage to write this and put it out there,' " she said. "I have some friends [in the Corps] who don't necessarily agree with me … they say, ‘You know, I think I could have made it as a female, but I understand what you're saying in this article.' "