MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, California, –
Over the last 100 years, female Marines have made great strides in distinguishing themselves among their male counterparts. During the 1980’s, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton’s women were no exception. Sgt. Maj. Eleanor Judge became MCB Camp Pendleton’s first female sergeant major in 1980 and Maj. Michelle Manning became the first female commanding officer of Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron, Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton in 1985.
While historic changes continued throughout the Marine Corps, female recruits at 4th Recruit Training Battalion, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, found themselves aiming down range with the sound of an M16A1 rifle ringing through the air for the first time, also in 1985. However, a year prior, one food service specialist discovered her natural talent behind a set of iron sights aimed on targets at Camp Pendleton.
Retired Gunnery Sgt. Barbara Cogburn, a former food service specialist, became the first school-trained female primary marksmanship instructor (PMI) with Weapons and Field Training Battalion (WFTBn) at Edson Range, MCB Camp Pendleton, in 1984.
In her day, female recruits were not required to conduct annual rifle qualifications like today’s Marines, but she and her platoon were introduced to rifles during a familiarization fire, which signified an impending integration of marksmanship training for female Marines.
“When I was a recruit, I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn,” Cogburn laughed. “I thought, ‘This is not my gift.’”
While serving as a food service specialist with WFTBn, Cogburn was approached by fellow Marines about competing in an intermural marksmanship match because they wanted a female Marine to compete on their team.
She accepted the challenge.
After a few lessons with one of her male teammates, Cogburn quickly grasped the ins-and-outs of marksmanship, despite her lack of confidence in firing rifles. Her teammate watched as Cogburn’s natural abilities with a weapon blossomed and he urged her to become a PMI.
“Cogburn, we’re going to send you down to Edson Range to go to school,” he said. “We’re going to have women doing this, so we need a female coach, and we want you to go.”
Cogburn began her mornings serving breakfast at the mess hall, but after a quick shower, she would make her way to the range to train. A short time after qualifying as a PMI, Cogburn spent her days teaching and guiding recruits through the basics of marksmanship, while proving that women can lead and train alongside men.
“It was more about socializing women as a community to men who didn’t work with us. In hindsight, I’d say that was the bigger breakthrough than the job itself.”
Her brothers-in-arms were nothing short of exceptional, she said, and believes that she thrived in her environment as a PMI because she wasn’t treated differently. The relationships and once in a lifetime experience she gained, inspired her to continue moving forward with her military career, despite her original intentions.
“I had plans about coming in to do four years and then leaving with money to go to school, but it ended up being a very different experience,” said Cogburn. “Being in a mess hall gave me the opportunity to be at Edson Range, where I ended up becoming the first PMI. I landed in the right place doing the right thing at the right time.”