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Parris Island gets its first female commander

There's a new commander on this sandy, swampy spit of land that has transformed rawboned recruits into macho Marines for nearly a century. Brig. Gen. L.E. Reynolds, a 6-foot-tall Baltimore native and a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, is the latest in a long line of no-nonsense leaders to take charge here.

But she's the first woman.

And for the tradition-bound Marine Corps, which endlessly promotes a tough-guy image and built its recruiting on the search for "a few good men," the idea of all those ruthless Parris Island drill instructors having to salute a leatherneck named Loretta could take some getting used to.

"I am sure that some Marines, especially those who served many years ago, were disconcerted that a female Marine general would take over Parris Island," said Maj. Jim Franks, who served under Reynolds as her executive officer when they were deployed to Afghanistan. "But if they had the opportunity to meet her, they would quickly see that she's eminently qualified to do that job. Take the female part out of it. She's an outstanding officer."

The granddaughter of a Marine and daughter of a steelworker, Reynolds, 46, lacks the high-and-tight buzz cut that is a Corps trademark but otherwise comes across as a typical Marine commander: confident and blunt.

"I am not here by mistake, because it was time to put a girl here," she told local reporters after she arrived in June. "I was the right person for the job."

Reynolds graduated from the Naval Academy in 1986, in just the seventh class at Annapolis to include women. She said she had been warned before her plebe year that some midshipmen would do their utmost to make her cry, to prove that women were weak.

"I got through four years. I was not going to let those guys make me cry," she recalled. "Given that I was successful at not letting them break me I wanted to just keep pushing myself. I wanted to be able to say I was a Marine." She was one of two women in her class who could.

Today, a quarter-century later, she's one of two female generals on active duty in the Corps. The other, Maj. Gen. Angela Salinas, previously commanded the Marines' recruiting depot in San Diego -- the West Coast counterpart to Parris Island.

Reynolds returned to the United States in March after spending a year in Afghanistan as commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force's headquarters group.

As a colonel there, she oversaw the expansion of Camp Leatherneck, the sprawling Marine base in Helmand province. The Corps says she was the first female Marine to command "battle space."

Previously, Reynolds led a communications battalion in Iraq, where she worked in al-Anbar province in hot spots such as Fallujah. In June, she was promoted to one-star general and took command at Parris Island, which is iconic for its unforgiving basic-training course.

In an interview, Reynolds played down her status as Parris Island's first female general. She said her Marines have taken it in stride, although some of the men still stumble on occasion and address her as "sir" instead of "ma'am."

"I don't think that there's any Marine out there that says, 'She can't do the job because she's a female,' " she said. "I'm the commanding general. I got here after 25 years of a lot of command time. It's a performance-based culture. I'm here because my record says I can do this job, and I think the Marines understand that."

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