The Toughest Woman in America

How did a girl who loves shopping and never leaves the house without lip gloss become the meanest of the Marines?

Military woman
(Image credit: Andrew Hetherington)

The former teacher drops to his knees, crying. He's broken and dispirited, a whimpering, sleep deprived mess. But if he expects mercy, he's come to the wrong place. There's no mercy at Officer Candidates School.

Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Ronda Porter has seen candidates crack before — so tired they fall asleep standing up, so physically taxed they puke, so on edge they jerk when she screams. But in her seven years as a drill instructor, she's never seen anyone buckle like this. She glares from behind her desk, stone-faced.

"What's wrong with you?!" she snaps.

"It's you," he says, eyes on the floor. "I'm intimidated."

"You're 6'2" and I'm 5'2"!" She could have added: "And I'm a woman." But he isn't concerned with her gender; he's terrified by her power, the only currency of consequence at OCS.

As a drill instructor — or sergeant instructor, as they're called at Marine Corps Base Quantico — Ronda Porter has been trained to display every degree of displeasure, from pissed off to put out, frustrated to ferocious. It's all an act, a bit of Marine Corps theater staged at the sprawling, woodsy base in northern Virginia. But it's a convincing performance, especially for the lowly civilians she spends 10 weeks breaking down until they graduate — if they graduate — into Marine officers. Last summer, Quantico welcomed 2500 candidates, its second-largest class since the Vietnam War. But even with our armed forces spread thin across Iraq and Afghanistan, anywhere from 12 to 30 percent of these recruits won't make it to graduation.

It's the drill instructors' job to determine who does. They are the meanest species of Marine—unflinching, infallible, almost inhuman embodiments of 234 years of Corps toughness. This one also happens to be a petite 32-year-old beauty whose rise through the ranks was as unlikely as her decision to enlist in the first place. Porter grew up in tiny Bristow, OK, with a deep aversion to sweat and dirt. In high school, her sport of choice was shopping. Enlisting was a lark that came at her high school guidance counselor's suggestion as a way to pay for college.

It took. Porter liked the order, the discipline. Instead of using her education bonus to get her college degree and then striking out as a civilian, she made a career in the Marines, 14 years and counting. Seven of those have been as a drill instructor, first at Parris Island (of Full Metal Jacket fame), then at Quantico. Her commanders saw in this young woman with the toothpaste-commercial smile the kind of controlled ferocity required of drill instructors. "She is as tough as nails and never falters," says Colonel Rick Mancini, a former commanding officer at OCS.

And Porter knew as soon as she stepped onto the field how to be the steely paragon of Marine ethos. She mastered the art of detachment and learned to tap an atavistic hardness that makes her larger than herself. "I call it the bitch switch," she says. Flick it on and Ronda becomes Gunnery Sergeant Porter, a lip-curled instructor who can sense weakness from 60 paces, who screams sometimes for 16 hours a day with barely a pause, until her skull pounds and her voice fails. She pops Excedrin like candy and sips hot water with honey, but the only real cure for a throat gone hoarse and a headache from the sound of your own raised voice, she'll tell you, is more screaming.



(Image credit: Andrew Hetherington)

Porter's husband knows this technique well — Lieutenant Eugene Porter was a drill instructor, too. Over the years, they've offered each other support, nursed each other's vocal cords. But work has also strained the marriage. Both have felt at times like they were married to the Corps.

They started dating while stationed at Camp Pendleton a decade ago, where she'd been attracted to his Marine body, he to the fact that "she knows how to separate being a Marine from her feminine side." Indeed, Porter gets frustrated when she sees her fellow female Marines subsuming themselves to some idea of how they're supposed to look. "Just because it's a male-dominated culture, it doesn't mean you can't wear lip gloss," she says. "Women wear suits and put on makeup to look good for their jobs at IBM; I do the same thing for the Marine Corps." Her brows are sculpted and her highlights maintained. Her walk-in closet has 60-plus pairs of shoes, arranged by season. She has balanced her drill instructor duties with part-time work as a saleswoman at Benetton (50 percent off!) and a Mary Kay rep — all of which has earned the Gunnery Sergeant what has to be the most unusual nickname in the Corps: Gunny Revlon. (Even though, technically, she's more of a MAC girl.)

This winter, Porter receives a new assignment. Deployment is an ever-present possibility — she's served in Iraq — and her husband's orders for Afghanistan weren't exactly a surprise. Now, with his departure looming, she tells herself that he'll be OK — that they'll be OK — though war and distance aren't always the best ingredients for a happy marriage.

"Stand up!" Porter barks at the former teacher. She isn't going to stand for his blubbering, no matter how sorry he is. She sends him back to his platoon with a wave of her hand. No encouraging words. No sympathy. If he's not cut out for the Corps, so be it.

A few days later, he's gone.