By Cpl. Alvin Pujols | 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit
ABOARD A U.S. NAVY SHIP — A Marine walks up to a pullup bar. She takes a deep breath; leaps up and grabs hold … one, two, three, four. She cranks out pullup after pullup … 18, 19, 20 … and when she can’t do any more, she drops down and smoke seems to puff up from her Marine Corps-issued boots.
With 26 pullups, Cpl. Tori C. Best, a combat engineer with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, secured her place as the female record-holder aboard the USS Boxer.
Her record is only seven behind the male record-holder aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer during Western Pacific Deployment 16-1.
Best said her upbringing in Anchorage, Alaska, gave her the tools to excel and overcome any challenge, whether physical or mental.
“I grew up really active,” she said. “I did cross country running and I eventually got into rock and ice climbing. I remember every summer we’d be hiking and fishing. It was this really active lifestyle. So it was never a thought about going to the gym and being fit. It was something we needed to be to enjoy life.”
“It was the competition between me and my brother that sparked my ability to do pullups,” Best said. “I was doing 10 pullups at a time before I enlisted, and even before I went to boot camp I was able to do 16. Then, during [training], we would do pyramid workouts where we did five pullups all the way down to one and back up. I started including five pullups after every workout and during the competition on the Boxer I was able to do 26.”
A change in direction
After graduating high school early, Best said she was determined to fulfill her dream of serving in the military.
“I was born in the states, but my family is Canadian and it is my belief that if you enter a new country you should serve in its military,” she said.
“My parents were really surprised by my decision because I graduated high school early and was already enrolled in a college,” Best said. “But … I wanted to join first, before I went to college.”
So Best went to her local recruiter’s office and demonstrated her abilities. Even then, she was in top physical shape and the recruiter took note.
“Being an infantry Marine was something my recruiter brought up the first time I went to see him,” she said. “He saw I could do pull ups and asked me if I was interested in going to Infantry Training Battalion and it really sparked my interest.”
After Marines finish boot camp, they are sent to the School of Infantry where they begin combat training either in Marine Combat Training or the Infantry Training Battalion. Best would be one of the first female volunteers to go through the Infantry Training Battalion at School of Infantry East. It wasn’t until Fall 2013, that female Marines were given the opportunity to go through ITB.
“At the end of boot camp, our drill instructors sat us all down and gave us a brief [description of] going to ITB as a test subject. All those who didn’t want to do it got up and left,” she said. “And then there was a group of us left and we were excited because this is what we wanted to do from the beginning. We were all ready, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, to change history. And I think that’s how we all went into it.”
The Marine Corps’ two Infantry Training Battalions challenge Marines both physically and mentally. Marines who complete the course take their place at the tip of the spear for the Corps. The challenges push Marines to their limits and beyond with 20-mile hikes carrying a full combat load that can weigh up to 85 lbs. The training standard is the same for male and female Marines.
Crashing through barriers
Best said the beginning of ITB was difficult because she and the other female Marines had to overcome the attitude that women didn’t belong in the infantry. It never mattered who was to the left or to the right, she said, they had to prove that they were just as good as the males. Once that barrier was broken, Best said, the class worked well together.
Despite her success in breaking through the initial resistance of the male Marines, there was something else that weighed heavy on Best’s mind: she would soon graduate, but she would not join the Marines whom she’d grown so close to as they went on to their first assignments.
“I worked with these men for two months straight and that stigma fell apart,” she said. “We were just men and women going through ITB with all the same goals of passing. We completely forgot that we wouldn’t be going to the fleet with them. On graduation day we saw the same people we’ve worked day in and day out with graduating, while all of us — just because we’re female — had to go off to our other [military occupational specialty], and that was difficult.”
At the time, the female Marine graduates were a part of a two-year research endeavor to help the Marine Corps continue its ongoing gender integration efforts. This meant even after graduating ITB, the female Marines weren’t allowed to go to infantry-based battalions, such as rifle companies and artillery batteries.
After graduating from the School of Infantry, Best went on to become a combat engineer. She was stationed at Camp Pendleton with Combat Logistics Battalion 13, where she faced some of the same difficulties again.
“When I first joined the fleet, one of the biggest difficulties was once again dealing with that stigma,” Best said. “At the end of my combat engineer school, not only had I gone through ITB, but as a female I still wasn’t allowed to do a third of my [combat engineer] job. I was not allowed to go to the combat engineer battalion because it was still reserved for males.”
Finding a mentor
Best said she even had a hard time finding mentors because most of the senior engineers were from combat engineer battalions and had never mentored women.
“Instead of treating me like the guys, the more senior Marines always tried to mentor the guys more because that’s all they knew,” she said.
Luckily for Best, a mentor presented himself — Sgt. Kaleb Bill, a combat engineer with the 13th MEU, was from an engineering support battalion and had experience and expertise in mentoring both genders — not only as engineers but as Marines.
“I remember we were all working and something didn’t go as planned,” she said. “He corrected us all — all of us — and it was great, and it sounds funny but we didn’t have much direction at the time and here was this person who was putting in his time and effort and actually teaching us our [job]. And he treated me the exact same as he did my male counterparts.”
Thanks to mentorship like this, Best kept growing as a Marine and a person. She continued to impress her leadership by taking charge and putting 100 percent effort into all she did. She left a lasting impression on her staff non-commissioned officer.
“My first impression of her was that she was very outgoing, mature and stood out as a sharp Marine,” said Master Sgt. Rafael Ortiz, the logistics combat element operations chief and Best’s SNCOIC. “We had a field operation at Fire Base Gloria. I heard a Marine barking orders to set up the command operations center, which is usually my job or one of my sergeants. At the time, she was a lance corporal, and she took the lead building up the COC! The way she was handling the situation looked like something I would do personally. She was running a battalion COC set up and that gave me a huge sense of pride. And in my head I said ‘Yes she’s going to be a good NCO.’”
After her initial difficulties Best found several other mentors, she said, and all have helped shape her to be the Marine she is now.
Beating new standards
Best said she will continue to adapt and stay at the top of her game in order to stay competitive.
“With the physical fitness standards changing you can’t have that mentality of ‘I can’t do a pullup because I’m a female.’ You can’t push aside physical fitness,” she said.
As Best adapts to the changing standards, she has a few words of guidance for anyone looking to set new personal bests or overcoming a difficult challenge: “You just have to start and do it!”