'A girl like you probably wouldn’t make it through boot camp': How one female Marine proved them wrong

Despite being unsure about what she wanted to do with her life after graduating from high school, Shannon Ihrke enrolled in college. Little did she know that during her time there, she would find a passion for pushing her mind and body to the limit and become a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Almost two years into school and still undecided about her career, Ihrke began to feel overwhelmed from working two jobs to make ends meet and studying full-time. She met with a school adviser to go over financial aid, which she did not qualify for, and was told that the only way to get free tuition in Minnesota was by being a single mom or being in the military.

“I decided to research the different branches [of the military], and a Marine Corps recruiter caught me on the way out from talking to an Air Force recruiter,” Ihrke tells Yahoo Lifestyle of the moment she decided to join the military. “He explained how tough the program is and said, ‘A girl like you probably wouldn’t make it through boot camp in the Marine Corps.’” The statement resonated with Ihrke, who says, “I took that as a challenge and asked, ‘Where do I sign up?’”

From there, Ihrke packed up for three months of boot camp, where she trained in mixed martial arts and rifle training — and graduated. “I loved it,” she says. “I loved pushing myself. I realized how mentally and physically strong I really am, and it was an empowering feeling,” she says, noting that the all-female boot camp was a tough, but empowering experience.

“I had drill instructors that were beautiful, smart women. They were amazing — and it motivated me even more.”

For Ihkre, boot camp and the month-long Marine Corps combat training that followed pushed her body and mind beyond what she had imagined. “The hardest part about boot camp is your mental strength,” she notes. Another tough part about officially becoming a Marine was the feeling of having to prove herself to her male peers.

“When people think of a Marine, they expect to see a man, but when I showed up to my unit, some people automatically thought that because I was a woman, I wouldn’t be able to keep up or be as good.”

Being judged on appearance only fueled her drive to be the best. She says, “You have to work twice as hard to be seen as an equal, so my goal was always to push myself to be as good if not better to show them you can be on the same level.”

Her discipline and dedication paid off. Within two years, she earned a rank that some four-year Marines don’t even achieve. “I was meritoriously promoted from E1 to E4,” she says. Ihrke was evaluated on everything from her physical strength and military knowledge to an area where she has excelled in since childhood: shooting. “I always liked shooting guns,” she says, noting her expert-level rifle qualification by Marine standards. “I grew up shooting guns with my dad, which is part of the reason I did so well in the rifle range when I was in the Marines.”

However, Ihrke believes her confidence in herself and drive to prove naysayers wrong are what ultimately helped her earn the rank of sergeant. “It’s kind of natural to judge a book by its cover,” she muses. “But then, it makes you want to be as good, if not better than those people to show that you can keep up and you are equal.”

Ihrke graduated from Elmhurst College with a bachelor’s degree — and without student loan debt. Her time in the Marine Corps came to an end in 2016, but she says it’s something that has permanently affected her life and is a constant source of pride. “In and out of uniform, I feel very proud because no one can take the experience away from me,” says the veteran.

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PARRIS ISLAND, SC - MARCH 08: United States Marine Corps recruit Maria Martinez, 19, of Santa Anna, California trains during boot camp March 8, 2007 at Parris, Island, South Carolina. The Department of Defense has asked Congress to increase the size of the Marine Corps by 27,000 troops and the Army by 65,000 over the next five years. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
PARRIS ISLAND, SC - JANUARY 15: United States Marine Corps female recruit Jessica Waseca crawls on her back under barbed wire January 15, 2003 during the test exercise called The Crucible at boot camp at Parris Island, SC. The Marines train an average of 3,700 male recruits and 600 females a day at Parris Island. The Crucible is a 54 hour final exam to test the skills the recruits have learned during basic training. (Photo by Stephen Morton/Getty Images)
PARRIS ISLAND, SC - MARCH 08: Female United States Marine Corps recruits receive instructions for a training exercise during boot camp March 8, 2007 at Parris Island, South Carolina. The Department of Defense has asked Congress to increase the size of the Marine Corps by 27,000 troops and the Army by 65,000 over the next five years. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CAMP LEJEUNE, NC - FEBRUARY 22: Pfc. Tiffany Mash of Torrance, California leads a company of Marines, both male and female, carrying 55 pound packs at the start of a 10 kilometer training march during Marine Combat Training (MCT) on February 22, 2013 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Since 1988 all non-infantry enlisted male Marines have been required to complete 29 days of basic combat skills training at MCT after graduating from boot camp. MCT has been required for all enlisted female Marines since 1997. About six percent of enlisted Marines are female. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CAMP LEJEUNE, NC - FEBRUARY 20: Male and female Marines climb an obstacle on the Endurance Course during Marine Combat Training (MCT) on February 20, 2013 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Since 1988 all non-infantry enlisted male Marines have been required to complete 29 days of basic combat skills training at MCT after graduating from boot camp. MCT has been required for all enlisted female Marines since 1997. About six percent of enlisted Marines are female. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CAMP LEJEUNE, NC - FEBRUARY 20: Male and female Marines participate together in a combat conditioning exercise during Marine Combat Training (MCT) on February 20, 2013 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Since 1988 all non-infantry enlisted male Marines have been required to complete 29 days of basic combat skills training at MCT after graduating boot camp. It has been required for enlisted female Marines since 1997. About six percent of enlisted Marines are female. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
PARRIS ISLAND, SC - FEBRUARY 25: Female Marine recruits prepare to fire on the rifle range during boot camp February 25, 2013 at MCRD Parris Island, South Carolina. All female enlisted Marines and male Marines who were living east of the Mississippi River when they were recruited attend boot camp at Parris Island. About six percent of enlisted Marines are female. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CAMP LEJEUNE, NC - FEBRUARY 22: Pvt. Tatiana Maldonado of Dallas, Texas trains with male and female Marines as she learns patrolling techniques at Marine Combat Training (MCT) on February 22, 2013 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Since 1988 all non-infantry enlisted male Marines have been required to complete 29 days of basic combat skills training at MCT after graduating from boot camp. MCT has been required for all enlisted female Marines since 1997. About six percent of enlisted Marines are female. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
PARRIS ISLAND, SC - FEBRUARY 25: Female Marine recruits stand in formation during boot camp February 25, 2013 at MCRD Parris Island, South Carolina. All female enlisted Marines and male Marines who were living east of the Mississippi River when they were recruited attend boot camp at Parris Island. About six percent of enlisted Marines are female. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CAMP LEJEUNE, NC - FEBRUARY 22: Pvt. Megan Randall of Huntersville, North Carolina cleans a machine gun during Marine Combat Training (MCT) on February 22, 2013 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Since 1988 all non-infantry enlisted male Marines have been required to complete 29 days of basic combat skills training at MCT after graduating from boot camp. MCT has been required for all enlisted female Marines since 1997. About six percent of enlisted Marines are female. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
PARRIS ISLAND, SC - FEBRUARY 25: Cpl. David Peck (C) from New Market, Tennessee instructs female Marines as they prepare to fire on the rifle range during boot camp February 25, 2013 at MCRD Parris Island, South Carolina. All female enlisted Marines and male Marines who were living east of the Mississippi River when they were recruited attend boot camp at Parris Island. About six percent of enlisted Marines are female. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CAMP LEJEUNE, NC - FEBRUARY 20: Male and female Marines do abdominal crunches while running the Endurance Course during Marine Combat Training (MCT) on February 20, 2013 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Since 1988 all non-infantry enlisted male Marines have been required to complete 29 days of basic combat skills training at MCT after graduating from boot camp. MCT has been required for all enlisted female Marines since 1997. About six percent of enlisted Marines are female. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CAMP LEJEUNE, NC - FEBRUARY 22: Sgt. Jarrod Simmons tries to motivate his squad of Marines before they head out on a 10 kilometer training march carrying 55 pound packs during Marine Combat Training (MCT) on February 22, 2013 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Since 1988 all non-infantry enlisted male Marines have been required to complete 29 days of basic combat skills training at MCT after graduating from boot camp. MCT has been required for all enlisted female Marines since 1997. About six percent of enlisted Marines are female. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
PARRIS ISLAND, SC - FEBRUARY 25: Female and male Marine recruits listen to instructions as they prepare for a swimming test during boot camp February 25, 2013 at MCRD Parris Island, South Carolina. Male and female recruits are expected to meet the same standards during their swim qualification test. All female enlisted Marines and male Marines who were living east of the Mississippi River when they were recruited attend boot camp at Parris Island. About six percent of enlisted Marines are female. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
A U.S. marine drinks the blood of a cobra during a jungle survival exercise with the Thai Navy as part of the "Cobra Gold 2013" joint military exercise, at a military base in Chon Buri province February 20, 2013. About 13,000 soldiers from seven countries, Thailand, U.S., Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and Malaysia are participating in the 11-day military exercise. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj (THAILAND - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SOCIETY)
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Present day: The now-30-year-old enjoys small-town life back in Minnesota where she trains horses full-time. “I have about six horses right now, and I am training for roping competitions,” she says of her next goal. She also works for her county’s sheriff’s department in its “horse posse.”

The proud Marine continues to push herself physically too. “I love running and working out — I’ve always been an athlete. If I’m not training horses, I’m at the gym.” However, what she loves most is being able to reflect on her experiences in the Marines from the calm of her stable. “I love being back in a small town,” she says. “Life is so simple.”

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