Marine Corps dilemma with women prompts change at infantry school


An enlisted female student at the Infantry Training Battalion carries another female student during the movement-under-fire portion of the Combat Fitness Test at Camp Geiger, N.C., on Sept. 26. The Marine Corps has continued to face scrutiny as it gradually expands the scope of its research into which jobs women should fill in combat. (Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Chelsea Flowers Anderson)

It has been more than two years since word first trickled out that the Marine Corps was planning to incorporate women on an experimental basis into its arduous Infantry Officer Course at Quantico, Va. The idea was simple, if controversial: The Pentagon was investigating which additional jobs should be opened in the military to women, and top Marine officers wanted as much research done as possible before decisions were made. They gave themselves three years.

The U.S. military has continued to open new positions to women since, but it’s the pending infantry decision that polarizes opinion like no other.

Critics of opening the all-male infantry say doing so would weaken it. They point to a variety of concerns, including privacy issues, questions about whether political correctness would pave the way for a relaxing of standards and cultural concerns about whether men and women can co-exist in high-stress situations in which there is frequently no privacy and Marines huddle with one another for warmth in frigid conditions. Advocates say women deserve a chance, and that integrating them could help alleviate long-term problems in the military like sexual assault.

The Marine Corps initially opened the Infantry Officer Course to women coming out of introductory officer training at The Basic School at Quantico. The results thus far: Only 20 women have attempted it, and none have completed it. Some have come close to passing the grueling initial Combat Endurance Test, as I observed on site for Marine Corps Times last year, but they all fell short.

With less than a year before a decision is due, the Corps is changing it up in response. In a message published Wednesday, Marine officials indicated they will open IOC to active-duty female officers who are “company-grade” — meaning not only new lieutenants, but seasoned ones and captains, too. Those who volunteer will be required to meet a new requirement, however: Completion of the male version of the service’s annual Physical Fitness Test and the Combat Fitness Test with first-class scores.

The PFT requirement is the likely sticking point for many female Marines: To score a first-class PFT, men must do at least five pull-ups, assuming they rack up maximum points by running three miles in 18 minutes or less and complete 100 sit-ups. Under current rules for female Marines, women are not required to complete pull-ups.

The women who return to Quantico to attend IOC won’t go in cold. The Marine Corps is requiring that they arrive between 60 and 90 days before their infantry test begins to join a “Marines Awaiting Training” platoon that hones physical skills, including marching with a heavy load, maneuvering through an obstacle course, swimming in uniform and performing martial arts, the message the Corps released Wednesday says. The change was authorized by the Corps’ top Marine, Commandant Gen. James Amos, and takes effect for the class beginning in October. That means the volunteers should begin arriving soon to prepare.

The decision follows the publication of a widely read opinion piece in The Washington Post in March by 2nd Lt. Sage Santangelo, one of the women who tried at IOC and failed. She argued that if men and women were prepared the same way to attend IOC, more women would pass. She zeroed in on the differences between the male and female versions of the Corps’ annual physical fitness test, in particular, noting that women still are not required to do pull-ups, while men have been for years. She added that numerous female volunteers have passed enlisted infantry training since it was opened last year, but it doesn’t have the same demanding indoctrination test.

“I understand not wanting to discourage new recruits,” Santangelo wrote of the IOC experiment. “But dual standards highlight and foster differences in a way that undercuts the goal of integrated military units. Women aren’t encouraged to establish the same mental toughness as men — rather, they’re told that they can’t compete. Men, meanwhile, are encouraged to perceive women as weak. I noticed that women were rarely chosen by their peers for some of the harder tasks in basic training.”

The Marine Corps’ move would appear to address some of that criticism. In fact, some of the women who volunteer now could have years of military experience under their belts, a potential advantage over traditional students. Critics of female integration are sure to bring that up if one of the women attending under the new requirements pass.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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Dan Lamothe · July 10