Staff Sgt. Kimberly Taylor and Cpl. Austin Walswick, with 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, meet local children April 27 in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The Corps is looking into the possibility of expanding combat roles for women. (James J. Lee / Staff)
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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — The Marine Corps' controversial assessment of where women should serve in combat units is progressing, but female volunteers will not report to Infantry Officers Course until at least September, Marine officials said.
The timing means no women will complete IOC before Commandant Gen. Jim Amos makes preliminary recommendations in November to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about whether the policy banning women from most combat assignments should change. The Corps' decision to temporarily open IOC to female lieutenants is a key, if hot-button, piece of the Defense Department's ongoing Women in Service Restriction Review.
The Corps sought female volunteers for IOC from a company of lieutenants who graduated officer training at The Basic School here on May 9, but did not find any for the class beginning today, said Col. John Nettles, head of the Marine Corps Policy Branch at Manpower and Reserve Affairs. There were about eight women in the TBS class, Alpha 1-12.
Marine officials attributed the lack of interest, in part, to not being able to discuss the IOC opportunity with women until nearly the end of their TBS training, after a federally mandated review board headed by Quantico's Marine Corps Combat Development Command approved their plan. By then, the lieutenants had received their military occupational specialty assignments.
However, the Corps already has an undisclosed number of female lieutenants who have volunteered for the IOC beginning Sept. 24, Nettles said. They'd graduate Dec. 12 if they complete the course, after the first round of recommendations is due to Panetta. They also can leave infantry training at any time without penalty, given the voluntary nature of the program and the fact that the Corps needs their help for the research, officials said.
"There are no consequences whatsoever to their careers," Nettles said. "They're volunteering to do something historic in nature to help provide critical data, so the commandant can inform folks above him on a recommendation on a way ahead with females."
Future rounds of female lieutenants will be briefed on the possibility of attending IOC within the first 30 days of beginning their training at TBS, and then again near the end. Officials stress that participants will not receive the "0302" infantry officer MOS, but also won't suffer negative career ramifications by attending. New officers don't face a career designation board, which can push them out of active duty, until they have 540 days in the fleet, so if a woman attends IOC and then another MOS school, it won't hold her back, Nettles said.
‘No lack of emotion'
Lt. Gen. Robert Milstead, deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs, said top Marine leaders are aware that considering changes to where women serve in combat is a polarizing issue for Marines. It's why the Corps is doing the "measured, responsible deliberate research" requested by Panetta, he said.
"There's no lack of emotion to this issue, but regardless what your point of view is, emotion alone is not going to carry the day," Milstead said. "We know we have to do this research. It's like the politics of today. There's people who are on the far right, and there's people who are on the far left. The commandant has to give an informed recommendation, and to do that, he has to have something."
In February, the Corps opened 97 company-grade officer and 274 staff noncommissioned officer positions to women in artillery, tank and other combat units, although none of them are in the infantry. As of June 18, 22 staff NCOs and four officers had reported to fill some of those assignments, Marine officials said.
By the end of the year, 15 female officers and 30 female staff NCOs will serve in the positions that have been opened to women, reporting as their current assignments come to a close, Nettles said. Men will continue to serve in the other opened billets, while the Navy also assigns at least two additional female officers and 12 female staff NCOs to Marine combat units.
The commandant plans to meet with the women participating in the exception-to-policy research, and their battalion commanders, as he visits units across the Corps this year, Nettles said.
Amos is "committed to ensuring that our Corps' information gathering on this issue is conducted in an objective and scientifically rigorous manner that results in meaningful data that enables futures discussions based on facts," said his spokesman, Lt. Col. Joseph Plenzler. In May, the commandant discussed his vision for the exception-to-policy assignment research with the commanders and sergeants major of the units involved, Nettles said.
More research coming
Other aspects of the Corps' research also are underway. One effort calls for the establishment of common physical performance standards in the service's ground combat element, meaning Marine officials want to establish a baseline for what the average Marine — male and female — can do in combat.
Late in June, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., will participate in three physical testing events:
• A replica 40mm Mark-19 machine-gun lift, in which a Marine lifts a 72-pound weapon over his or her head while wearing a 71-pound combat load.
• A casualty evacuation, in which a Marine drags a 165-pound mannequin wearing a 43-pound combat load while wearing a 43-pound load of his own.
• A "march under load," in which Marines carry a 71-pound combat load 20 kilometers in less than five hours.
Those same tests already are underway for male and female volunteers attending TBS and Marine Combat Training at Lejeune's School of Infantry-East, said Leon Pappa, who leads a team conducting the research for Training and Education Command, out of Quantico. The Corps will use the results in part to determine whether the result of a Marine's Physical Fitness Test or Combat Fitness Test is an accurate predictor of what he or she can do in combat.
At least two other efforts are ongoing, as well: A TECOM study of the curriculum at schools for infantry, artillery and armor troops, and the survey the Corps launched to solicit opinions about whether women should serve in combat units. More than 33,000 Marines had taken the survey as of June 20, officials said. Take the survey at https://www.manpower.usmc.mil/wis/index.jsp">https://www.manpower.usmc.mil/wis/index.jsp.