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New training requirement marks key shift in Marines' female grunt strategy

Jul. 12, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Maj. Ann Bernard completes repetitions of pull-ups at the physical fitness gym on Feb. 15, 2013. Bernard, a competitive bodybuilder and the G-6 officer in charge for Force Headquarters Group, Marine Forces Reserve, was training as the Marine Corps transitions pull-ups into the female physical fitness test repertoire.
Maj. Ann Bernard completes repetitions of pull-ups at the physical fitness gym on Feb. 15, 2013. Bernard, a competitive bodybuilder and the G-6 officer in charge for Force Headquarters Group, Marine Forces Reserve, was training as the Marine Corps transitions pull-ups into the female physical fitness test repertoire. (Cpl. Michael Ito/Marine Corps)
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A key course correction may help ensure the Corps gets its first female graduates from Infantry Officers Course in Quantico, Va., before the deadline next year.

When the Marines announced Wednesday that they would be opening the course to company-grade female officers in the Corps in order to draw a larger pool of volunteers, a secondary change indicated a key new strategy: now all course participants, male and female, must meet the same physical standard before beginning the grueling course.

That new standard is a first-class male physical fitness test score, which will require would-be IOC applicants to complete a minimum of five pull-ups, and likely more. Previously, female volunteers were only required to show a first-class female PFT, which can be achieved with a flexed-arm hang in lieu of pullups, and allows a slower running time.

Including more seasoned officers and requiring male standards means the Marine Corps is simultaneously widening the pool of prospective female applicants for IOC and narrowing that same pool. As of July 2, five more second lieutenants had washed out of IOC during the first day’s combat endurance test, bringing the total number of female volunteers in a little less than two years to 20, with none passing the course. Marine officials said they could not release the PFT scores of the volunteers who have attempted the course so far, but acknowledged that not all of them would have qualified under the first-class male PFT standard.

According to the most recent Marine Corps demographic survey in 2013, there are fewer than 1,000 female company-grade officers in the entire Marine Corps. Limiting the opportunity to participate in IOC to those who can meet the new PFT standard—and considering that many qualifying officers will likely be unwilling or unable to volunteer due to their current job requirements—it remains entirely likely that the Corps could reach the end of 2015 without meeting their goal of 100 female volunteers.

But it also means that those who do make it to IOC will be measurably more experienced and physically capable..

“Based on historical evidence, successful completion and injury mitigation has a stronger correlation with a first-class PFT,” Col. Anne Weinberg, Deputy Director of the Marine Corps Force Innovation Office, told Marine Corps Times.

While Marine officials have confidence in the leadership capabilities and moral fiber of their female Marine officers, the ability to master the arduous physical elements of training is crucial, she said, as exhaustion and physical stress can tear Marines down and affect decision-making. The average Marine graduate from IOC, widely considered one of the toughest training courses in the Corps, starts the course with a near-perfect PFT score.

Plenty of ink has been spilledcoming up with solution to fix IOC to give female officers a fairer shot at passing the course. Marine 2nd Lt. Sage Santangelo wrote a Washington Post opinion editorial after she washed out of the course, saying that female volunteers should be given a second shot to take the combat endurance test, since they were less likely to come to the test as physically prepared as male officers. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, aware of Santangelo’s efforts to get the column published, later commended her initiative and re-examined the policy as a result of her concerns.

More recently, retired Army Col. Ellen Haring proposed that the Combat Endurance Test be reprioritized so that failing extreme physical test on the first day would not fail officers from the course as a whole. Marine officials said they didn’t plan to consider that proposal.

This most recent change, though, simplifies the debate and gives greater significance to another ongoing test: the ability of female Marines to complete a certain number of pullups in order to pass their physical fitness test. The Corps recently extended its deadline to adopt a pullups requirement for all Marines until the end of 2015, but officials said some 15 percent of female Marines are now voluntarily opting to do pullups as part of their PFT in anticipation of the new standard.

At the end of the day, it appears the female officers who are able to match their male counterparts on pullups are those with the best shot at making it through IOC.

If by the end of the testing period a year from now, there are still no female graduates of IOC, Weinberg said that would be a useful data point too.

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