Decisions loom after Marine infantry officer experiment ends
By Hope Hodge Seck
A female Marine negotiates the obstacle course during the Combat Endurance Test on the first day of Infantry Officer Training at MCB Quantico on September 28, 2012. For the first time two women were among the 109 Marine officers attending IOC. (Mike Morones/Marine Corps Times)
True, no woman has graduated the Marines' legendarily grueling infantry officers course after 32 months of attempts. But don't infer that the feat is impossible, warn observers in the military community.
As the Jan. 1 deadline nears for the commandant to make a recommendation to the defense Ssecretary of Defense regarding the integration of female Marines into closed ground combat arms fields, years of the Corps' research and experimentation on the subject are drawing to a closen end.
Earlier this month, the last female Marine officers who were part of the Corps two-and-a-half year integrated test period were dropped from out of IOC, stymied by the grueling combat endurance test on day one. To date, 29 female officers have attempted the course and none has passed. Enlisted women have met more success with the shorter infantry training battalion course with a pass rate of 34 percent among female volunteers.
For proponents of integration, the data from IOC is far from faith-shaking. Marine 1st Lt. Sage Santangelo, who attempted IOC in early 2014 and later wrote a widely read opinion editorial arguing that female volunteers should be allowed to re-attempt the course, told Marine Corps Times that the service Corps should continue giving women the opportunity to try.
"Do I think that the fact that no woman has passed IOC means that women are 'incapable' of performing in the infantry? Absolutely not," Santangelo said, adding that saying the many women who had served in combat zones around the world had already proved otherwise. "We need to continue to push Marines to succeed. Not every Marine is fit for the infantry. But every Marine should have the opportunity to compete for the job."
Ellen Haring, a retired Army colonel who has vocally supported integration and criticized the military for keeping fields closed, said the lack of incentive may have kept prospective volunteers for IOC from attempting the course. Volunteers were told they would not receive an infantry military occupational specialty if they graduated from the IOC, and the time they spent preparing for and attempting the course was time away from their chosen career path.
"I don't think you can judge all women based on this small group of volunteers," Haring said. "They're taking a few volunteers and extrapolating from that saying they represent all women. It doesn't even come close to the sample size that they were looking for."
Haring argues the Marines should move the combat endurance test to later in the course to give women a better shot at passing.
"That was a structural barrier that was erected," she said.
Now in flight school, Santangelo does not argue that the Corps should alter or lower course requirements to give female Marines a leg up.
"If a woman can meet the standard, she should have an opportunity to do the job," she said. "May the best Marine get the job, no exceptions."
The question of changing standards has been a concern for many as a decision nears on integration.
In 2013, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, told reporters that the onus would be on the military services to defend standards that appeared to be barriers to female integration.
"If we do decide that a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn't make it, the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the secretary, 'Why is it that high?'" Dempsey said.
The Marine Corps, however, has so far held the line on its prized elite training requirements.
"We have said across the board that we are not going to lower standards, and female Marines do not want us to lower standards," said a Marine Corps spokeswoman, Capt. Maureen Krebs, a Marine spokeswoman at the Pentagon told Marine Corps Times. "But a big part of what we're looking at are those standards for the occupations and what it takes to do the job."
The crucible-like cCombat eEndurance tTest, which was moved to the start of IOC in 2010, is meant to reflect the mental and physical rigors of combat and the pressures they place on the shoulders of junior officers, Krebs said previously.
But the test may not be the only element of IOC that has increased in difficulty and complexity after a decade and a half of war.
Matt Morgan, a former Marine infantry officer, wonders if he would have made it through today's version of the course.
When Morgan went through IOC in 1994, "we did everything in Quantico," he said. "Now they go to [Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center] Twentynine 29 Palms, they go to [Mountain Warfare Training Center] Bridgeport; it's a far more demanding cycle across these different ranges. Few instructors [then] had any experience that remotely compares with the combat veterans who are instructors today."
That e results in ? "Bbetter-prepared officers," Morgan said.
A strong proponent of gender integration, Morgan said he be believes that women should be given the chance to enter IOC should be open to women going forward, and that someday soon the course will graduate a female officer. But, he said, he expects that the women who pass the course will likely be in an elite fitness category, with a strong athletic backgrounds in athletics.
Still, he said, he wouldn't change standards just to give a higher volume of female officers a shot at passing.
"I can certainly see an advantage to having women leaders in combat arms," Morgan said, pointing to female engagement teams in Afghanistan and Iraq who were able to cross cultural barriers that male Marines could not. "But I think the great fear among many is, for these purposes, standards would have to be lowered. I don't think there is anybody who has served who is arguing for standards to be arbitrarily lowered."