war on the rocks

Can Women be Infantry Marines?

May 29, 2014

When the Secretary of Defense rescinded the ground combat exclusion policy he gave the Services three years to fully integrate women into all combat specialties and he directed the Services and SOCOM to develop scientifically-verifiable, gender-neutral, occupationally-driven mental and physical standards. He told the Services and SOCOM that any requests for exceptions to the new policy must be “narrowly tailored, and based on a rigorous analysis of factual data regarding the knowledge, skills and abilities needed for the position.”  Each of the organizations has taken a different approach toward integrating women.

The Marines have stated that their occupational standards are already valid and gender neutral.  They believe that the existing standards have served them well and if women can simply prove themselves against existing standards than that should be the measure of whether or not women will be allowed into combat specialties.  As a test, the Marines have allowed entry level women to attend both the infantry officer and enlisted courses.  So far more than 55 enlisted women have qualified to be infantry Marines while no women officers have qualified.

An Op-Ed in the Washington Post by Second Lieutenant Sage Santangelo, (“Fourteen women have tried, and failed, the Marines’ Infantry Officer Course. Here’s why”) helped explain why no women officers have qualified. Of the 14 women who have attempted the course 13 of them were eliminated on the first day during the Combat Endurance Test.  The only woman who passed the Combat Endurance Test on her first attempt was subsequently eliminated due to a stress fracture later in the course.  According to Lieutenant Santangelo, none of the women was allowed a second attempt even though many of the same men who failed with her were allowed to return to make a second or even a third attempt.

This highlights a disparity between the two courses and raises questions about occupational standards.  First, all enlisted Marines, men and women are allowed to remediate and retake portions of their course until they qualify.  Second, if existing infantry standards are valid as occupational standards, why are the physical standards different for officers and enlisted infantry Marines?  Why don’t enlisted infantrymen, and now women, have to pass the Combat Endurance Test if it is a valid measure of occupational suitability?

Officers and enlisted infantrymen perform the same physical tasks in their units and during combat operations.  The discriminator between officer and enlisted has always been education, not physical differences. No other schools, including elite schools like Ranger School or Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL school, require different physical qualification standards for officers and enlisted.  Furthermore, the Marines don’t have different Physical Fitness Test or Combat Fitness Test scores for officers and enlisted.    Finally, after Marine officers successfully pass the Combat Endurance Test they never have to pass it again.  Unlike other occupational qualification tests that must be revalidated every year, like weapons qualification, the Combat Endurance Test is never required again during an officer’s career.   The answer is that the Combat Endurance Test serves as an initiation rite and not a test of occupational qualification.

Do initiation rites have a place in our military?  There will be those who argue that they absolutely have a place in developing the esprit de corps that is vital to the Marine Corps and those arguments have merit.  Certainly the Marines have built their reputation on being tough, trained professionals whose motto Semper Fidelis (always faithful) embodies their total dedication to this country and to the Corps. But does an initiation rite that effectively filters out half the American population (all women) do the Marine Corps justice?

I am not suggesting that the Combat Endurance Test be eliminated from the Marine Infantry Officer course or that it isn’t a good initiation rite that helps identify those Marine officers who are totally committed to being infantry officers.   But I am suggesting that it not be called an “occupational standard.” Let’s call it what it is–a challenging initiation into an elite group that prides itself on being tough, resilient and loyal to the foundational beliefs of this country. And, let’s acknowledge that this initiation is central to the identity of the Corps, an identity that has been at the heart of its long and distinguished service to the country.

What I do suggest is that the Combat Endurance Test be returned to the place it held in past years when, according to Marine infantry officers who graduated in the past,  there was no “washing out” or failing on the basis of a day 1 test. Previously, if you didn’t meet the time limits that day, you simply remediated on a weekend later in the course, but you continued in the instruction along with everyone else. There is no shame in building endurance over time. In fact, long and hard training is something that both reflects, as well as builds the character that is core to the Corps. Many challenging programs, including the Army’s Ranger School, allow multiple attempts to meet various phases of the course and this should be the case for the Marine infantry officer course.  Repeating a challenge makes Marines stronger and better and proves that they have the mental and physical strength to “never quit.”

Women Marines know that their inclusion in combat units, as officers, or as enlisted, will threaten, at a basic level, the Corps’ definition of itself.  But they also know that the Corps is a shining example of the foundational principles upon which this country rests, namely that we are all judged and valued on individual merit and not as groups.  Women Marines don’t want standards to be lowered or changed.  They just want a fighting chance to become Marine infantry officers.

 

Ellen Haring is a colonel in the United States Army Reserve and a senior fellow at Women in International Security.  The views expressed here are her own.