The Mission Goes First: Female Marines and the Infantry

June 3, 2014
Female Marine Marjah

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It was recently proposed on WOTR by Colonel Ellen Haring, USAR, that female marine lieutenants be afforded the opportunity to retake the Infantry Officer Course (IOC) and its initial Combat Endurance Test (CET), like many of their male counterparts who have also failed this grueling test.  Colonel Haring states that the CET is an initiation rite rather than a test of occupational qualification as it is only taken by officers, not enlisted, and is taken only once (unlike other tests for Marine officers).  She argues that this test should be remediated for those who do not complete it the first time, including women.  While as a female marine officer I am exceptionally proud and supportive of my peers’ ambition, dedication, and grit in attempting IOC, I disagree with the reasoning Colonel Haring offers to support her argument.

First, there is a reason females are not currently authorized to repeat IOC.  Women still cannot be assigned as 0302 infantry officers even if they pass the course.  The Marine Corps hires and pays its officers to perform jobs that support its warfighting function. Females giving IOC a shot are showing the best qualities of the Marine Corps, which demands continuous improvement, but eventually marines not bound for the infantry must be trained for and perform the jobs they have been assigned to fulfill the needs of the Marine Corps. Attempting and reattempting IOC can take the better part of a year on top of an already long training pipeline.  The benefits the infantry officer corps would gain from changing this policy need to at least be balanced against withholding officers, an expensive asset, from doing their jobs.

In the Marine Corps, there is more to the difference between officers and enlisted than a college degree, as Colonel Haring suggests. From the very beginning, marine officers are expected to meet certain high physical standards before even applying to Officer Candidates School (OCS) whereas enlisted marines may expect to be trained to standard upon arrival.  One of the more significant differences between OCS and boot camp is the level of physical challenge, which continues through follow-on training. The runs are longer, the humps are heavier, and the days and nights spent in the field are more intense. This remains true in the Fleet. While officers and enlisted have the same scoring system for the annual Physical Fitness Test and Combat Fitness Test, as Colonel Haring pointed out, officers are in fact required to attain a higher score.

While I by no means wish to demean the abilities of enlisted marines (on whom I rely daily and am proud to lead), there is good reason for this difference. Officers are expected to set the example for and lead our enlisted marines. As such, we are held to a significantly higher standard in all matters of our profession. This contributes to our ability to serve our enlisted marines, which is one of the values in which marine officers take the most pride and, in my experience, we do better than those of any other branch. This is no more important than in the infantry, where faith in and respect for your leadership can make all the difference in attaining victory and preserving marine lives.  Army Ranger School and the Navy’s Basic Underwater Demolition/Seals training (BUD/S) train officer and enlisted together and to a similar standard, but these are qualification schools for SOF, which has its own culture surrounding the relationship between officers and enlisted, and should not be compared to the Marine Corps infantry schools or even those of the Army which also holds infantry officers and enlisted to different standards.

While the Combat Endurance Test is only completed once in an infantry officer’s career, it is far from the only “one time offer.” For example, the Obstacle Course, standard across the Corps, is generally only required as a pass/fail event during initial training for officers at Officer Candidates School and The Basic School.  It is a test of endurance and agility meant to measure one’s ability to maneuver on the battlespace, particularly in an obstacle-heavy urban environment.  It is never run for score by the majority of enlisted marines. Moreover, the field and basic infantry skills training that allow all officers to act as provisional rifle platoon commanders if necessary rarely extends beyond the six months spent at The Basic School prior to specialty schools. Yet this training is seen as central to every officer’s ability to support the warfighter and to our fundamental belief that every marine is a rifleman first. The frequency with which training occurs should not be used as a measure of its merit.

Colonel Haring suggests returning to the previous standard of remediating the Combat Endurance Test over the course of IOC instead of having to recycle to the next class in order to allow women to continue in infantry training without delaying their other schools.  While lieutenants may previously have been able to remediate the CET, this is no longer the standard for infantry officers. Change is a long, slow process in the infamously obdurate Marine Corps, and generally when change happens, it is for good reason. Recently, lieutenants awaiting training at IOC have begun often months-long training in “Pre-IOC” where they are put through the rigors of what will be expected of them during the course and given ample time to build their strength and endurance prior to the CET. There is also no shortage of time to train, and marines with whom to train, during the previous six-month course for both males and females who wish to attempt IOC. All lieutenants are given a fair chance to be physically prepared for this test, the parameters of which are widely known in advance.

Nor is the Combat Endurance Test the only point of failure at which a marine can expect to have to repeat months of training, or to stand by in a holding pattern for that training to occur.  A friend and now outstanding marine officer completed almost all of OCS before failing to finish a climb up the rope at the end of the timed Obstacle Course, partly due to injury.  She had to wait to be re-selected by a board for OCS and complete the course a second time.  Others were dropped from my OCS platoon on the final hike and have since earned their commissions with later classes. This, more than being able to retake the test in a week or a month, is a true test of a marine’s dedication.  Requiring a marine officer to retake an entire course or wait for the next class is not an extraordinary or unusual request unique to IOC; it is standard.  This should not be changed solely to accommodate lieutenants’ schedules.

I acknowledge that IOC is undoubtedly harder now than it was in years past when it still produced exceptional infantry officers. And I will not argue with the idea that the CET is as much a rite of passage as an actual test of physical ability. The Marine Corps also has a habit of mistakenly conflating physical ability and professional competence.  (For an eloquent illustration, I direct you to this Terminal Lance strip.)  I have no doubt that many who fail the CET could have gone on, and in the case of many recycled lieutenants, do go on, to be outstanding infantry officers.  However, changing this rite of passage will be doing female marines no favors in trying to be infantry officers. Female marines often have to work much harder than their peers to earn the same respect, and entering the infantry under the dark cloud of even perceived lowered standards will make this a practically impossible challenge and potentially cause real harm to unit cohesion and the faith between leader and led. I firmly believe that female marines deserve to have the best opportunities and equal respect for the work we do, and I have high hopes for our changing role in combat and in the Corps. However, in trying to attain an ideal of equality, we must always hold our mission—to be prepared to fight and win battles—as the highest priority. If the Infantry Officer Course and its initial test are to be changed, it needs to be done first and foremost in service of that mission, with serious deliberation and in the spirit of improving the corps of infantry officers overall.


2ndLt J. Emma Stokien is a Marine Corps intelligence officer and a recent graduate of Georgetown University.  She is currently stationed in Okinawa, Japan with 3d Marine Division.  The views expressed are her own.