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Second Lt. Sage Santangelo wasn't able to retake the Infantry Officer Course, but other female volunteers might get that chance, thanks to a case she made to the commandant of the Marine Corps this year.
In an opinion editorial published March 30 in the Washington Post, Santangelo, 24, made a daring claim: that female Marine officers still were not being given a fighting chance to pass the grueling infantry training due to insufficient physical preparation and the inability to retake the course, if they chose to do so.
"It's frustrating to me that there are still doubts about whether women are capable of handling combat environments," Santangelo wrote, calling on Marine brass to act in a bold conclusion to her op-ed. " ... we need to figure out how to set women up to excel in infantry roles."
Asked about the op-ed following a lecture at the Atlantic Council April 1, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos said he had "hit stop" on current policies keeping women from recycling through the course, and had offered Santangelo a chance to deploy to Afghanistan with 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade to enrich her career.
Behind the scenes, however, a discussion between Santangelo, Amos, and other Marine officials had been underway for some time.
Like nearly all of the female volunteers who have attempted IOC, Santangelo met with Amos after she washed out to discuss her own perspective on the course. Later, Santangelo told the Marine Corps Times she received an invitation, through a friend, to write about her experiences for the Washington Post. She thought back to conversations she had with the three other female officers who attempted IOC in January, and decided to do it — but not without some official oversight.
"When I wrote the article, I absolutely recognized it needs to be read by someone," she said. "Based on our conversations and whatnot, I felt that [Amos] was the best person to read this. It was very important to me that I didn't misrepresent the Marine Corps in any way, shape or form."
Ultimately, she said, multiple officials vetted her editorial, and she kept Amos informed as it went to publication. It was during those conversations that Santangelo received the invitation to deploy.
"They discussed various school options, and Gen. Amos offered that she might want to deploy to Afghanistan to gain real-world experience while awaiting training," a spokesman for Amos, Lt. Col. David Nevers, said.
Now in Pensacola, Fla., Santangelo is waiting to begin predeployment training at Camp Pendleton, Calif., so that she can depart for Afghanistan in May. It will be a short deployment, as she needs to return to Pensacola to begin flight school in August.
And with only basic officer training under her belt, her options may be limited: Nevers said 2nd MEB would choose how to "make good use of her motivation and talent," but sources with an understanding of deployed job requirements said she would likely be qualified for administrative or base security work, or a spot as an aide to a senior officer.
Nonetheless, Santangelo said she accepted immediately, seeing long-term benefits to her career in the experience.
"Just like any Marine, I jumped on the opportunitty ... I'm lucky to have it," she said. "It's a great opportunity for me to kind of grow and learn, and just gain a better understanding of the Marine Corps itself and what the Marine Corps does."
Santangelo declined to speak about the IOC policy change and how it came about, saying the commandant had not discussed it with her and deferring to the commandant's office to discuss any changes.
But Nevers confirmed the commandant had ordered a policy alteration to allow any female officer a second chance at the course.
"It should be noted that under the recycle policy in place today, female volunteers applying for the ground intelligence officer [Marine occupational specialty] who do not complete the course may already request to retake it," he said. The specialty of ground intelligence has long required an infantry officer designation, and so a graduation from IOC.
While female Marines entering other specialties had been barred from a second attempt at the course to avoid delay in attending a primary MOS school and potential harm to their careers, Nevers said the Marines would work with future female volunteers to sidestep potential problems.
"In reconsidering our application of this policy, the commandant recognizes that the relatively small number of Marines involved makes these concerns manageable," he said. "The commandant's overriding intent is clear. Having voluntarily stepped forward to aid in this critically important research, these courageous and committed Marines deserve such consideration."
The Marine Corps also is developing a new training regimen to address Santangelo's other contention, that female Marines' physical training is less rigorous than male Marines', and inadequately prepared them for the rigors of IOC, Nevers said.
Santangelo's contention that female officers will be able to clear the hurdle of infantry training in a second attempt has yet to be proven. To date, 15 female volunteers have begun the training, and all have washed out — all but one on the first day.
Female Marines have had more success with the less-demanding enlisted infantry training, however. To date, 45 have graduated from Infantry Training Battalion, a Marine official said.
Santangelo said she wouldn't rule out writing other editorials in the future, but she'd like to get some more experience first.