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Inside the Corps' effort to train women for the infantry

Nov. 7, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Female Marines with Delta Company participate in patrol exercises on Oct. 29.
Female Marines with Delta Company participate in patrol exercises on Oct. 29. (James K. Sanborn / Staff)
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The commander of School of Infantry-East is boldly predicting that multiple female Marines will graduate from Infantry Training Battalion in November, making them the first to do so. It also raises an obvious question: Now what?

The commander of School of Infantry-East is boldly predicting that multiple female Marines will graduate from Infantry Training Battalion in November, making them the first to do so. It also raises an obvious question: Now what?

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CAMP GEIGER, N.C. — The commander of School of Infantry-East is boldly predicting that multiple female Marines will graduate from Infantry Training Battalion in November, making them the first to do so. It also raises an obvious question: Now what?

The historic but controversial training is one element of ongoing Marine Corps research to determine whether the service should open a variety of combat arms jobs, including infantry, artillery, reconnaissance and special operations, to female Marines. It is part of the larger Women in Service Restriction Review, a Pentagon-directed study to assess what additional roles female service members can hold in ground combat units.

Women who graduate from ITB will not receive the 0311 rifleman military occupational specialty. They will, however, receive credit, denoted in their official personnel files, if they complete the training.

For now, direct combat roles in the Marine Corps remain closed to them, but that could change.

“The fiscal year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act required the services to provide a review of laws, policies and regulations restricting the service of women in the Armed Forces,” said Capt. Geraldine Carey, the SOI-East public affairs officer. “The SecDef subsequently rescinded the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Assignment Restriction regarding assignment of women on Jan. 24. The services have until Jan. 1, 2016, to fully integrate women or request an exception to policy for certain MOSs.”

If combat roles are opened to women in the future, there is no guarantee those who have graduated from Infantry Training Battalion will be eligible for a lateral move into an infantry military occupational specialty. They may be required to complete refresher training, due to the time lapse.

But with the study on women in combat still in its early stages, those questions haven’t even been broached.

The female Marines who graduate from ITB will have the distinction of blazing a new trail for women in the Corps and in the military as a whole, proving that there are some women who are physically and mentally capable of serving as grunts.

Their experienceshighlight the challenges and misconceptions that women following in their footsteps will face.

The first four

Those likely to graduate from ITB on Nov. 21 are the four women who completed what is considered the most strenuous aspect of basic enlisted infantry training: a 20-kilometer (12½-mile) hike, under loads of nearly 90 pounds, across Camp Geiger, which is part of the Camp Lejeune complex here in eastern North Carolina.

Of the 15 women who began infantry training with Delta Company in September, seven remained at the start of the Oct. 28 hike. Of those, four completed the five-hour trek. Among the three who dropped out, two intend to make a second attempt and the other voluntarily left ITB to attend her originally slated non-infantry MOS school. Another 26 male Marines also failed to complete the hike.

Students stepped off for the trek in brisk morning air shortly after 3 a.m. and began trudging through North Carolina’s pine forests across sand, pavement and gravel roads at a furious pace. Several Marines, male and female alike, began dropping in the first few kilometers, but the majority of the 253 Marines who started the hike pushed on in what is the longest march of the school’s 59-day curriculum.

“Given the performance of female Marines with Delta Company, there is a high probability that some will be standing in formation at graduation,” said Col. Jeffrey Conner, SOI-East’s commanding officer.

More female Marines are close on their heels. Another 13 women began infantry training Oct. 15 with ITB’s Echo Company. After two weeks, 10 of the 13 remain with the unit. Another class — Alpha Company — began Oct. 29 with 268 men and nine women.

For the women of Delta Company nearing graduation in November, a number of important tests remain, including written exams, range qualifications, simulated patrols and a combined arms exercise in which Marines will bring all their knowledge of infantry operations to bear in a dynamic environment. But the 20-kilometer hike was the last major physical hurdle for the women.

A series of hikes, which also included treks of five, 10 and 15 kilometers, has been the greatest stumbling block for the women tackling infantry training at ITB.

The only other foreseeable physical hurdle for female trainees would be completing another Physical Fitness Test, this one to ITB standards. To pass it, the women must perform three pullups in the same form as the men do.

Starting Jan. 1, pullups will be required for all female Marines completing their annual PFT. That’s a new requirement. Up to now, women have executed a flexed-arm hang as a test of upper body strength.

A squad leader emerges

Physical challenges aside, many of the other concerns about women serving alongside men, including social dynamics in the field, have proven to be non-issues, according to both instructors and battalion staff.

Each female Marine who drops out of the program completes an exit survey in which she characterizes her experience at ITB.

“So far, in all the exit surveys, they have said they get great support from male students,” Conner said. “They are acting professionally as Marines and are all there to get training and succeed.”

Female Marines have not been bashful about encouraging male counterparts or taking them to task when they aren’t pulling their weight, combat instructors said. A female Marine was even tapped to serve as a squad leader during patrolling exercises, a reflection of her ability to take charge.

The women volunteers are perceived as “giving their all,” said Staff Sgt. Juanita Towns, who serves as one of the Corps’ first female combat instructors. Those who dropped out did so mostly because of physical safety concerns.

“They are performing as well as they can and know the limits of their bodies,” she said.

Towns, an 0619 wire chief, completed her own training in July in anticipation of women attending ITB. Having deployed to Sangin, Afghanistan, in 2011 as a member of a Female Engagement Team, Towns has lots of insight into what it takes to operate in a combat environment, and what it takes to do that as a woman. Although she is there to train all Marines, she can mentor female students.

Anecdotally, women at ITB have sustained many of the same kinds of injuries as men, Conner said. Testing at ITB is still in its early stages, but those initial observations mirror what has been seen at Marine Combat Training, the course taken by all non-infantry Marines to imbue them with basic knowledge of ground combat and maneuver warfare. Women there primarily suffer injuries to their ankles and legs, as do men, but at higher rates.

Since the school was founded in 1989, all entry level women have attended MCT. Today at SOI-East, about 13,000 Marines pass through MCT each year, including about 2,400 women. ITB, which trains about 3,600 Marines each year, was closed to women until September.

The differences between the schools extend beyond the depth of the infantry-specific curriculum. While the first 29 days of ITB are largely similar to MCT, there are stark differences. Students at MCT, for example, stay mostly in barracks. At ITB, students eat, sleep and train in the field for weeks in austere conditions meant to mirror the difficulties they will encounter in a war zone.

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