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Marines open infantry training to hundreds more female officers

Jul. 10, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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A female lieutenant in the Infantry Officer Course hangs from the rope during the obstacle course portion of the initial Combat Endurance Test at Marine Corps Base Quantico July 2, 2013.
A female lieutenant in the Infantry Officer Course hangs from the rope during the obstacle course portion of the initial Combat Endurance Test at Marine Corps Base Quantico July 2, 2013. (Thomas Brown/Staff)
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The opportunity for women to attend the Marines’ Infantry Officer Course experiment won’t be limited to entry-level officers for much longer. Starting this October, company-grade officers — lieutenants and captains — who have already served in another primary occupation will be allowed to raise their hands and give IOC a shot.

The move, announced Thursday in a Marine administrative message, is designed to pull more volunteers through the course as part of the Corps’ ongoing study of the possibility of opening more ground combat jobs to women. Marine officials said one goal of the three-year experiment was to have nearly 100 female officers attempt IOC after the nine-month entry-level officer training at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.; but with a little more than a year to go until the study’s conclusion, only 20 female second lieutenants have attempted the course, and none have passed.

The message also implements a new requirement for all volunteers: they must make a first-class score on the male physical fitness and combat fitness tests. For the PFT, this means they must complete a minimum of five pull-ups—assuming perfect scores of 18 minutes on the three-mile run and 100 sit-ups— to achieve an overall score of 225 or higher. Before now, female volunteers for IOC have only had to demonstrate a first-class female PFT, which does not require pull-ups.

Marine Corps officials have been contemplating this change for several months, said Col. Anne Weinberg, deputy director of the Marine Corps Force Innovation Office.

“We started having a couple of female Marines coming to us and saying, ‘hey, I want an opportunity to participate in that research. I want to be part of history as well,’” she said. “We conferred with the commandant and Training and Education Command and they agreed that it would be appropriate and also be a great opportunity to get more data points.”

The grueling infantry officers course, which has a historical failure rate around 25 percent for male officers, kicks off with the combat endurance test, a broad challenge designed to push physical limits and test decision-making under the strains of stress and exhaustion. All but one of the 20 women who have attempted IOC have failed to make it through this initial test.

Like the basically-trained lieutenants originally invited to participate in the research,these more experienced female officers who volunteer will not receive an infantry specialty upon completion of the course. And the time commitment is significant: they will have to get their orders to relocate to Quantico by August 1 in order to spend 60 to 90 days in the Marines Awaiting Training platoon prior to the course’s start in October.

Weinberg said more experienced female officers will give officials more variables to study regarding preparing women for the physical rigors of infantry training.

“They’ll have a couple of years of additional maturity under their belts and some additional training that they’ve gone through,” she said. “The data we’ll get from that about what they’ve done to prepare themselves will be informative.”

The Marines are not planning to open their enlisted ground combat school, Infantry Training Battalion out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., to female Marines with time in service, officials said. Female Marines had the opportunity to participate in ITB directly after graduating boot camp since late last year, and the course has already graduated some 86 women, with a goal of nearly 300 total volunteers by the end of next year. Marine Corps spokeswoman Capt. Maureen Krebs said officials believe they’re on track to meet that goal.

Weinberg said she couldn’t speculate on why it has been difficult so far to recruit large numbers of female officers from TBS for IOC, but noted that the course is physically demanding, and the prospect of failing—without a female success story from the course so far—could be a psychological deterrent.

The decision to raise the physical fitness requirements for IOC volunteers was motivated by injury prevention and a study of Marines who successfully passed the demanding course. The average male officer entering IOC has a PFT score of at least 285 out of 300 points, said Krebs, and previous graduates of IOC have averaged a near-perfect PFT score of 290.4, she said.

“Based on historical evidence, successful completion and injury mitigation has a stronger correlation with a [high] first-class PFT score,” Weinberg said. The previous female officers who attempted the course were a mixed group, she said: some met the first-class male PFT standard, some did not.

According to the announcement, female company-grade officers currently working in the fleet Marine Corps who want their shot at IOC should apply to TECOM through their chain of command using an administrative action form. All candidates need to have at least six months left on their contracts following the completion of their course and no punitive action pending, officials said.

According to the message, female officers who volunteered for IOC after TBS are not eligible to give the course another shot under this intiative.

These changes come as the Marine Corps enters the next phase of its research on female enlisted Marines entering infantry specialties. Starting next week, female Marines leaving boot camp at Marine Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. will be able to volunteer to participate in seven new ground combat occupational schools, including M1A1 tank crewman, machine gunner, and mortarman.

Later this year, the Marines will stand up their Ground Combat Element Integration Task Force, a group consisting of at least 25 percent women trained in ground combat specialties and headquartered at Camp Lejeune. Researchers will study the female Marines’ progress as they integrate into various combat units for the purpose of establishing physical standards and performance standards for the various jobs.

The Marines must make a recommendation to the Secretary of Defense at the beginning of 2016, following the conclusion of their Women in Service Review, either concurring with a plan to open all ground combat specialties to women or petitioning for an exception in order to keep certain specialties closed.

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