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Questions surround Marine Corps' plan to open infantry training to enlisted women

Aug. 30, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  

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Female Marine recruits are disciplined with some unscheduled physical training in the sand pit outside their barracks during boot camp Feb. 27 at Parris Island, S.C. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

The Marine Corps acknowledges it will soon send enlisted women to basic infantry training as part of its ongoing research to determine what ground combat jobs may open to female personnel. But the question remains: How will it work?

Top officers were briefed Wednesday about the plan, Marine officials said. Few details have been released, other than an Aug. 16 internal document labeled “Assignment of Women in Combat Units” and obtained by Marine Corps Times. It states the Corps will begin allowing women to volunteer for infantry instruction at the Infantry Training Battalion “in early fall.”

“This is part of our measured, deliberate and responsible research process for integrating women into ground combat assignments,” the document states. “Female Marines will have the opportunity to go through the same infantry course as their male counterparts.”

The decision marks a departure in how the service has handled infantry research stemming from the Pentagon’s historic decision in January to repeal its 1994 Direct Combat Exclusion Rule. The move opened about 237,000 jobs to women across all the services, including 54,000 jobs in the Corps. It has been hailed as a victory for equal rights by advocates but panned by many combat veterans as a shift that, if carried out, would weaken the military.

Until now, the research for Marine infantry jobs took place solely at the grueling, 13-week Infantry Officer Course, at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. Since last summer, the Corps has allowed female Marines attending initial officer training at The Basic School at Quantico to attend IOC afterward, before reporting to their previously assigned military occupational school. In April, Commandant Gen. Jim Amos told Congress he would rely on research conducted at IOC to make recommendations to civilian leaders about whether the infantry and reconnaissance communities should be opened to women.

“I just need to get enough information in that area to be able to make to my secretary a reasonable, ... analytical recommendation, instead of just some hyperbole stuff,” Amos said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing.

Few women have volunteered, however. As of July, more than 160 female students at TBS had been given the opportunity to attend IOC afterward. Only six reported for duty, and none has completed the course. One woman made it through the initial Combat Endurance Test last fall but was dropped about a week later after being diagnosed with stress fractures in her foot.

In similar fashion to women attending IOC this year, women at ITB will not be allowed to earn an infantry military occupational specialty, potentially contributing to the dearth of volunteers. Retired Lt. Col. Leon Pappa, who oversees aspects of the research at IOC, told Marine Corps Times in July that most of the female officers who have expressed interest simply want the personal challenge.

“I tell them in the brief, ‘There are no incentives we can offer you, lieutenants,’ ” he said. “It’s sort of a ‘God, Country, Corps’ speech. It’s, ‘If you think you’re up to it, to completing one of the toughest schools in the Marine Corps, here’s your chance.’ They know full well that there’s nothing waiting for them at the end.”

Enlisted grunt training

There are Infantry Training Battalion schools at both Camp Geiger, N.C., and Camp Pendleton, Calif. The eight-week course includes 52 training days and “transforms the raw Marine into an infantryman who can fight, survive and win in a combat situation,” according to a website for the service’s School of Infantry, which oversees both training battalions.

ITB includes instruction on combat marksmanship, grenades, improvised explosive devices, convoy operations, urban combat, land navigation and patrolling, as well as additional training for individual jobs within the infantry. Marines at ITB also undergo conditioning hikes, sleep in fighting holes overnight and polish their skills in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.

While at Infantry Training Battalion, “you will be sore, tired and hungry,” the SOI website states, “but you will persevere.”

There is no grueling, initial test at ITB that compares to IOC’s Combat Endurance Test, however. That raises the prospect that female volunteers could last longer in enlisted infantry training than they have in officer training. The first week at ITB includes a five-kilometer conditioning hike, gear being issued and briefs from the battalion commander and sergeant major. The fifth week of training, on the other hand, emphasizes the arduous Common Skills Retention Exercise, which includes a six-mile run and a 15-kilometer conditioning hike.

Upon completion of the exercise, Marines select their job in the infantry and continue with three weeks of specialized training in it. In Week 7, for example, prospective “0311” infantry riflemen endure an exhausting 72-hour field exercise that is heavy on patrolling and includes little sleep or food.

“This exercise is meant not only to teach your Marine advanced infantry skills but also to harden his body and mind for the rigors of combat,” the SOI-East site says.

The Corps has not yet disclosed which female personnel will be allowed to attend ITB or whether they will attend the entire course. If new female Marines are tapped, they likely will be recruited from Parris Island, S.C., where all enlisted female personnel attend boot camp.

One enlisted infantryman serving as an instructor at SOI-East told Marine Corps Times he hopes the Corps will allow first-term female Marines with some experience to try it, rather than just “boot females” who are “more emotionally impressionable to male Marines.”

“When I went through the School of Infantry, we lived in squad bays,” he said, adding that there was just one bathroom per floor in the building.

“It’ll be interesting to see billeting arrangements, as I’m sure that’s still the case.”

There will be interest from female Marines already in the fleet if ITB is opened to them. Lance Cpl. Elize McKelvey, a basic multimedia reproduction specialist with 1st Marine Division, out of Camp Pendleton, said she planned to ask her staff noncommissioned officer in charge about volunteering for the research.

McKelvey said she is about 5-foot-5 and 120 pounds, and can now do 15 pullups “on a good day.” Her goal is to be able to do 20 by January.

“I figure if I’m meant to do it, then things will work out that way,” she said of attending ITB. “I know I have a lot to prove, but there’s nothing worse than not trying just because someone else says you can’t.”

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