Fourteen women have attempted to complete the Marine Corps’ Infantry Officer Course, one of the most grueling in the military since they were first allowed to do so in the fall of 2012. Fourteen so far have failed. In a bracing op-ed released on Friday, one particpant explained that the reason lies not in physical disparity between women, but in the double standards inherent in the training.
Second Lt. Sage Santangelo wrote in the Washington Post last week of her experience in the Infantry Officer Course, detailing what it was like to be one of four women attempting to complete the Combat Endurance Test — the first and biggest hurdle in the 13-week course. While she started off strong, Santangelo recounted, “there came a point when I could not persuade my body to perform. It wasn’t a matter of will but of pure physical strength. My mind wanted more, but my muscles quivered in failure after multiple attempts. I began to shiver as I got cold. I was told I could not continue.” She failed the course, along with the three other female trainees.
Since then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted the ban on allowing women to take on combat roles on the front lines in 2012, thirteen women have passed the Marine’s enlisted infantry training. The first four were heralded as landmark. But Santangelo notes that none have so far passed the more challenging officer candidate version of the exam.
That rate of failure, Santangelo notes, should not be blamed on the inability of women to perform in combat environments. Nor should it be placed on the common worry about physical fitness — the commonly cited inability of many women to perform pulls up, Santangelo says is countered by her own ability to perform 16 in her last physical fitness test. Instead, she writes, that there are several changes that the Corps can make to give women a fighting chance to pass the Endurance Test.
First, seemingly counter-intuitively, Santangelo recommends doing away with dual standards where women are given a lower bar to cross while in basic training. “Women aren’t encouraged to establish the same mental toughness as men — rather, they’re told that they can’t compete,” Santangelo posits. “Men, meanwhile, are encouraged to perceive women as weak. I noticed that women were rarely chosen by their peers for some of the harder tasks in basic training.” That is evident in the varying standards for physical fitness given between the two sexes: a perfect score for men is achieved by completing 18-minute three-mile run, 20 pull-ups and 100 sit-ups in two minutes; women are given three more minutes to run and pull-ups are replaced by a 70-second flexed arm hang.
That disparity discourages women to push themselves further, Santangelo argued. It would also help if Marines are allowed to decide on a career track in the infantry earlier in the process, she wrote, to give women the time to train up their bodies to better meet the rigors of combat training. Women are also banned from taking the course a second time at present — arguably to prevent them from delaying the rest of their training as combat positions are still not available. Men, meanwhile, are given the chance to take it again and benefit from knowledge gained the first time around.
Lieutenant Santangelo’s essay came just as a the Washington Post and Kaiser Institute released a new, in-depth series of polls surveying veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan on their views of the military. According to their results, 58 percent support women moving more firmly into combat roles, while another 39 oppose it; of those, 36 percent strongly support women joining ground units that engage in close combat. Those findings are slightly lower than polls of the population writ large, which have found sixty-six percent of Americans support women taking on more direct combat roles. Another survey from around the same time showed that 74 percent of respondents would vote for a law that opened combat roles to women along the same lines as Panetta did.
Since Panetta made the announcement last year, the decision has been met with skepticism from conservative quarters. One Wall Street Journalist columnist argued that men shouldn’t be forced to endure women serving side-by-side with them as “social norms” would make it “humiliating” for men. Another commentator found himself agreeing with arguments against integrating black soldiers into the army in his attempt to disparage women in combat. On the other end of the spectrum, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey has stated that women in combat roles would likely serve to reduce the frequency of sexual assaults in the military, an issue that is plaguing the armed services.
While Santiago is barred from taking the Endurance Test again, she is due to report to Marine flight school in 12 months time. “Now, instead of passively evaluating their performance, we need to figure out how to set women up to excel in infantry roles,” she concluded. “My hope is that the Marine Corps will allow every Marine the opportunity to compete. And that when we fail, our failure is seen simply as a challenge to others to succeed.”