Three pioneering women in Marine infantry course are asked to leave. Why?

The three women who qualified for the Marine Corps's Infantry Officers Course were physically disqualified last week. No woman has successfully completed the course.

Julie Jacobson/AP
US Marine Female Engagement Team members wait for the signal to begin their patrol in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan in 2009.

Just weeks after three women passed a rigorous day-long test qualifying them to potentially lead US Marine infantrymen for the first time in history, news came that all three women have been asked to leave the course.

They were physically disqualified from the training last week for falling behind in hikes while carrying loads of upwards of 100 pounds, says Maj. George Flynn, director of the Infantry Officers Course (IOC) at Quantico, Va.

Earlier this month, the women had successfully completed the Combat Endurance Test, the first hurdle Marines must pass to become infantry officers – the quintessential front-line combat job. That accomplishment qualified them for the remainder of infantry officer training, the IOC.

Under an order from the secretary of Defense, services must open all combat jobs to women by January 2016, or come back with a specific reason – backed by research – as to why not.

When they begin the 13-week IOC, officers are told that if they “fall out” of more than one “tactical movement” during their time in training, they will be asked to leave the school. 

“That has always been IOC policy,” Major Flynn says.“The key part is not just to conduct a movement. You need to lead that moment, and you can’t do that if you’re falling out.”

The standard pace for “tactical movements” – otherwise known as hikes – at the IOC is about three miles per hour, he says.

During the first march in which the three female – as well as three male – officers were issued a warning, the Marines were given about two hours and 40 minutes to move 7-1/2 miles. At the time, they were assigned to carry roughly 104 pounds each.

If at any point one of the students falls 75 or 100 meters behind the unit, an instructor “will start walking with that Marine,” Flynn says. “We start sticking on them.”

The instructors ask: “Hey, where’s your unit right now? OK, you need to get up with them, because you’re not leading anyone from back here.”

From that point, the officers have about five minutes to start catching up. If they don’t, they are put in a truck.

Officers at the IOC say it’s a safety issue. If the unit gets strung out too far, it’s dangerous not to know where troops are.

The Marines are then told that if they fall behind to a similar degree again, they are out of the course.

“The class adviser pulls them aside and says, ‘That’s your one. You don’t get any more. Understand?’ ” Flynn says. “They’ve been counseled that they have failed a hike, and we don’t tolerate more than one failure of a tactical movement.” 

That’s what happened last week, this time during a nine-mile march. The students had three hours to complete it, carrying 124-pound packs.

When three men and three women fell behind for a second time, Flynn had to break the news that they were out. 

Retired Army Col. Ellen Haring, an advocate for women in combat, says that although the entire formation was supposed to complete the hike in three hours, it took most of the group closer to four hours.

“Despite the fact that none of them could keep the pace that was set that day, they were considered failures. But the whole unit failed to meet those parameters, not just those six people,” she says. “Who maintains the rate of the march?”

The Marines haven’t always been clear about the parameters for the course, says Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network. 

At the enlisted training school, Mr. Jacobs, who served as a Marine, recalls that students were told they could walk no faster than three miles an hour, and every hour they had to take a 10-minute break. 

In the IOC, “it’s up to the person in front to set the speed of the hike,” he says. “There doesn’t seem to be a standard around these movements.”

As a result, he adds, “it seems like the goal posts just keep moving.” 

Colonel Haring argues that this is particularly tough for the women who are endeavoring to become infantry officers. “I’m sure all of these women did this course because they thought they could complete it,” she says.

On this point, Flynn agrees. “They are naturally upset, in the sense that they feel a little down and they think they could’ve done more,” he says. “Everyone’s been there: When you’re done with a situation, you find ways in your brain that you think you could’ve pushed a little harder here or there.” 

Their fellow classmates, too, were “bummed out” by the news, he adds. 

“These classes, naturally because of the shared duress and stress, they bond pretty quickly,” Flynn says. “Everyone is bummed out and feels bad, but there’s also the dynamic that the shared stress only gets worse if everyone can’t carry their weight.”

The women in the group, who must remain anonymous because they are officially US military test subjects, left the course saying they felt “positive,” Flynn says. “They said they got a lot out of it.”

“I told them that they are good officers and that they need to be going out and leading the Marines they have been assigned to lead – right now.”

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