Women in ‘Man School’

I have three vivid memories from Infantry Officer Course. The first was boxing a former Naval Academy football player everyone called Monkey Brains, who years later set up my first mortgage. The second was the burning — no, melting — sensation after being pepper-sprayed in the face and then doing hand-to-hand combat drills.

The third memory was a persistent feeling of exhaustion, both physical and mental. Numbness in my shoulders from over 100 pounds of on my back, body armor, weapons and ammo; rickety knees from climbing up steep, muddy hills; sweat and rain dripping from my forehead into your eyes; dozing off in the prone, while taking a knee or standing up. We humped at night, all night, off the main trails and roads, lest we get caught by the scores of corporals and sergeants patrolling the Quantico Highlands. Hunger gripped my stomach like a vice.

If you were role-playing one of the key leaders — platoon commander, platoon sergeant, one of the squad leaders — you faced a constant battle to keep razor-sharp focus through your own fatigue, pushing and pulling the others toward the next objective, because there was always a “next objective,” keeping everyone on task — eyes up, security out, listening, one mushy boot after the next.

This place got us ready for a decade of war. There were over 50 of us in Class 6-02, all of us men. IOC was informally called “Man School” for good reason — you had to have balls to finish.

Think women have balls, too?

The Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps announced in April that IOC would be opened to women for the first time, reigniting the debate over women serving in direct ground combat roles — specifically in combat arms military occupational specialties (MOS) such as the infantry. The debate intensified this month after a female Marine captain argued in a Marine Corps Gazette article that most women can’t handle the extended physical rigors of combat, and after a New York Times feature about what will likely be the final male-only training platoon to go through IOC.

This is my effort to remove emotion and politics from this well-worn argument. I have no problem serving alongside women, the best of whom have proven time and again that they possess the courage, leadership, mental acuity and physical abilities that meet or exceed those of most men. They will excel at IOC and they would likely succeed when they arrive in the Operating Forces to lead a platoon of Marines, grunts or otherwise. The past decade of counterinsurgency and stability operations around the world has also showcased the value of having women serve with front-line Marines, especially when we operate in regions in which the cultural sensivities of men engaging indigenous women for information becomes a big issue. That’s why Female Engagement Teams were formed, members of which are known as Lionesses.

The Gazette article written by Capt Katie Petronio, a combat engineer with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, argues that women in general have physical limitations that preclude optimal performance in combat. Naturally, she is being pilloried for her position, which she formed from her experiences in combat alongside her male infantry and engineer counterparts. Here, she recounts the state of her body by the fifth month of her last trip to the Sandbox:

By the fifth month into the deployment, I had muscle atrophy in my thighs that was causing me to constantly trip and my legs to buckle with the slightest grade change. My agility during firefights and mobility on and off vehicles and perimeter walls was seriously hindering my response time and overall capability. It was evident that stress and muscular deterioration was affecting everyone regardless of gender; however, the rate of my deterioration was noticeably faster than that of male Marines and further compounded by gender-specific medical conditions.

Can her case be representative of the experiences of other women? Probably, but that hasn’t stopped some members of Congress from trying to repeal the ground combat exclusion policy for female service members.

I still think we will be able to find some stout, tough-as-nails women who can excel in these tough environments; that’s not the issue preventing full integration into the combat arms. There are legitimate support and infrastructure issues that would need to be addressed — for instance, mixed berthing or separate in an effort to prevent fraternization? That’s tough in a tiny patrol base. OBGYN treatment in the field or back at the big base? If in the field, will corpsmen require rudimentary OBGYN training, in addition to learning to how to deal with gunshot wounds and severed limbs? 

Most significantly, I think the issue is “us” — you, me, Western society’s unwillingness to accept the worst consequences of war on the “fairer” gender. Read about the Israeli Defense Force’s combat exclusion policy here. This is not misogyny; it’s about our society’s perceptions and its ingrained instincts to protect.

Ever wonder what happens to a man when he gets captured?

Ever wonder what happens to a woman when she gets captured? Ask BG Rhonda Cornum.

Which horror is more acceptable? It’s not exactly fun banter for polite company. The issue is as much about the revulsion it triggers in us, as it is about the torture to which they are subjected.

Back at Camp Barrett in Quantico, the first women officers seeking to attend IOC won’t arrive until at least September. I think some of them will finish Man School — not because IOC was made it easier (we hold the line at one standard, right?), but because these women have the balls to perform in combat.

The question is, do we have the balls to watch them do it?


About Chairman Mao

I like fomenting socialist revolutions and purging my homeland of pseudo-intellectualism and capitalist dogma. I also like sports, dogs and food (although I wouldn't consider myself a foodie).
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7 Responses to Women in ‘Man School’

  1. Bob Frank says:

    Chairman: I am a PADI Dive Master and last night I was teaching diving to some new students. The dive shop that I work with had a new instructor on-board (Instructors are more highly trained than petty Dive Masters) so they asked some of us who were teaching to “show her the ropes” which we were all glad to do. Mary (her name changed to protect the innocent) was about 6 feet tall and weighed a good 180 if not 200. She hauled two tanks (45 pounds each) from the shop to the cars, from the cars to the pool, etc. better than some of the men I have worked with. She could pick up 60-100 pounds of weights as well as anyone else. And she seemed to be both a good student (learning from us) and a good teacher (helping us with students) as necessary. From my perspective she (1) is over 18 years of age and, therefore, can make her own decisions, (2) appears to be as physically fit as any men I know, (3) clearly both follows “orders” and can lead as well as any guy and, therefore if she wants to learn to kill, kill, kill and eat blood, guts and gore and then yell ‘Kill Kill Kill’ (thank you Arlo Guthrie and Alice’s Restaurant) then let her do it. Having been in This Man’s Army (a long long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) I personally don’t care if you have physical balls or not. All I care about is whether you are a good soldier or not. I have seen guys wimp out when handed their first grenade to toss or who shudder at the report and recoil from a rifle. Wimps! Give me a chick who knows how to shoot straight and doesn’t mind going a week without a bath and eating her meals cold from a tin can and I will ready to follow her before I would every want some fruitcake from France supporting me. To paraphrase General George (Patton, not Custer), “”I would rather have a single strong woman working with me than a French brigade behind me.”

  2. Tommy says:

    I am a former Marine Infantryman and until recently a government contractor, who conducted all of the weapons and tactics training for ALL of the female engagement teams the Marine Corps deployed from the east coast over the past 3 years and I am hear to tell you their training was a dog and pony show, a farce, merely a propoganda tool. All training evolutions such as forced marches , patrols, CQB/MOUT,Counter IED , SSE, Counter Sniper ,Convoy Ops and land navigation courses were “gender normed” to make them easier, because it was to hot, to far or just “too hard”. It was an up hill battle just to get it ok’d for them to actually wear their helmets and body armor to BZO their weapons before the conduct of CMP livefire because it was a little hot out. Now,… were there some female Marines in those teams that I believe could cut it in a rifle company? Absolutely , but I can only think of only three out of the aproximatley 220 “FETs” that my team and I trained. Then add the problems we had with certain members having emotional, medical, and marital “issues” so the couldnt deploy, and you have a real circus that has no place in an Infantry Battalion.
    To follow up on this incredible mess , after action reports coming back to us for these teams from the battallions they were attached to reveiled that patrols had to remove checkpoints from patrols, essentially shorting them, because of how easily the “Lionesses” became fatigued, they were literally a proverbial boat anchor for those squads to drag around on patrol and the micro management of their training stateside led to a number of problems once they were expected to preform in a tactical role. If the Corps learns anything from the Joke that is the FET , it should be : Women in the infantry- Hell fuck No

  3. Chairman Mao says:

    (Editor’s Note: The following was emailed to me by Matt, a friend who I served with in Iraq and Afghanistan.)


    Your IOC post was extremely informative, and I especially liked all the links. I do however respectfully disagree with your final assessment. I might go so far as to say no woman can make it through IOC – unharmed, without the standard being dropped or help from her classmates. I was in the first OCS PLC “integrated” company. Every one of those females was on light duty for multiple days, many were on bed rest and many were medically broken each week. Many were great runners, could do pullups, pushups, crossfit type stuff but they could not physically handle the sustained rucking and O-courses. I agree many men can’t either but this is no excuse – those men shouldn’t make it either.

    I’m also glad the issue was mentioned in the Israeli wikipedia link about men’s reaction to women in danger, but there is no real discussion talk about another powerful instinct we all have – sexual, especially during the time of life when we are called to serve in the line. As you know the discipline needed for living and working in tight, stressful quarters is different from an office setting and now there will be one more extremely difficult human dynamic for our young leaders to try to deal with. Also, this is not discussed, but what is the impact on the female psyche when they go against their natural instinct to nurture and do the horrible stuff that is required in combat? Has this been studied or even thought about or is it just simply old fashion to even think that and there is no reason to even consider it? Have we looked at the rates of PTSD of men and women over the past 10 years and seen if there are any trends there?

    Men and women being POW’s is almost a push. We will all get tortured – males physically and females sexually. But think about the extra leverage our captors will have over the men in the facility when they can threaten to do harm to women.

    I agree we need the talents and special access to some elements of society that women bring to our organization, but it needs to be done in a way where we aren’t degrading our combat readiness or inflicting long term physical and psychological damage on these women. Even if the rate of injury to females is simply statistically higher – this equates to more money our government must spend to care for soldiers/Marines.

    My opinion, this is a decision being made for political and ideological reasons, not with our national security in mind. Doesn’t surprise me, though. We have a failure in leadership from the top_down – evidenced by the high suicide rates, numbers of quality people leaving active duty, drug/alcohol abuse and general low morale in our combat forces. It is easy to blame it on the war or the generation but this guy would tell you that it is a failure of management/leadership: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._Edwards_Deming#Key_principles


    • Tommy says:

      Really sorry if my comments about the FETshurt any feelings, but as soon as you mentioned them Jeff, I had steam comming out of my ears. The post from Matt above is exactly right ( and Im wondering who he is because I also served with you in Iraq and Afghanistan just not on a first name bases lol) , They were a political stunt. Much like the Marine Corps insisting they be “First” in comming to compliance with the repeal of DADT. The Corps is making a mistake and it will be an expensive one.

  4. Laura says:

    As you know, I have close to zero knowledge on this topic, but I thought the column was informative and interesting. I don’t feel informed enough to make a judgement call myself on this issue (at least not yet), but I’m interested in reading the links more closely.

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