QUANTICO, Va. — From the moment before dawn that we stepped out of our vehicles in the woods here, it was plainly obvious it would be a long, demanding day in the wilderness.
Tuesday marked the beginning of the latest iteration of the Infantry Officer Course, the Marine Corps’ demanding 13-week course that determines who leads infantry Marines in combat. IOC has been in the news frequently over the last year as a result of the Women in Service Restriction Review, a Pentagon-directed study that is assessing which additional roles female service members can hold in combat units.
Currently, female Marines are not allowed to hold military occupational specialties in a variety of combat arms jobs, including infantry, artillery, reconnaissance and special operations. Commandant Gen. Jim Amos decided last year to use IOC to conduct research about whether the Corps should open some of those fields, but only six female lieutenants have reported at IOC to try it.
The latest two of those six stepped off with 77 other Marine lieutenants before dawn. Like all but one of their female predecessors, the women attending this IOC eventually fell short of passing the initial Combat Endurance Test, a grueling examination of physical strength and decision-making under duress. The one exception attended last fall, passing the CET before a stress fracture in her foot forced her to bow out of training about a week later.
One of the women this time was among six lieutenants pulled from the course for falling behind schedule to the point that they could not pass the course. The other woman did better, making it to the end but not doing well enough overall to meet the course’s standards, said Maj. Scott Cuomo, director of IOC. Six men fell into that category, as well.
Additionally, five more male lieutenants who attempted the course asked for a “drop on request,” or DOR, which disqualifies them from completing IOC. All told, 61 Marine lieutenants passed the initial Combat Endurance Test, and 18 failed.
The women seemingly failed primarily due to struggles with upper body strength. In one example, they both struggled to climb a 20-foot rope required twice. One Marine made it all the way up it once, but could not do it again. The other woman — and a couple of men — were unable to make it up the rope one time.
As many Marine Corps Times readers are aware, I was challenged in April by the commandant to take this version of IOC as a participant after he took exception to a previous headline suggesting the two female volunteers at the last IOC “flunked.” I initially accepted the invitation, but several days later we mutually agreed that the more prudent measure would be covering the initial Combat Endurance Test as an embedded observer. Doing so seemed like the best way to see what occurred without becoming a distraction to the mission at IOC.
My experience Tuesday as an observer tells me it would have been damn near impossible to pass the Combat Endurance Test without months of training beforehand. For starters, it requires land navigation skills, the strength and agility to negotiate a series of difficult physical events and the know-how to put together a variety of weapons organic to an infantry unit, including the M249 squad automatic weapon, the M4 carbine and the M2 .50-caliber machine gun.
That’s to say nothing of the physical component and the ability to make snap decisions while confused about one’s surroundings and mission. Some lieutenants could be seen wandering through the woods seemingly aimlessly, far from their objectives. At least two lieutenants vomited, and a few ran into some sort of trouble that left them bleeding from the head. Considering it was about 75 degrees and overcast or raining most of the day, the summer elements also certainly could have been worse, too.
A small team of embedded media, other observers and I spent hours traversing the hills, fields, streams and muddy paths of Quantico to track the events. It was impressive watching the majority of the lieutenants perform, and inspiring watching those who struggled almost uniformly refuse to give up. It’s safe to say all of our legs are sore today.
I’d like to thank the commandant and Col. Todd Desgrosseilliers, commander of the The Basic School, which oversees IOC, for having us down. Thanks also to Maj. Cuomo and all of the other officers and enlisted staff at TBS who hosted us.
I’ll have a long-form cover story on Marine Corps Times soon expanding on this issue and offering several related updates.