Build on female Marine officer’s achievement
By KATE GERMANO AND JOE PLENZLER | Special to The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: September 29, 2017
Another glass ceiling in our nation’s military was smashed this week when a female second lieutenant became the first woman to graduate from the Marine Corps Infantry Officers Course.
Because the infantry is the beating heart of the Corps and the most revered and influential group within the tribe, the significance of her achievement cannot be overstated.
Despite its well-established legacy of tactical competence in combat, the Marine Corps has always served as a boat anchor dragging behind the rest of the services when it comes to social change.
The service resisted desegregation following World War II, opening aviation to women, and allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly.
And when the Obama administration signaled it would change the ground combat exclusion policy — which was originally established in 1948 to limit the roles of women — the Marine Corps experienced a collective heart attack.
And in 2015, then commandant and now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joe Dunford was so opposed to the idea of women in the infantry, he requested an exception to the policy change for the Corps from the secretary of defense.
As a result, the number of Marine women pursuing ground combat roles is lagging far behind the Army, which has exceeded its recruiting mission for women in the new roles this year.
So far, only 36 women have attempted IOC and just one has succeeded. But as the Army has proved, while physiologically different than men, women are physically and mentally equal to the task of serving in ground combat roles.
That only one woman has been able to complete IOC is a testament to the rigors of the course, but it also proves that some women are fully capable of outperforming men in this environment.
The staff should be commended for keeping course standards high while ensuring a tough and fair training environment for this female lieutenant and her peers. But to encourage more women to pursue ground combat jobs and change the strong perception that the service is resistant to women serving in these new roles, the Corps should be singing this news from the mountaintops.
So far, they have done a poor job of telling the story.
Assistant Commandant Gen. Glenn Walters recently lamented in an interview with the Marine Corps Times, “These are the successes that never seem to get out in the press.” His comments are somewhat hypocritical since the Corps has stated the lieutenant will not be available for interviews and the IOC graduation was closed to the press and public — though Marine officials released a video congratulating the woman and her classmates.
As a result, the service is missing a great opportunity to attract and recruit more women like her.
This hard-charging woman, whoever she is, has overcome personal challenges and decades of resistance to expanding the roles of Marine women. But in the wake of the Marines United scandal, one female infantry officer is not enough to foster the positive change the Corps needs when it comes expanding the roles of women based on demonstrated performance.
To improve the Corps’ troubled track record on women, leaders like Walters must ensure that there are many more qualified women in the recruiting and training pipeline and that the American people — including aspiring female infantry officers — are made aware of these recent successes via the media.
So where should the Corps go from here?
The Army has done a great job of working with the media to celebrate the women who have successfully completed Ranger School and since integrated into combat jobs.
The Corps should do the same to attract more high-quality talent. If access to the new female graduate is going to be restricted to protect her privacy, the Marine Corps should allow the media to interview the school staff about her performance. Such transparency will help refute the inevitable claims by current and former Marines that standards were lowered to allow her to pass.
Furthermore, the Corps should collect and publicly disseminate the lessons learned by the more than 30 other women who attempted the course so that women entering the course in the future might better prepare for the challenge.
While we don’t advocate that the Marine Corps provide extra training or preparation for female infantry officer candidates, leaders should communicate to women how to best prepare on their own.
This is no different than what we normally expect from recruiters, who are tasked to provide helpful training information to male and female recruits preparing for entry-level training — whether officer candidate school or boot camp.
The graduation of the first female infantry officer on Monday represents a historic milestone — one that the Marine Corps should take every opportunity to publicly acknowledge via the media in order to ensure more women follow in her footsteps. By doing so, the Corps will attract more high-quality women and become a stronger, more diverse, and more operationally capable force.
Kate Germano is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel. Joe Plenzler is a retired 20-year Marine Corps combat veteran. He served as an infantry officer and public affairs officer.