Two years ago, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the nation’s top military officer, laid down an edict on the Obama administration’s plan to open direct land combat jobs to women: If women cannot meet a standard, senior commanders better have a good reason why it should not be lowered.
Today, the “Dempsey rule” appears to have its first test case.
The Marine Corps just finished research to see if female officers could successfully complete its rigorous Infantry Officer Course.
A IOC diploma is a must to earn the designation of infantry officer. Of 29 women who tried, none graduated; only four made it through the first day’s combat endurance test.
Corps public affairs said it did not have the data on which tasks proved the toughest for women. But one particularly demanding upper-body strength test is climbing a 25-foot rope with a backpack full of gear. A candidate who cannot crawl to the top fails the test.
Traditionalists see the 0-29 performance as a call to arms by those inside the Pentagon who are determined to have significant numbers of women in the infantry. They are on the lookout for standards they believe are no longer relevant in today’s battlefield.
“The pressure is on the services from the White House’s politically correct crowd vis-a-vis Obama’s Pentagon appointees, who will force the services to accept degraded standards,” said Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer and author of the book “Deadly Consequences: How Cowards Are Pushing Women Into Combat.”
In January 2013, then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, appeared in the Pentagon press room to make a historic announcement. They had lifted the rule that prevented women from serving in direct ground combat, such as infantry, special operations, artillery and armor.
The cancellation began a far-reaching process by each military branch to evaluate female candidates and the standards they must meet. The giant study is scheduled to end in January, when Defense Secretary Ashton Carter will decide which, if not all, occupations will be opened. If a service — the Marine Corps, for example — decides infantry should remain closed, it must prove why its standards cannot be lowered.
Gen. Dempsey laid down the law this way: “If we do decide that a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn’t make it, the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the secretary, why is it that high? Does it really have to be that high?”
On its face, the Corps might encounter stiff opposition to maintaining its officer standards in light of the fact women have passed enlisted infantry school, albeit a less-demanding course.
Dakota Wood, a retired Marine Corps officer and an analyst at The Heritage Foundation, said the Corps has to be prepared for a bureaucratic fight.
“I personally think there will be people in the administration, both in the executive and appointees in DOD, who will pressure the Corps, seeking the opening of all occupational fields to women,” Mr. Wood said. “My hope is that Marine Corps leadership are able to rationally justify current standards and hold to them.
“If the standards are arbitrary, they won’t hold up to scrutiny. But I believe the Corps has decades of experience on which to base requirements.”
He added: “It certainly hasn’t been an issue to have high failure rates for men all these years. Any argument to lower the standards just to accommodate women would have to be justified based on how such a change improves combat effectiveness in the infantry.”
In the last Marine IOC class, nine of 90 male candidates failed to finish.
Elaine Donnelly, who directs the Center for Military Readiness and has issued papers arguing against women in direct land combat, said all standards for special operations, Army infantry and the Marines are “very much in jeopardy.”
“Over time, and it wouldn’t be long, the ‘Dempsey rule’ would apply, meaning, ‘If it’s too hard for women, it’s probably too hard,’” she said.
Capt. Maureen Krebs, a Marine Corps spokeswoman, said the ongoing review of standards is a double-check to make sure each one is specific to a particular job, is relevant to the operation and is “gender-neutral” — meaning each one must be the same for men and women.
“We’re looking at all of our standards for the ground combat arms right now to ensure that they hit all three of those requirements,” she said.
The Corps is just not looking at officers. It also sent 350 enlisted women, fresh from boot camp, through the Infantry Training Battalion Course at the School of Infantry in North Carolina. Of those, about 120 completed the course, meaning that if the infantry were now open to women, they would be on that career path.
The fact that so many women could pass the enlisted program points out the difficulty of the Infantry Officer Course.
“The main reason enlisted women made it through has to do with the ITB course itself,” Mrs. Donnelly said. “It is not the equal of the IOC. Not even close. There has to be a big difference, because officers have the responsibility to lead others into battle.”
The Marine Corps says the ITB women did the same tasks as the men. But Mrs. Donnelly is skeptical. She points to documents the Corps submitted to Congress in 2013 that said women are allowed to do fewer pullups than men in the basic physical fitness tests. It’s called “gender norming” to account for male-female physiological differences.
Capt. Krebs said the basic physical fitness tests are separate from standards that must be met for a particular occupation, such as infantry, where women must achieve the same as men.
As for why enlisted women could pass the ITB, she said, “There is a significant difference between the Infantry Training Battalion Course and the Infantry Officer Course,” noting that IOC is 86 days, about 30 more than the enlisted class.
“There are different expectations on Day One of our infantry officers versus that basic rifleman who is out there who is supposed to know his job and his job only, whereas the officer must know every single job and be the physical, mental and moral leader of that unit,” she said.
She added: “The women and the men in all of our courses we have had women go through with men — the women are [held] to the same exact standard as men. [In] the Infantry Training Battalion they’re held to the same exact standard as the men. [In] the IOC they’re held to the same exact standard as the men.”
Reluctant points of view
CBS News’ “60 Minutes” followed one female Marine on the 14-hour Combat Endurance Test at Quantico, Virginia. On the hottest day of the summer, she struggled through the obstacle course until it was time for the rope climb. She tried three times but never reached the top.
Brig. Gen. George Smith, who is overseeing the Corps’ women-in-combat integration process, told “60 Minutes” that the Corps sees no reason to lower the standards.
“The realities of combat aren’t going to change based on gender,” he said.
Gen. Smith’s candor is striking in an institution that conservatives say is increasingly politically correct under the Obama administration.
Anna Simons, a professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, said she recently met with a group of officers reluctant to share their women-in-combat views.
“Officers who balk at the idea of women serving in ground infantry units or on Special Forces Operational Detachments Alpha (ODAs) won’t publicly say so, let alone publicly explain why,” she wrote April 15 at WarOnTheRocks.com, a forum for national security commentary. “They worry about retaliation that could hurt their careers. In contrast, those who have no reservations — usually because they won’t be the ones who have to deal with the fallout from integration at the small unit level — slough off the challenge as just another minor problem or ‘ankle biter.’”
The Marine Corps had hoped to attract about 90 to 100 female volunteers to the IOC. It found 27, plus two women who, as prospective ground intelligence officers, were required to pass the infantry course.
Though the research phase is done, the course will remain open to intelligence officers who need to fulfill the requirements of that MOS, or military occupational specialty.
“Maybe a woman could pass the Infantry Officer Course,” Capt. Krebs said. “She may not have come along yet.”
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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