The first two women to begin one of the Marine Corps toughest combat courses washed out within a week this fall. The Corps had temporarily lifted the restriction on women attending its Infantry Officer Course—one of the toughest schools in the U.S. military—in a nod toward greater equality through its ranks.
After both failed to make it beyond one week, what's next for female Leathernecks, or women in other services,who want to work in combat units?
The National Defense Authorization Act of 2011 included a provision instructing the military services to study the professional restrictions on female soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. The Army and Marine Corps do not allow women to serve in combat units—infantry, artillery or armor—and special ops units in all the services are largely restricted to men.
In an effort to see if those restrictions are outdated, the Corps established a planning team in Jan. 2011 to review its policies toward women. Among the scrutinized topics was the idea of opening up the brutal, nearly three-month Infantry Officers Course to women.
This latest experiment began this fall with two young female second lieutenants, whose identities and military occupational specialties, or MOSs, were not released to protect their privacy, the Pentagon says. They volunteered to enter fall IOC class, beginning Sept. 24.
About a quarter of the men who begin this sought-after course wash out before graduating.
Unlike other schools the Marine Corps offers for both male and female candidates, the first women to enter IOC were held to the same physical standards as their male counterparts.
One of the women dropped out on the first day (along with about 30 men) in the initial strength evaluation. The other passed the initial combat endurance test, but left after a week due to an injury.
The Corps produced a research plan obtained by U.S. News that shows its analysis so far.
While most services ban women from serving in direct combat positions, the line becomes muddied in a war without front lines—where those serving in non-combat roles can be thrust into fighting.
Laurie Emmer, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, experienced this firsthand. After joining the Army as a medic in 1982, Emmer completed three tours with the Army's elite 82nd Airborne, a quick reaction force that often finds itself at or behind enemy lines.
She was among the first women to graduate from the Army's Pathfinder School, learning advanced airborne techniques for entering enemy territory to guide in other aerial assets.
After two decades in the Army, Emmer deployed to Afghanistan in 2003 as the platoon sergeant for a medical unit.
"In my career, I have struggled trying to stay up with the men, in my best physical shape," she says. "I understand how demanding it is."
"I basically had to show that this is what I can do."
Emmer, who retired as a Sgt. 1st Class in 2005, encountered a lot of raised eyebrows from male soldiers who questioned having a woman in a combat environment. Her experience proving herself with 82nd Airborne troops, and the Pathfinder badge on her uniform, helped change their minds, she says.
"A lot of people said, 'Well, she passed that school. She must have earned it,' " she says.
But she acknowledges that her training is different than IOC and maintains that women should not have any preferential treatment.
"I know women have gotten mad at me for this, but they weren't women who have had to go out and do some of these things with me," she says.
"One of the things I saw in any of the times I had to work around infantry [soldiers] is, it's a demanding job," she says. "Any time I've had to be around them and I've had to carry anything on my back, I couldn't expect them to carry my weight and carry their own weight."
"What if this were combat, and I was slowing them down?"
The military's approach toward women in combat changed significantly during Emmer's tenure. Her initial training ingrained a doctrine in her of "here are the front lines, you aren't supposed to be near it."
That changed for her in 2003 amid a war without front lines. She says she's glad the military is changing its tune.
"It sounds like they are preparing women better now," she says.
IOC is a 12-week course that teaches new officers to be infantry platoon commanders and to "learn the basic skills in an ever-changing environment of physical and mental fatigue and high degree of uncertainty," says Col. Sean Gibson, a Marine Corps spokesman.
The course includes extended day and night marches and runs while carrying heavy loads. Throughout the process, the officers conduct continual "fire and maneuver" exercises in all kinds of conditions.
"Short answer: Teach Marine infantry officers to lead their Marines to succeed anytime, anywhere, in any situation," Gibson says.
Those who have graduated from IOC are reluctant to talk about the specifics of the course, crediting valuable battlefield lessons they learned from the uncertainty they faced in training.
The Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon was able to witness the two women who tried out for the course. He described what it was like in a piece he wrote for the Wall Street Journal.
"This isn't the place where future Marine leaders learn of the accomplishments of past military greats or the ins and outs of Afghan culture," he wrote. "It is where, at 2 a.m., after marching all evening through a drenching downpour with 100 pounds of gear on their backs and no foreknowledge of when the exercise will end, Marines might stage a mock ambush of an enemy, or figure out how to evacuate a wounded comrade, or navigate through deep woods after their GPS devices are switched off by instructors."
The ability to complete these exercises is essential for those who would command other Marines to prove they can survive and lead in an intense combat environment.
In other service branches, advanced infantry training is also considered a key element to career advancement. Many senior Army officers bear the yellow and black Ranger Tab, denoting graduation from Ranger School, which boasts a 50 percent dropout rate.
This is not the case in the Marine Corps, according to the research plan.
"A recent RAND Corp. study (cited in the DoD report to Congress), found no statistical differences in the career progression of female officers in open MOSs (with closed positions) as compared to women in fully open occupations," according to the Marine Corps report. "Both groups of women shared the same likelihood of reaching pay grade of [colonel]."
New precedent shows this even playing field could continue past past that rank. The current Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos is a fighter pilot. This billet is currently available to women in the Navy, but female Marines are restricted to flying transports. Amos' varied training never included advanced infantry school.
Even if the two women had passed IOC this fall, they would not have become infantry officers for ground combat units, which are still closed to women. Rather, they would take these skills on to the jobs they were already assigned.
But this is an ongoing process for the Marine Corps, which will continue to study the two female officers' performance.
"Because the performance capabilities of females at IOC is unknown, Training and Education Command will collect data in order to assess female participants and their performance against the IOC program of instructional standards," according to the Marine Corps report.
The Pentagon says there are no plans to alter the IOC physical requirements to accommodate women.
There are no women signed up for the next IOC class to begin in January. The next one will likely begin in March or later.
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Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com