Stars and Stripes announced that the “Marine Corps to Open Officer Infantry School to Women.” Comments on the article are encouraging, except those from current Marine infantrymen, who are making the same tired, emotional appeals that were used against my generation of women when we broke barriers by entering the Service Academies. I’m offering female lieutenants considering Infantry School some advice on how to handle your new hostile environment–and I don’t mean Iraq and Afghanistan.
Help each other out. You are not competing against the other women officers; you are all competing to win the hearts of the men who will serve in your units. The only way to win their loyalty is to demonstrate that the majority of you can do the job, and as they say about Ginger Rogers, do it backwards and in high heels. Encourage each woman to do better than most of the guys.
Don’t try to “be one of the guys.” Your job is to be their leader. In other words, be better than the guys. Demonstrate your courage, fortitude, perseverance, knowledge, and concern every day, in the field and in the classroom. Do not let the guys carry your stuff or do you favors –that will only backfire on you. It’s okay to get dirty, break fingernails, and tolerate obscenities. Do not tolerate demeaning comments from your peers, about you or any other woman. Stand up for yourself the same way one of the guys would if you insulted their mother or girlfriend. Do not use obscenities yourself, except in rare, reasoned circumstances–obscenities have much more impact that way. Do not drink with the guys, beyond one and a half servings. Alcohol and a volatile situation create a really explosive situation. Again, take care of yourself and your fellow women. At the end of the day, do not be a typical grunt. You are a groundbreaker and will never be typical. Be a strong, courageous, loyal, persistent, capable, female leader.
Prepare yourself physically, so that part of the training will be easy. Most of the criticism comes from guys who whine that the physical standards are different for men and women. You will have no power over what new physical fitness test (PFT) requirements will be in place. You do have power over how well you perform, so try to perform at the current requirement level. The minimum Marine PFT standards for males to enter Infantry School are well within reach of any fit, young woman: three pull-ups from a dead-hang without swinging, 44 crunches, followed by a three-mile run in 28 minutes (nine-minute mile pace).
Before I entered the Air Force Academy, my dad hung a chin-up bar across the doorway to our kitchen. I practiced on it every time I passed through the kitchen, anytime I was waiting, and several more times a day. There are two components to doing pull-ups: shoulder/back/arm strength and your weight (lighter is easier). Female gymnasts had no problem with pull-ups, but as a cross-country runner, this was the most difficult part for me, as it was for many male cross-country runners. Practice to do better than the men’s minimums. This way, when you are criticized for lowering the physical standards, you can challenge the guys at their own game. Even if you cannot beat all of them, beating at least the minimums will win you some grudging admiration. Here is a link to the men’s PFT scoring system. The men’s maximum may be out of your reach, but it is also out of the reach for many men!
Of course, the complaint from men that women have different PFT standards is a red-herring argument to begin with. In today’s combat conditions, many new skills are needed, beyond brute force, but the military has not developed testing requirements for the skills the modern soldier needs. In the meantime, we have to put up with comparison to antiquated, male-oriented (not combat oriented) standards. So beat the guys at their own game to deflect their criticisms. While doing this, keep an eye on what you must really attain: functional physical fitness. Even while training to pass a PFT, also train to prevent injuries. Train to be able to haul heavy loads, carry weapons over your head to keep them dry, walk, crouch, and slither in combat boots, sprint from cover to cover, and move for days and nights in a row. If you need the motivation or structure of a planned physical development program, here are links to some outcome-based programs: Marine Corp Manual, Mark Divine’s Sealfit Program, Stew Smith’s program, and Livestrong.
Prepare yourself mentally for the challenge. It will still be harder than you can imagine, but at least get a clue of what to expect. Here is a short reading list: American Sniper, Marine: A Guided Tour of a Marine Expeditionary Unit (in full disclosure I have not read this), and, even though it covers Army Ranger School instead of Infantry School, The Unforgiving Minute.
I wish every woman success and good luck who attempts Marine Infantry School. If you do not make it through, take solace in the fact that not every man makes it through, either. You are carrying the extra burden of setting a standard for future women in the military to follow. Take care of each other, watch each other’s backs, hold each other to a higher standard. Do not forget who you are as an individual, even as you discover that you are more than you ever dreamed you were capable of.