Marine Corps Leaders Struggle with How to Train Female Infantry Officers Amid Worries About Standards

by Braxton Taylor

In 2018, a Marine general who heads the service’s training command wrote about his concern that the “pursuit of ensuring fair and equitable opportunity” had allowed a female Marine candidate demonstrating “dangerously poor performance” to continue a key course.

“This could have resulted in a MISHAP,” Maj. Gen. Kevin Iiams, the commanding general of Marine Corps Training and Education Command, wrote in an email to other Marine Corps officers obtained by Military.com through a government records request.

The candidate was undertaking the Corps’ grueling 15-week Infantry Officer Course.

“Did we let this 2Lt go to [sic] far before ending her training?” Iiams wrote in the email.

Iiams was serving as the commander of the Corps’ training command at Quantico, Virginia, as a two-star general at the time he wrote the email. After a pair of other postings and promotion to lieutenant general, Iiams returned to the same position in 2021, a job he still holds today.

A Training Command spokesperson told Military.com that Iiams’ email was to ensure the Marine was being evaluated at the appropriate level of performance, and that she was not being pushed beyond what is appropriate for safety.

Nearly 90 pages of internal communications from Marine leadership regarding gender integration efforts at IOC obtained by Military.com highlight growing pains as the Corps adapted its infantry officer training following the opening of combat arms to women in 2013.

The Corps accepted its first female candidates at IOC in 2012 as part of a research effort.

To date, the Corps has produced only a handful of women who have made it into the ranks of infantry officers. Maj. Joshua Pena, a Training Command spokesman, told Military.com that 14 women have graduated from IOC.

Only nine women across the Corps are serving as Marine infantry officers, according to Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs. Two female Marines hold platoon commander billets, and one is an 81mm platoon commander. Another female Marine is serving as a fires and effects control officer. The other five women hold infantry officer billets.

The graduation numbers for women at IOC are very low compared to other difficult military courses, like Army Ranger school. Randy Tisor, a spokesperson for the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Moore, Georgia, told Military.com that 122 women have graduated from that program.

Just over 60 days of training, Ranger school is often described as one of the toughest in the Army.

The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, or DACOWITS, has in the past criticized the Corps’ IOC program, arguing that Ranger school has shown better success in graduating female candidates.

However, Pena told Military.com that attrition rates at IOC have gone down, though Training Command could not provide attrition data at the time of publication of this article.

Pena added that due to “improved selection processes and established preparatory training at The Basic School,” attrition at IOC has “significantly reduced over the past few years.”

“Attrition is primarily due to Marines students failing to meet graduation requirements or injury,” he said.

The emails obtained by Military.com provide a glimpse into the Corps’ navigation of changes at IOC and how top-level leadership tracked the progress and performance of women at the infantry course, including an example of how leaders struggled with how to handle one candidate soon after the course was opened to women.

In early 2018, leadership at the Corps’ Training Command sent a flurry of emails over a four-hour period regarding a dropped IOC female candidate due to her subpar performance and a range safety violation.

Col. Mark Clingan, the commanding officer of The Basic School, emailed Brig. Jason Bohm, the commanding officer of Training Command, a summary of the female IOC candidate’s performance at the course.

During a 6.45-mile hike with a 115-pound load, the female Marine student fell a couple of hundred meters behind during the last two miles of the march. During the Combat Endurance Test, or CET, she had trouble climbing a rope a second time on a double obstacle course, Clingan’s email detailed.

“She also failed several tests during the CET that she had previously taken,” the email reads.

The CET, renamed the Combat Endurance Assessment, was dropped as a graduation requirement in 2017, but is used as an assessment tool to gauge a student’s ability to graduate IOC. The CET became an IOC graduation requirement in 2012.

At a basic skills live-fire event, she “demonstrated the inability to manipulate her weapon and completely failed to clear a bolt override malfunction at the malfunction test station. She also could not provide proper direction/coaching to get her classmate on target during the buddy pair night live fire shoot. Ultimately she failed at providing and receiving simple instruction,” Clingan said in his email.

She was unable to keep the barrel of her M4 and M203 out of the dirt and had to be told to clear the dirt out of her muzzle before continuing, a problem that could cause bullet fragments to go in unpredictable directions, potentially causing injury. The female candidate “missed badly with her rocket and two 40 mm rounds. Ultimately she was unable to properly employ any of her weapon systems and assess her surroundings,” the email reads.

During a squad attack live-fire event, she was labeled a safety violator after “she failed to appropriately clear her barrel mask while conducting fire and movement and consequently fired three rounds directly into the SACON structure in front of her and had to be stopped” by a safety officer, according to the email.

A SACON structure is a shock-absorbing concrete construction used to absorb and retain bullets during live-fire training events.

The female Marine student “did not demonstrate the knowledge, decision making, or will to complete the Infantry Officer Course. She is an extremely humble officer that will be able to successfully lead Marines in another MOS,” the email detailed.

Her poor performance and safety violation prompted the emails from Iiams, who questioned her length of stay in the course and worries of a potential accident.

According to correspondence between Bohm and Iiams, this was the candidate’s second attempt at IOC. The email further noted the candidate would be reclassified to another military occupational specialty, or MOS.

Officers dropped for performance are allowed a second opportunity at IOC before being redesignated to a new job, according to Training Command. Military.com could not verify why the female candidate was dropped on her first attempt at IOC.

Those who drop out of the course for medical reasons are also afforded another opportunity to complete IOC.

Not all the emails contained negative assessments of female candidates at IOC. In the first half of 2018, Clingan noted to Bohm that “unlike some of their male counterparts,” no female Marine fell behind or out of one of the 125-pound hike events.

Some emails contained assessments of average to above average for female candidates at IOC.

The Corps graduated its first female Marine IOC student in September 2017. Marina Hierl, the first female IOC graduate, would go on to become the Corps’ first female infantry platoon commander.

Bohm is now a major general and currently serving as the inspector general of the Marine Corps. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

Clingan was promoted to brigadier general and served as assistant deputy commandant for Combat Development and Integration and deputy commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command. A Marine spokesman told Military.com that Clingan is now with U.S. European Command. He did not respond to a request for comment.

As the Corps accepted women into IOC, it made a number of changes to its pipeline meant to ensure that the standards were necessary and not unfairly hindering success for women, but nonetheless it took nearly five years for the first woman to graduate the punishing course.

The Corps has maintained that its changes to the IOC pipeline were designed to better meet fleet training requirements and standards.

A controversial exercise, which gained the attention of then-Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, was a physically demanding march known as the weapons platoon and company hike, where IOC students carried up to 150 pounds for 7.5 miles.

“We focused in the past on the 150 lb load because that is what has been questioned by others. As you know, none of our females have gotten to the point in the POI [program of instruction] to attempt the 150 lb load march,” Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh told Neller in a 2017 email.

Walsh further detailed in the email with Neller that enlisted Marines conducted the same hike, but the “heavy weight could be rotated amongst the unit during the hike,” based on training and readiness standards.

“None of the male IOC students have failed the hike with the 150 pound load,” Walsh told Neller.

Walsh served as the commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, and the deputy commandant for Combat Development and Integration. He has retired from the Corps. Walsh did not respond to a request for comment.

Neller retired from the Corps after handing the reins of commandant to Gen. David Berger in 2019. Military.com reached out to Neller and did not receive a comment at the time of publication.

The Corps eventually altered the hike allowing IOC Marine students to share the weight among the unit. The hike was also modified from a nonstop, forced march to a tactical displacement with various stops and the establishment of firing positions along the movement.

“This better reflects the tactical employment of these weapons systems in the fleet,” Bohm said in a late 2017 email.

“Informed by the 2018 Course Content Review Board [conducted every three years] changes to hiking movements were done to better reflect current operational requirements and the employment of Marine Corps infantry units,” Pena told Military.com.

Shawn Snow is a freelance reporter and Marine veteran. He previously reported for Military Times covering the Marine Corps and overseas operations.

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