WONSON: Maintaining high standards

Last month, the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced they were rescinding the Direct Ground Combat Exclusion Rule. As a Marine Corps infantry officer that has served alongside female Marines in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I believe this was the right decision. I am pleased to see that women in the military are receiving the opportunities they earned and the recognition they deserve. This decision will make our organization better by increasing the talent pool from which to select qualified individuals.

Allowing women to serve in ground combat assignments will not reduce readiness. Race, creed, color, sexual orientation and gender simply do not matter on the battlefield. No one cares if a quick reaction force moving under enemy fire to reach a beleaguered outpost is comprised of male or female Marines. The only thing that matters is that Marines can accomplish the mission.

In order for Marines to succeed in ground combat roles, training standards must remain high. Adherence to high standards is why the term “Marine” has come to signify the highest level of military efficiency and soldierly virtue.  High standards in training were the reason Marines overcame incredible odds to achieve the impossible at places such as Belleau Wood, Guadalcanal, Inchon and Khe Sanh. Without these standards, Marines would have never gotten off the beach at Iwo Jima or made it out of the freezing hills at Chosin Reservoir.

Combat readiness and success on the battlefield will only be impacted if training standards are lowered. The Marine Corps is currently conducting a full review of requirements to validate the standards for all of its occupational specialties. It may prove challenging to modify the training standards for some ground combat billets, however, since these standards are indicative of what Marines will be expected to do on the battlefield.

One example is the infantry, the most physically demanding of all the occupational specialties. The role of the infantry has not changed much throughout history. Infantry units are still expected to move long distances and operate in the harshest and most austere environments imaginable. Marine infantrymen train to move 25 miles on foot in about eight hours. The combined weight of their gear, weapons and equipment they carry can easily exceed 100 lbs.  Since past experience has shown the distance to be necessary, and all the gear, weapons and equipment carried to be essential, there isn’t much flexibility to modify this standard.

Biannual physical fitness tests provide a general assessment of a Marine’s strength and endurance, but lifting ammunition cans and doing pull-ups can only reflect so much. More important is that every Marine has the strength to slide down a fifty-foot rope suspended from a helicopter, carry a wounded Marine to safety and climb up into the second story window of a building.  There are many requirements such as these in an infantry unit, and are all essential for mission success. They must be completed while wearing body armor and carrying weapons and essential equipment.

I am often asked if there are male Marines in the infantry community that cannot meet these standards. The answer is yes. These individuals are provided remediation and afforded every opportunity to meet required standards. If they cannot, they are processed out of the unit. It is important to note that since Marines always lead by example, those who only meet the minimum standard are usually not assigned to leadership positions and have little hope of promotion or advancement.

Every Marine understands the importance of high standards. They signed up to be Marines because they wanted to be the best. They know that maintaining high standards in training has more to do with success in battle than high-tech weapon systems. They know that standards are developed based on what Marines are expected to do in combat, not what looks good on paper. And they know they have to meet standards to earn the respect of their peers.

Allowing women to serve in ground combat units will only help Marines continue to be the best at what they do, so long as the Corps maintains the high standards of training that have led to success in battle for the past 237 years.

Lieutenant Colonel Craig Wonson is a Military Fellow in the Yale International Security Studies program. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Marine Corps or any agency of the U.S. government. Contact him at craig.wonson@yale.edu .

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