Is it 1987?


I write and read a lot about the integration of women into the Infantry, and frankly at this point the narrative surrounding this issue, (including my own) has become a bit repetitive. For me repetitiveness on this issue is a good thing; it means it has been decided, that little remains to discuss.  But once and awhile, someone will write something on the subject that sounds like it came from 1987, thus compelling me to once again write about women in the Infantry.

Usually these types of unsupported arguments against women in the Infantry are not taken seriously and reside on one’s personal Blog or in a publication that is not highly respected by academics or senior military officers. Yet recently, the Marine Corps Gazette, a fairly respected magazine surprisingly published an “award winning” essay by Marine Captain Leah Serrano.  In this article, Captain Serrano opines about all the reasons women do not belong in combat units. She lists many reasons, all having to do exclusively with the characteristics of the female gender and shockingly nothing else.

So how to counter Captain Serrano’s predictable and recycled arguments? Should I counter her in a “hook and jab” sort of way, taking on each of her reasons individually like I usually do? No, not this time, this time I am going to reject the temptation to keep my head below the “weeds”. If this style of rebuttal is what you seek, there is a superb counter article written by an Army Officer which decimates all of CPT Serrano’s ridiculous and sophomoric statements about rape, promotion, Infantry brotherhood, injury, culture, farting, and burping; it is here:

Because CPT Serrano immediately cedes that some women can indeed physically and mentally qualify to serve in the Infantry, she has thankfully exposed her flank and given me a chance to advance, traversing above the “weeds” in order to counter her position on higher ground, ultimately exposing the real reason she and many in the Marine Corps think women do not belong in combat units. If some women can physically and mentally perform in the Infantry, as CPT Serrano clearly states, than CPT Serrano’s opinions are at their intellectual core based only on gender, and how the female gender alone, prohibits women from serving in the Infantry. She states:

“My argument has little to do with whether women can pass the Infantry Officer Course or Infantry Training Battalion, or endure the hardships of combat. Even those select women who can physically endure the infantry are still posing a threat to the infantry mission and readiness”.

So here is the moment in which I lift my head above the weeds to see what’s really going on, and what is really going on is this: The refusal of this commissioned Marine Corps Officer and the Corps at large to fully embrace equality based only on physical and mental ability is eerily similar to the racist beliefs rampant in our military in the 1940’s and beyond, specifically the very racist way in which the Marine Corps went about integrating black men into units.

Right about now is also the moment in which people, generally Marines say to me: “How can you compare the integration of black men into the Marine Corps with the integration of women into the Infantry? Men are men, and they generally have the same physical ability, and so back then there was not this fear of lowering a physical standard or changing a culture.” This is true to some degree; men are men and do generally perform at the same physical level regardless of skin color, or much else, but even this was not good enough for the Corps in the 1940’s. When the Marine Corps integrated black men into units, no mention of their physical ability to do or not do the job was ever made; the resistance to racial integration was always about their inferior character, their difference, their intellect, their distraction, the color of their skin…so yes, I am comparing the blatant sexism in CPT Serrano’s article and frankly the sexism that exists in the Marine Corps at large, to the racism that existed in the Marine Corps in the 19 40’s, and beyond. Believe it or not, this does not actually seem too far a stretch to me. I comfortably make the comparison for very good reason.

If we are content in saying that some women are physically and mentally able to serve in an Infantry unit, and CPT Serrano did just this in her essay, than why exactly does the Corps have a huge problem with qualified women in the Infantry? As with racial integration, it is all the other “issues”, issues that revolve around one thing and one thing only; gender. She writes:

“Having women in an infantry unit will disrupt the infantry’s identity, motivational tactics, and camaraderie. The average infantryman is in his late teens or early twenties. At that age, men are raging with hormones and are easily distracted by women and sex. The infantry is the one place where young men are able to focus solely on being a warrior without the distraction of women. They can fart, burp, tell raunchy jokes, walk around naked, swap sex stories, wrestle, and simply be young men together. Although perhaps not the most polite environment, this is the exact kind of atmosphere that promotes unit cohesion and the brotherly bond that is invaluable. No matter how masculine a woman is, she is still female and simply does not mesh with the infantry brotherhood.”

If the Corps is comfortable saying that women absolutely cannot perform physically in an Infantry unit, than I would not and could not make the “race” comparison, but the Corps has not said that, CPT Serrano has not said that. The Corps has a long record of being on the incorrect side of history; and often trots out the personal opinion of its officers as hard evidence or justification for discrimination.

In 1948 COL Holcomb, USMC published LOI 421(Letter of Instruction). In it he lays out the rules of engagement for integrating black men into units. Here is one quote from the once classified document:

“While rapid promotion when deserved is necessary, it is essential that in no case, shall there be colored noncommissioned officers senior to white men in the same unit, and desirable that few, if any be the same rank.”

In paragraph 7 of  LOI 421, COL Holcomb writes:

“Since the inclusion of colored personnel in the Marine Corps organizations is a new departure, it is requested that the commanding officers make a study of the situation as it exists from time to time and the problems involved, and make report to the Commandant, Marine Corps. This report should include  the adaptation of Negros to military discipline and guard duty, their attitude toward other personnel and vise verse, liberty facilities, recreation facilities, ,and any other manner that would be of interest to the Commandant.”

COL Holcomb also stated under testimony that:

“there would be a definite loss of efficiency in the Marine Corps if we have to take Negros” and that given the choice between having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 5,000 blacks he would much rather have the whites.”

If some women can physically perform in the Infantry branch, than on exactly what grounds are we arguing to keep them from the Infantry? CPT Serrano’s prize winning essay can be filed right next to COL Holcomb’s LOI, of 1948; it is the same, and I actually would argue that if one believes qualified women should not serve in an Infantry unit only due to the characteristics of their gender and not their physical and mental ability, than yes this is not enlightened and is archaic…and yes, even sexist.

As of today, no one has been able to produce convincing, or even thought-provoking hard evidence that would ban soldiers and Marines with two X chromosomes from the Infantry. Monotonous concerns about feminine character, sexual promiscuity, rape, or complex gender dynamics does not equal an insurmountable berm to the inclusion of women in Infantry units, and they never will.

Right about now is also when I always remember this quote, by Julien Mathonniere , a respected defense scholar and a man who also prefers to keep his head above the weeds in hopes of seeing what is really going on:

“Common people don’t reflect about the future of infantry. But they certainly do about the place of women in society. And the military would gain nothing by pitting their operational requirements against the wider demands of the public opinion; lest they be insincere about narrowing the civilian-military gap. We are too often left with the disturbing impression that male officers are desperately scrambling around for arguments against what merely amounts to a democratic choice. Armed forces only reflect what society is and where it wants to go. Officers cannot complain about their growing disconnect from civilians on the one hand, and staunchly refuse to accommodate their preferences on the other. This is not the way democracy works. People want their military to remain a true and fair emanation of the society they live in. It is not as if they were two separate entities.”


Why Veterans Can’t Get Enough Of CrossFit

Arctic CrossFit

This post originally appeared in Task & Purpose on August 22, 2014

Black Box, work out of the day, burpee, ass to grass, kipping, Turkish get-up: If you know these terms, then you are one of the thousands of service members who have found their way into CrossFit. There are now countless CrossFit gyms on military bases around the country and even a few in Afghanistan that are operated by active-duty military members. In the civilian sector, there are numerous CrossFit gyms owned and populated by combat veterans.

Even though former gymnast Greg Glassman developed CrossFit as a workout in the 1970s, it did not become a formal company or gain much popularity until 2000, making it a relatively new and alternative exercise philosophy. CrossFit incorporates a groupthink element and is a broad, general, and inclusive strength and conditioning program designed for universal scalability, making it easily applicable for any committed individual regardless of experience. The workout is also almost totally decentralized, allowing any qualified trainer to become certified. But why exactly does CrossFit appeal to so many military members and veterans? Where does the nexus between military and CrossFit lie?

I posed this very question to Jason Sturm, a CrossFit trainer and wounded veteran, who trains and coaches at the CrossFit Walter Reed in Bethesda, Maryland. He offered me this response:

Some [service members ] tried and did CrossFit while in the service or pre injury. A lot of the appeal to CrossFit for veterans is due to the support and camaraderie the sport has overall. CrossFit Headquarters has several strenuous workouts named for fallen service members called Hero WODs (Work outs of the day). CrossFit gyms also tend to be very accepting to veterans … [they] find commonality among the other veterans in class. Let’s also not forget that veterans, much like athletes, can be fiercely competitive and CrossFit helps them remain or rediscover that feeling.

Additionally, while the innovations of battlefield medicine have preserved the lives of thousands of our nation’s warriors, they have also produced over 50,000 injured servicemen and women who now must manage the life-long physical fallout from missing limbs, injured brains, chronic pain caused by multiple deployments and heavy gear, emotional wounds, and post-traumatic stress. Injured active-duty service members require more than just the customary push-ups, sit-ups, and a two-mile run to stay physically healthy, and veterans are beginning to need more than just a handful of pills from their doctors to manage conditions like post-traumatic stress and chronic pain. Traditional medical tactics that once worked to treat injured service members are no longer enough on their own. More than at any other time in our history, today’s service members are taking the fate of their health into their own hands, and are pursuing alternative ways to stay strong and even heal their bodies and minds.

Often, due to the specific types of injuries that service members suffer, core-centric rehabilitation and variety of movement are the first and most integral step in the physical healing process. CrossFit is especially strong and focused in these two areas, helping to build up strength in one’s core muscles, demanding, proper alignment and form before advancing to other exercises. CrossFit also, by its very philosophy, incorporates constantly varied functional movements. But perhaps the most fruitful thing that CrossFit offers an injured warrior, or adaptive athlete, is the gift of rekindling his or her competitive spirit, through accomplishing challenging exercises that most uninjured men and women could not do.

We strive to understand the physical demands of modern military members, as well as how to treat both the physical and mental injuries that will almost certainly accompany them as they emerge from combat. But when it comes to physical fitness injury, and recovery, it is clear that our military is undergoing nothing short of a revolution.

Shelly Burgoyne-Goode is a former Army Officer. She served two tours in Iraq, leading combat resupply convoys to forward units. She is a Tillman Military Scholar, veteran advocate, military blogger, and writer.