Setting the Right Conditions for Gender Integration in the Armed Services

This post originally appeared in Small Wars Journal on September 21, 2015

By: Shelly Goode-Burgoyne

A major shift is underway across the U.S. Armed Forces. A month ago, two American Army officers, who happen to be women made history and altered the future for all American women when they graduated from our Army’s elite Ranger School. Yesterday, our Commander and Chief appointed the first openly gay Secretary of the Army, In 2010 the DOD policy of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, allowing openly gay soldiers to serve without fear of harassment or dishonorable discharge, and the Air Force is seeking ways to enlist qualified trans-gendered Americans. In the last few days and in advance of the 2016 deadline to open all combat jobs to American women or seek an exception in front of Congress, the United States Army, Navy, and Air Force have announced that they plan on opening all combat jobs to qualified female service-members, to include the Infantry, Navy Seals, and all Special Forces jobs. Top Navy Admiral, Jon Greenert and Rear Admiral Brian Losey, the head of Naval Special Warfare Command believes that if women can pass the grueling six-month Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, they should be allowed to serve. Losey states:

“Why shouldn’t anybody who can meet these [standards] be accepted? And the answer is, there is no reason,” Greenert said Tuesday in an exclusive interview with Navy Times and its sister publication Defense News. “So we’re on a track to say, ‘Hey look, anybody who can meet the gender non-specific standards, then you can become a SEAL.'”

Nevertheless, and in spite of this progress, the United States Marine Corps, which is a component of the Department of the Navy and reports to Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy, has decided to disregard the Secretary’s directive for full gender integration. On Friday, the Marine Corps Commandant publicly stated that the Marine Corps is entitled to, and will ask for an exemption from the full integration policy directed by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in 2013. If granted by Congress, the Marine Corps would be allowed to continue to ban qualified female Marines from serving in many Marine Corps combat jobs, to include Infantry. The Marine Corps has cited their recent gender neutral standards study as evidence to keep their ban in place. This gender study which was released only in summary a few days ago has already been determined to be fundamentally flawed by the Secretary of the Navy, many active duty and reserve military officers, veterans, and several members of Congress. Secretary Mabus said this about the study:

“It started out with a fairly large component of the men thinking ‘this is not a good idea,’ and ‘women will never be able to do this. When you start out with that mindset, you’re almost presupposing the outcome. The Marines could have selected female volunteers who were better suited to the task of marching under heavy loads, which accounted for many of the injuries that were observed. For the women that volunteered, probably there should have been a higher bar to cross to get into the experiment.”

As our Congress prepares to consider allowing the United States Marine Corps to remain the only profession in our nation which bans a qualified American from a certain job because that American is a woman they must vigorously debate and query this study which the Marine Corps is citing as evidence to ban women from Infantry. They should also question the future and legitimacy of the Marine Corps’ antiquated policy of segregated training.

What sparked this most recent debate?  A year-long Marine Corps study on gender integration was flawed on many levels: the subject selection, the deduced purpose for the study, and the cherry-picked results that were released.

The Marine Corps study is at best inconsistent and Congress has ordered the Marine Corps Commandant, General Joseph Dunford, to brief them on the gender study within the month. The study was never intended to act as a litmus test to determine if women can serve in the Marine Corps Infantry, but rather, it was commissioned to assist in determining the gender neutral standards for the Infantry (there currently exist no standards for the Infantry, save being male). It is important to note that the full gender study has not been released by the Marine Corps and ultimately the Secretary of the Navy has the last word on this issue as all branches of our professional military fall under their prospective civilian leadership. The Marine Corps was directed to assess how individual women would perform in combat situations. However, they chose to include mostly average female Marines, and the study states these average female Marines included in this study performed inferior to men in many areas to include marksmanship and carrying heavy loads. The Marine Corps report also says that these women were injured at slightly higher rates. This is a fundamentally unsound approach as “average” female Marines would not realistically be competing for jobs in the Infantry, only high performing female Marines would. No one is arguing that any woman can be a Marine infantrywoman, but rather, only a few exceptional women can. Needless to say, many military officers, veterans, and members of Congress take issue with the study’s claims.

Marine Major Edward Carpenter, a military professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, and the author of Steven Pressfield’s “The Warrior Ethos”: One Marine Officer’s Critique and Counterpoint, argues:

“The bottom line? Out of those 400 young men and women, the Marine Corps is currently willing to give 300 of them a pass straight to infantry, whether they are good shots or bad, whether they are strong or weak, fat or skinny, short or tall, fast or slow, simply because they are men. Similarly, it is willing to tell the other 100 that, regardless of how great they are with a gun, how fast they can run or how long they can exert themselves, that they cannot serve in the infantry, because the average female Marine scores lower in those areas.”

Rep (AZ). Martha McSally, a combat tested fighter pilot, and Army Colonel Ellen Haring have both raised concerns about the study.

Rep (AZ). McSally recently said this of the study:

“I echo some concerns by the secretary of the Navy related to, ‘Do we take a bunch of combat trained men and a bunch of non-combat trained support women and put them together, and just wonder how they’re going to do?’  You can study anything and get the results you might be looking for, or have some flawed assumptions in how you’re setting it up. And so we want to make sure we understand where the study was and what the results are from it, and then what to conclude from it.”

Army Colonel Ellen Haring maintains:

“The results of the Marine Corps’ research are not surprising. The service was told to assess how individual women do in combat situations, but the task force instead assessed groups with average female Marines — rather than high performers — in them.”

When you place average female Marines in an Infantry unit who have never served a day in an Infantry unit, they will naturally not initially perform at the same level as a man who has served in an Infantry unit for months or years. A better and more scientific approach would have been to select only the highest performing female Marines and see how they performed in a Marine Infantry unit. We expect a learning curve, and that is just what we have in this study, and not much more. But perhaps the real culprit is the Marine Corps’ policy of gender segregated initial training, which many argue has placed female Marines at a distinct disadvantage Army since 1918, the year the first American woman enlisted in the Marine Corps.

Many veterans and military officers have written at length about the Marine Corps’ archaic policy of segregated training and how this approach to training places female Marines at a clear disadvantage the minute they raise their hand to enlist. How can we expect an average female Marine to perform equally to male Marines when in her most fundamental initial training she is segregated from men and thus never competes with male Marines and works to reach only the highest female standard? We cannot and I think as we integrate the force we will continue to see the consequences of segregated training. USMC Major Kyleanne Hunter and USMC Lieutenant Colonel Kate Germano, (who was subsequently fired for her efforts to train female Marines to meet the male standard), discuss the lower standards that often result from segregated training at length in two recent articles in the New York Times: Lt. Col. Kate Germano on Marines and Women and The Cost of Lower Standards for Women in Marine Recruitment.

The two women who graduated from Army Ranger School did so because from day one they were required to run next to men, ruck-march with thirty five pounds next to men, load and fire heavy weapons next to men, swim next to men, eat and sleep next to men in the field, patrol with men… the list goes on and on. Because women and men in the all other services train together from day one most women in these services do not work to achieve only the female standard, they work to achieve the highest male standard possible. If the Marine Corps were to open its infantry to qualified women they will surely have to de-segregate their initial training of Marines, and this might just prove more of a culture shock to the Marine Corps than the idea of a female Infantry platoon leader.

So, is Congress to allow the Commandant of the Marine Corps to say on one hand that the Marines in his ranks are reflective of the American society from which they come (which he says regularly), while on the other hand say that the 51% of our population, that American society has deemed equal and deserving of every opportunity they are qualified for, are somehow banned from his infantry? American women already serving in our military and those who have served want this and are fighting for it, not politicians or so-called feminists who have never served. When Army Ranger School opened its doors to female Army soldiers, hundreds applied. When the Navy opened submarine duty to women, hundreds applied, when the United States Army opened its Infantry training to women on an experimental basis, hundreds of female soldiers applied, and when the Marine Corps opened its Infantry Officer Basic Course hundreds of female Marines applied. The American people see this issue simply on the basis of equality and democracy. Julien Mathonniere, a respected defense scholar illustrates this point clearly when he writes:

“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. 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.”

The military is not a brotherhood. It’s not a sisterhood.  We are all comrades in arms. Let’s hope the Marines can help set the conditions for future success for all who serve.


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.”