It has been fifteen calendar days since a letter from Marine Corps 2ndLt Sage Santangelo blew up just about every news outlet across the country, spurring intense conversations on television and Internet comment boards about women in the military, and more specifically whether or not they should be in combat. While I have kept pace with the rampant discussion that is still burning today, I have refrained from joining the conversation – until now. As a former Marine Corps officer myself – a male ground intelligence officer (MOS is 0203) that successfully completed the Marine Corps’ grueling Infantry Officers Course – I believe I am more than (slightly) qualified to provide a unique response to Lt Santangelo’s letter, defend her in many instances, but respectfully disagree with her in others. Please click on the link below for my full response.
IOC: Unlike Anything in the World
As Lt Santangelo pointed out in her aforementioned letter to the Commandant of the Marine Corps via the Washington Post, the Marine Corps’ Infantry Officers Course (IOC) is one of the secret organizational formulas to American military and combat success that must be protected, much like Coca Cola or Pepsi protects their own secret recipes. Until recently, when reporters were finally authorized to observe and publish stories of the school’s legendary, initial Combat Endurance Test, reporters – or any outsiders for that matter – were not allowed in whatsoever. IOC in my opinion is so successful at churning out qualified infantry and ground intelligence officers – men (and likely women in the not-so-distant future) who are not only physically and mentally prepared to endure the hardships of combat, but be able to be at the forefront of the fight leading their Marines to win every battle decisively – because of the secrecy that enshrouds the schoolhouse and its coveted curriculum. It is with that belief that I will proudly tell the world that outside of what you can find about the school through your own research, you will not get any new information from me – period.
Before I venture into my analysis and response to Lt Santangelo’s letter, I want to touch a little bit more on IOC and detail just how grueling this course is for new Marine officers. From a physical standpoint, I can equate this course to only one other training school that I have attended, and that is the Marine Corps’ Scout Sniper Basic Course (SSBC) for the enlisted Marines who are looking to add the title of Scout Sniper, and the 0317 MOS to their resume. While I went through SSBC in its entirety while I served as a scout sniper platoon commander in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, in 2010, I fell 3 shots short of graduation, thus I did not graduate. Physically IOC has its match in the Corps’ Scout Sniper Basic Course, and that is without question – it was an absolute ass kicker, and the packs that I humped with in IOC seemed like a vacation to the packs I ran with at SSBC. On the other hand, the mental comparison between the two schools is not even close – IOC wins easily.
The mental training – learning how to deal with absolute uncertainty – is where IOC sets itself apart from any other military leadership school in likely the world, and it is with that that I leave you to your imagination on what IOC is like. With that IOC 101 out of the way, it is time to turn to Lt Santangelo’s letter to the Commandant.
An 0203’s Response to Lt Santangelo
Days before I was scheduled to being my own combat endurance test in 2008, I witnessed a male lieutenant who was absolutely terrified that he had been pre-selected to become – pending graduation from IOC – an infantry officer, or 0302. We were sitting in the IOC schoolhouse’s primary classroom, and thanks to the stadium seating, I watched him frantically shift and sweat in his chair until he no kidding walked right up to the instructor and asked for a release from the school. We had not even started the CET, but one candidate – and a male, at that – had already been mentally defeated by the countless weeks of uncertainty that awaited him at IOC. What has impressed me about you – or all of the female candidates for that matter – is that you volunteered to go to a school in which I would argue most new male lieutenants at TBS are too scared to even seriously consider. I applaud you for standing up to try your shot at IOC when I have seen – literally, in one case – male lieutenants do everything in their power to escape the school before the initial combat endurance test even begins.
It is with that out of the way that I would like to address the general civilian public, of which I have now been a part of for two years since my EAS: if you have never put on an American military uniform, then you simply do not have a legitimate argument in this fight. None. Zilch. Zero. Until you experience the actual combat endurance test deep in the woods of Quantico, VA, please spare us the insight – you aren’t even slightly qualified.
In direct response to your letter to the CMC, Lt Santangelo, I was glad to read that you agreed that the great standards of our Marine Corps should not be lowered – ever – for anyone or anything. Where we start heading down different paths in our beliefs however is with your philosophy on training expectations, which you touched on about midway through your letter, and I have quoted below:
“Female lieutenants aren’t as prepared as male lieutenants for the Infantry Officer Course’s tests of strength and endurance because they’ve been encouraged to train to lesser standards. Officer Candidates School, where all Marine officers start out, is segregated by sex. I was in an all-female platoon. We worked with the men on a few occasions but never competed with them. That was odd for me. As someone who grew up playing hockey on boys’ teams, I was used to facing off with the guys.”
I’d like to touch on “encouraged”: as Marines, and more importantly as Marine officers, we are expected to go above and beyond even our Corps’ highest standards, whether it be 20 pull-ups or an 18 minute, three mile run. While you most certainly were encouraged to train and prepare for events such as the flexed-arm hang, what exactly was stopping you from doing pull-ups long before you attended OCS? You know from your time at TBS early on that Marine officers are trusted to PT on their own time, and maintain top-flight physical condition so that they can always lead from the front. Yes, male candidates are able to retake the CET (we weren’t allowed that option in 2008), but every infantry officer candidate – male or female – has had equal amounts of time to prepare physically and mentally for the CET. It was up to you whether to spend those nights on your own getting stronger; to make the claim that you weren’t allotted enough training time, well, I would respectfully disagree.
Like many candidates find out at IOC, or even OCS and TBS for that matter, being physically and mentally ready to lead Marines in combat for 7 months is not a matter of if you can do 20 pull ups, or score perfect on your PFT. By seeking the title of Marine officer, we chose the path with the highest standard in American military leadership, and with that standard comes the understanding that we must constantly live up to it.
I sincerely applaud you for standing up when I have seen so many male lieutenants run away at the thought of attending IOC; Marine officers are a class all their own, and you have shown more courage in that decision than many of your peers will in their first four years of their careers. While I disagree with you on your letter’s reasoning to the Commandant, I respect your position and wish you the best in your career moving forward.
A Former 0203 (2008-20012)
Photo of Mitchel Hall (IOC schoolhouse) owned by me, the author, circa 2008.
Cover photo of Marine officer on pull-up bar, (c) Luke Sharrett for The New York Times (http://goo.gl/iSv1Ew)