The Marine Corps plans to assign a woman as an infantry officer, a historic first, following her anticipated graduation from the service’s grueling Infantry Officer Course, service officials said Thursday.
The lieutenant and her male colleagues completed a three-week combat exercise Wednesday that includes live fire at the service’s training center at Twentynine Palms, California, on Wednesday, the service said in a statement Thursday after The Washington Post first reported the news. That exercise marked the final graded requirement in the 13-week course, which is widely seen as some of the toughest training in the military. About 25 percent all students typically wash out.
The woman is the first of three dozen women who attempted the course to complete it. She is expected to lead a platoon of about 40 infantry Marines in a service that is often seen as the most resistant to full gender integration in the military. It has grappled this year with a scandal in which more than a 1,000 current Marines and veterans were investigated for sharing photographs of nude female colleagues online.
The class will mark its graduation Monday with a “warrior breakfast” 35 miles south of Washington, in Quantico, Virginia, said three officials with knowledge of the course. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the graduation has not yet occurred. All that remains between now and then is returning equipment used during training, and a few administrative days, they said.
The historic moment arrives nearly two years after then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter lifted the military’s last remaining restrictions for women, part of an effort by the Obama administration to make the armed forces fully inclusive. Officials shared few details about the lieutenant Thursday, and two said it is unlikely that she will agree to do any media interviews, preferring to be a “quiet professional” and just do her job.
The Marines first opened the Infantry Officer Course to women on an experimental basis in 2012, allowing them to attempt it as a part of broader research across the Defense Department examining how to integrate all-male units. Thirty-two women tried the course before the research ended in spring 2015, and none completed it.
Four additional female Marines have attempted the course since the Pentagon opened all jobs to women in December 2015, including the lieutenant expected to graduate Monday. At least one of those four women attempted the course twice, but did not complete it.
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The course requires both proficiency as a military officer in the field and the stamina to carry loads of up to 152 pounds for long periods of time. The school begins with a day-long combat endurance test that includes grueling hikes through Quantico’s rolling, wooded hills, an obstacle course and assessments of skills like weapons assembly and land navigation. About 10 percent of students historically fail the first day.
The lieutenant will join a part of the military that has long been seen as being critical of serving alongside women.
Three out of four active-duty infantrymen said they were opposed to full gender integration in a 2012 survey of 54,000 Marines obtained last year through the Freedom of Information Act. Ninety percent of male Marines said in that survey that they were concerned about intimate relationships between Marines in the same combat unit becoming a problem, and more than 80 percent said they were concerned about false sexual allegations, fraternization and women receiving preferential treatment.
Marine officials have argued those sentiments have waned in the last few years, but it’s unclear how much.
Kyleanne Hunter, a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Advisory Committee for Women in the Services and former Marine helicopter pilot, said that the new infantry officer will deal with two major issues once she is assigned to her battalion. One will be winning over Marines under her command, Hunter said, and the second will be coping with outside attention and critics who want to see her fail.
“I think people are rightfully excited,” she said. “She did something that is really hard, and it’s hard physically and it’s hard mentally. But at the same time, too much attention can take away from her operational requirements. Her first challenge is going to be to remain anonymous, for lack of a better term, and just do her job.”