For the first time, woman becomes US Marine Corps infantry officer

An unidentified Marine looks on as she participates in an exercise during the Infantry Officer Course at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Centre. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (Washington Post, AFP) - In a historic first, a female Marine has completed the notoriously rigorous training course for US infantry officers.

Many women serve as officers in the Marines and other branches of America's armed forces, but the woman, who has not been identified publicly at her own request, is the first to finish the 13-week infantry officer training course.

The woman is a lieutenant. She and her male colleagues in the Infantry Officer Course (IOC) completed the intensive combat exercise on Wednesday (Sept 20) at the Marines' rugged training facility in Twentynine Palms, California, the final graded requirement of the 13-week programme.

IOC, as it is known among Marines, is considered some of the military's toughest training. Typically, about 25 per cent of students wash out.

The woman is the first female officer to complete the course out of three dozen to have tried. She is expected to lead an infantry platoon of about 40 Marines, a trailblazing role within an organisation that has been criticised for its resistance to such change and for fostering a culture of misogyny.

The service was engulfed in scandal earlier this year when more than 1,000 current Marines and veterans were investigated as part of an online network that shared, critiqued and in many cases ridiculed photographs of nude female colleagues.

The class marked its graduation on Monday, holding a "warrior breakfast" 64km south of Washington at Quantico Marine Corps Base, said three officials with knowledge of the development.

The historic moment arrives nearly two years after the Pentagon lifted the military's last remaining restrictions for women, part of an effort by Barack Obama's administration to make the armed forces fully inclusive. Officials shared few details about the lieutenant on Thursday (Sept 21), saying it is unlikely she will agree to do any media interviews, preferring instead to be a "quiet professional" and just do her job.

The Marines first opened the Infantry Officer Course to women in 2012, on an experimental basis, allowing them to attempt the programme as a part of military-wide research examining how to integrate all-male units. Thirty-two women tried the course before the research ended in 2015. None completed it.

Four others have attempted the course since the Pentagon opened all jobs to women in December 2015, including the lieutenant. At least one of those four women attempted the course twice, but did not complete it.

The course requires both proficiency in the field, and the strength and stamina to carry equipment weighing up to 69kg. The school begins with a day-long combat endurance test that includes rigorous hikes through Quantico's rolling, wooded hills, an obstacle course and assessments of skills like weapons assembly and land navigation.

Historically, about 10 per cent of students fail the first day.

The new infantry officer will join a part of the military long seen as being critical of serving alongside women.

When surveyed in 2012, three out of four active-duty Marine infantrymen said they were opposed to full gender integration. Of the 54,000 Marines who responded, 90 per cent of men indicated they were concerned about problems arising from intimate relationships between personnel in the same combat unit, and more than 80 per cent said they were concerned about the possibility of false sexual allegations, fraternisation and women receiving preferential treatment.

Marine Corps officials say those sentiments have waned since then, but it is unclear how much - especially in light of the photo-sharing scandal that emerged this year. General Robert Neller, the service's top officer, has pleaded with Marines to be respectful towards women in the ranks, highlighting that some have died in combat.

"I need you to ask yourselves," he said at the time, "How much more do the females of our corps have to do to be accepted?"

Enlisted female Marines began joining the infantry in January. Senior leaders said last year that they were working to change the service's culture in advance."There's no doubt we're leading cultural change," Brigadier General James Glynn said then. "It's not the first time that's happened in the Marine Corps. We've been known to take challenges head-on."

Other parts of the military previously open only to men have begun to integrate over the last two years. For instance, Army Captain Kristen Griest was assigned last year as her service's first infantry officer. In 2015, she became one of three women who completed the Army's iconic Ranger School, a leadership course that focuses heavily on infantry tactics.

Women have not yet met the qualifications to take elite jobs in special operations, including that of Navy SEAL and Army Green Beret, though at least three have attempted the Army's Special Forces Assessment Selection test.

Kyleanne Hunter, a member of the Pentagon's Defence Advisory Committee for Women in the Services and former Marine Corps helicopter pilot, said that the Marines' first female infantry officer will deal with two major challenges once she is assigned to her battalion. One will be winning over those under her command, Hunter said, and the second will be coping with outside attention and critics who want her to 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."

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