With the recent spate of media attention on the firing of LtCol Kate Germano and the separate physical standards that female Marines have been held to for years, I feel the need to clear up some misconceptions, particularly those that hold that female Marines prefer lower standards and that such standards in any way benefit the Marine Corps.
I have been a Marine for over 17 years. Prior to my commissioning, I was a midshipman for four years. During those 21+ years, I have never heard a single female Marine express satisfaction with any physical standard that was less than that required by the men she served with, nor have I heard a female Marine express a desire for separate and different training. On the contrary, the prevailing attitude among women has repeatedly held that lower, easier standards for women were stupid, made women seem weaker and less capable, and were in the end downright dangerous, and that integrated training is the only way to go.
Over the past month, stories about LtCol Kate Germano’s “agenda” have been circulated in the news (her agenda seems to be all about holding women to the same standards as the men, seeking gender-integrated training, and similar supposedly tough demands). While I cannot speak with authority about the specifics of an “abrasive” leadership style, I can certainly talk about her complaints regarding the separate—lower—standards applied to female Marines. In fact, I am beginning to feel like a broken record. And in conversations I have had over the past two weeks, it seems many women, both those currently serving and those who have left the military, feel the same way. See my past posts about the PFT and pullups for some past discussion.
So to make this perfectly clear, women by and large do not appreciate, deserve, or desire different physical standards to be a Marine, nor do they benefit from them. Female Marines do not clamor for lower standards, don’t seek simply to achieve the minimum of said lower standards, and rarely speak approvingly of such standards. Those of us serving today did not create the existing standards, and do not benefit from their existence. On the contrary, we repeatedly and vocally deplore the lower standards applied to women (70-second flexed arm hang? Red boxes on the O-Course?), and have described the implications of lower standards as restrictive, dangerous, and biased.
Lower, different physical standards for women are restrictive, because they teach women and men alike that women simply aren’t capable of tougher physical achievements. Higher standards may be tough to reach at first but they are reachable, and by holding expectations low we are just teaching that that’s all we can expect from women.
Lower, different standards are biased, because they separate Marines into two categories based on nothing but stereotypical beliefs that certainly don’t apply easily to any individual, male or female, who decides they want to become a Marine. Seriously, who wants to become a watered-down version of a Marine? We wanted to become Marines because of what Marines stand for. We didn’t want to become half-Marines, or Marines with an asterisk. We wanted the whole deal.
And above all, such standards are dangerous, because they call into question the abilities of female Marines based on externally-held beliefs about what those Marines are capable of. And really, the danger goes much deeper than that. I co-authored a Proceedings piece about that some time ago.
Why are separate standards for women there? Read First Class, by Sharon Disher, or Breaking Out, by Laura Brodie, to get an idea of how those standards were set and who really was asking for them (hint: it wasn’t the women trying to join the academies or VMI. It was the middle-aged men making the decisions and regulations.).
So to sum up: separate and unequal physical standards help no one and endanger everyone; most of us do not want or need separate standards; and the Marine Corps would be better with one standard for Marines based on the needs of the job. Stop blaming female Marines for being subject to lower physical standards, and start listening to them when they say they don’t want them. For crying out loud, we have been saying it long enough. That is all.
While catching up on USNI posts from the past few months, the recurring themes of professionalism, education, and the need for more ideas and thoughts to move us forward jumped out from my monitor. It seemed appropriate to be reading about such topics upon emerging from the black hole of preparing for and—hallelujah—finally passing my PhD comprehensive exams. I failed my first attempt last September, so over the fall and winter I entered into full-blown hermit mode to pass it this second and last attempt. We are only allowed two attempts; failing twice kicks you out of the program, a somewhat common occurrence.
Given recent posts by Will Beasley and LT Misso and LTJG O’Keefe, this experience seems particularly relevant. My initial failure and subsequent furious hibernation would not be worth noting on a public site except for one thing: in my program, military members seem to struggle to pass the comprehensive exams while our civilian academic peers have not struggled to the same degree. Certainly civilian students fail at times, but their rate of failure is significantly lower than ours in my cohort. Anecdotally, servicemembers going through comparable PhD programs at separate institutions have experienced similar problems.
I was not surprised strictly by our failures; I was surprised by why we each failed. We didn’t fail due to comprehension or writing ability. Instead, uniformly, we each failed because we did not thoroughly own the literature. We did not question it at its depth and tear it apart to its roots. We did not question in it ways that existed outside of our comfort zones. Each of us fully absorbed the stuff and spit it back out along with some tepid critiques, but we fell far short of the standard expected along the way. Something about the way we learned and processed information in the services created a mindset that was fundamentally different from what was expected of us by our professors, kind of like “academics are from Mars, the military is from Venus.” While all students have to reset their way of thinking and start digging deeper inside their own brains to reach a different level, doing that as a 24-year-old right out of college is different than doing it as a 45-year-old post-command O6 who has been hard-wired to process information in a completely different manner.
One of my military peers at school thinks it’s not that we think differently, it’s that we have had to view the world as it is instead of how it is theorized to be, but I don’t buy that. Many of us began to study International Relations to understand more of the world as it is versus what we saw of it, and to that end this education has been quite a ride. Instead, I think we struggle because from day one in the military, we are expected to process large amounts of information and to live by that information. Seriously challenging convention is not something we regularly include in that process. Thinking critically, independently, and “outside the box” is given lip service (often only during PME studies), but at no point do I see it being actively, comprehensively encouraged through all aspects of our careers. The level of creativity currently desired is rarely hard to summon.
My worry is not that we are doomed to struggle to pass big exams, it’s what that signifies for how we as a force encourage thought, education, and analysis, and what this means for the future of the military. At no point in my career—ever—have I been expected to think, question, or analyze to the degree that I am now in school. When I checked into my first squadron, I was handed a stack of pubs. Over the next few months, I slept with those babies under my pillow at times, trying to absorb the information they contained into my puny brain. I wasn’t trying to learn it in order to improve upon it, challenge it, or turn it all on its head. I was trying to memorize it as quickly as possible so that I could advance in the squadron and do my job quickly and competently. I learned this mentality and applied it rigorously throughout the following years, which eventually brought me around to my comprehensive exam last fall, which I then failed. I failed the exam because my brain did not grasp where it truly needed to go.
That failure is a failure for so many of us, and I believe it indicates a failure for the military at large. Do we steer away from critical thought? Why, how, and at what point do we stop encouraging it? Is it unconscious? Automatic? And what can we do about it? Why did officers in my program struggle so uniformly? Is this because by the time we reach the ten-year mark or more, we have largely been trained to think and process info in similar ways? In the execution of our duties, do we soak in information as fast as we can, hit the pertinent parts with a highlighter, and move on? That’s what each of us did on the comprehensive exam: we took the key points, made bland yet reasonable arguments with them, and thought we had done well. Rereading my answers from this past exam, I saw no glaring problems at first. I had answered the questions on the surface. But those answers weren’t enough. I had to question the basic accepted standards of each theory, each hypothesis, and each assumption. I had to make a convincing argument that master theoreticians were wrong in ways I had never thought possible, and I was wholly unprepared to do so.
Training our brains to think in a new way is not impossible, but it’s tough when you’ve trained for years to think differently, sometimes under life-or-death stakes. Yet more than ever before, we need challenging thinkers and writers in the services at every level. The level of comprehension and analysis I needed to develop to pass my comp was far beyond anything I’ve attempted before, and nothing in the past two decades prepared me for it. However, it has been surprisingly fun and liberating, and it is making me better in other aspects of my life too. It’s changing the way I look at everything. I wish I’d started this program years earlier.
Given the complexities of our world, the need for stronger civil-military integration, and the budget realities we face, we need people who are not afraid to look at a problem upside down and see a new solution or a new path. Can we encourage and teach this in the military? PME schools can make a dent in developing how we think, but don’t approach the amount of “immersion” and reaction to established theory that the group in my program needed to summon.* Resident programs don’t reach enough people, non-resident programs aren’t intense enough to produce deep changes in the ways we think, and programs targeting senior officers and enlisted are too little too late. While we have existing programs to send servicemembers to higher education, I wish we did a much better job of encouraging younger Marines and Sailors to dig into the world from the start instead of waiting twenty years. We should encourage and want everyone to not just comprehend a problem, but to find its shortcomings, pick apart its vulnerabilities, and imagine other options. We don’t all need to graduate from Princeton and redefine counterinsurgency, but we should encourage creative thinking and new perspectives from the beginning. How? I haven’t figured that one out yet, but pushing critical thought via the written word is a start. I do wonder how the last 14 years would have looked with a more questioning, challenging military.
*It would be great to hear from anyone associated with a PME school here. Do you see similar problems among students? Different ones? Opposite experience?
Earlier this spring, the former commanding officer of the Blue Angels was relieved of his duties as Executive Officer of Naval Base Coronado, CA, after he was found guilty at mast of “condoning crude practices on the F/A-18 flight team that led to a sexually hostile command climate.” I don’t know exactly what happened during CAPT McWherter’s second (or first, for that matter) tour as the commanding officer of the Blue Angels. Having read the Command Investigation from start to finish (available on multiple sources, but CDR Salamander has it posted on his site and it’s also available here), I am still unsure of the sequence of events and whether or not this is cause for alarm or celebration. I tried to read between the lines of the Command Investigation and failed at that too. Much of what is described sounds distinctly like regular squadron life, albeit on a more high-profile scale due to the nature of the Blue Angels.
Media reports and discussions focus on the pornography (or porn-lite as it may be), whether or not what happened was offensive, and the actions of the female members of the Blue Angels relative to the rest of the team. But those discussions miss the point, as does most of the ongoing commentary.
Having spent the majority of my Marine Corps time in a skid squadron, I think I have an idea for what gets said and done in such an environment. Skid pilots are not Blue Angels, but they are no shrinking violets either. Let’s just say my learning curve on such matters was steep. I was not offended by porn, nor was I bothered by dirty jokes, and there were plenty of both to go around. Luckily, however, I had a strong and close peer group with several amazing commanding officers. If something had felt wrong, I think that I could have spoken up with few repercussions. There were guys who were bothered by pornographic material, off-color humor, and similar things; out of respect for them others toned it down. That wasn’t the important part of squadron life, anyway, nor did it take up much of our time. What was important was whether or not you knew your job.
Pornography, sexual innuendo, et cetera, while raucously funny to some and at the right time, do not bring about unit cohesion. People don’t need porn to bond, or dirty jokes to trust each other. Humor is needed; smut, not really. Common interests and shared goals and standards, yes. Strong leaders to offer guidance versus camaraderie, yes. Giant phallic symbols on the roof? Not required. Those things are just not that important, but trust, mutual respect, and the understanding that we all have a job to do are. Creating and encouraging that kind of environment among a bunch of type-A, strong-willed pilots—or anyone, for that matter—does not require heavy doses of testosterone, porn, or raunchy humor. I belonged to some great squadrons, led by great COs, who led by example and were strong enough to stand up and do the right thing at tough times. That makes a cohesive Ready Room.
The point—regardless of the outcome of the investigation or the actual events in questions—is not that pornography, dirty jokes, and painted phalluses run rampant throughout naval aviation. It is that when a member of a unit asks others for some respect, a CO needs to take charge of the situation and lead. According to the investigation, CAPT McWherter inherited a broken, “fractured” Ready Room, and to fix it he allowed the pilots to follow the “will of the majority,” “failed to set limits,” and “returned the Ready Room to a more democratic style of leadership.” That sounds like putting the cart before the horse, and the ensuing mess suggests that it was. If people don’t trust each other, don’t respect each other, and cohesion is low, relaxing the rules and fostering overly familial relationships seems like a misstep, not leadership. Maybe that’s not really what happened, but the fact that none of the postmortem discussions note this bothers me.
The Marine Corps Times and the Commandant of the Marine Corps have been in the news together recently, and not in a good way. After hearing sketchy details at work about integrity issues, whistleblowers, and biased reporting, and seeing the associated headlines, I finally spent time doing some catch-up reading to figure out what was actually happening. As a result I am now completely confused, and given the questionable coverage, bizarre headlines, and the “he said-she said” nature of it all, I’m probably not alone.
The news cycle started with the reporting surrounding the video that surfaced in 2012 of Marines urinating on Taliban corpses. The incident and subsequent official investigation garnered attention, and the news cycle continued with stories about unlawful command influence and who did or did not make specific statements to others about the investigation. This winter, media coverage veered off into the bizarre with allegations that the removal of the Marine Corps Times from the front shelves of PXs around the world was a purposeful act directed at the paper by a vengeful Commandant’s Office. The reporting of the incidents in question is, of course, mainly performed by the Marine Corps Times and published by the same; as far as professional publications go, Foreign Affairs it isn’t. I don’t know that stating that “the Commandant’s Office punted all questions” is a shining example of unbiased, objective reporting. To be honest, I haven’t heard too much grumbling from fellow Marines over the stories; those I spoke to seemed as unaware as I was about the details of the stories in question. It seemed like the kind of background noise and drama that Marines avoid.
But the articles, however biased they may be, are disturbing for their existence if nothing else. Why are we reading about the diverging statements of top Marine generals? Why does it seem like the Commandant’s office has a message problem? Is the Marine Corps Times stirring the pot in order to report on legitimate problems? Or is the paper, in the words of the Commandant’s office, hoping to undermine good order and discipline by broadcasting stories that question the integrity of a sitting Commandant and cast doubt upon his abilities?
(One article in particular left me thinking that I had forgotten how to read the English language. A Marine Corps Times reporter interviewed four Public Affairs Officers, but I really can’t tell if any of the questions were answered in the process. Give it a try here and let me know what you figure out.)
In wading through the mess, one point jumped out: the Marine Corps is creating an OPT to help decide what should be placed near the front of Marine Corps exchanges. We are going to have “focus groups,” “discussions,” and “an ongoing process” in order to conduct a “holistic,” “comprehensive review.” (All this from the same article).
What is going on here? Have we completely lost our way? We are at war and the Marine Corps is in a spitting contest with a JV paper over where that paper is placed in the PX? We’re cutting funding by the pantload, trying to refocus a force after over a decade of conflict, and are spending money and energy creating an OPT to figure out what should go near the front of the PX? This entire exercise seems way beneath the dignity of the Commandant’s office. Figuring out the PX layout and products should be number 800 on his priority list. What am I missing?
The message we are sending to our Marines with this mess is not pretty. It resembles the ugliness and distractions of politics. It reminds me of what my kids do when they are trying to keep me from discovering the indelible marker drawings on the wall or the candy they hid under their pillows. I am honestly not sure where the blame lies for this situation, but I hope for our own sake we recover quickly and move on to the 799 items that are more worthy of our attention as a service.
A few weeks ago, I started writing a post that discussed a particularly relevant and compelling thesis written by a student at the Marine Corps’ Command and Staff College. The thesis in question was written by a fellow Marine, Major Misty Posey, and is creatively titled “Duped by the ‘Frailty Myth:’ USMC Gender Based Physical Fitness Standards.” Great title, although it is so descriptive that it might lead some to believe that they can dismiss it without reading it. Don’t be fooled; it’s worth every paragraph. Mid-way through my work on the post (I write slowly), it became even more relevant, because the Marine Corps announced that it was going to postpone the requirement for women to perform pull-ups instead of the flexed arm hang as part of the Physical Fitness Test (PFT).
My first reaction to this news was to slap my forehead again. My second was to work harder at carving out the time to write this post in light of the news. Grad school and the holidays intervened, life happened, and I woke up this week to find two separate newspaper articles (Washington Post and San Diego Union-Tribune) beating me to the punch.
I wrote about pull-ups last summer, when I first heard that the requirement might be delayed. My opinion has not changed. But Major Posey’s thesis says it bigger and better; she describes the Marine Corps as “institutionally constipated,” a phrase I can only hope to use myself in my writing one day. I sincerely hope some of our leaders read her work.
She explains in great detail how men and women develop physical expectations and how this affects actual capabilities, and it rings true. I wrote earlier that while many male friends had to do pull-ups in high school PE, I was only required to run/walk one mile after a year of “training.” I had to learn line dancing in PE another year. And a third year involved a semester of “Jake on the Beach” aerobics tapes—the low-impact version so as to not hurt us girls. That’s a far cry from doing pull-ups. And the gap between what we expect our men to do and what we expect our women to do only continues to grow and become entrenched after high school. Remember the President’s Physical Fitness Test? No wonder women show up at 18-22 years old and can’t do pull-ups. I couldn’t either. It no surprise that it’s taking some time for women to develop the upper body strength and mental confidence needed to do pull-ups.
The pull-up requirement delay is causing mass hysteria among those who think such an event signifies the end of the world is approaching, or at the least that dogs and cats are starting to live together. I beg our leaders to take a step back and focus on a few brief points: 1) these are just pull-ups. And women are often starting from a lower level of strength. Of course they will get there, it will just take time. It has only been a year, for crying out loud. 2) These are Marines we are talking about. Again, they will get there. Just takes time. 3) Keep it at a delay and no more. Don’t throw out the requirement.
We really should make this whole discussion a discussion about the PFT itself, while we’re at it. It is meant to measure individual fitness, thus the gender-normed and age-normed standards (any takers on the age-normed standards? I don’t hear much about them). Yet it fails at that task, and is systematically used and interpreted in a very different way anyway. What are we really trying to do here, measure overall fitness or ensure we are aware of strengths and weaknesses in our units? What would benefit leaders more?
Truth is, women can get plenty strong, strong enough for all the pull-ups we need. I’m not in love with pull-ups; make the test pushups instead. Or handstands. Bear crawls. Whatever. But we should set one standard for all Marines and stick with it, and make it high. Separate standards hurt women far more than they could possibly help them, and they hurt the Marine Corps. Delaying the change is not necessarily bad…as long as the change happens.
Here’s the thing: the flexed-arm-hang requirement, the postponement of the pull-up requirement, lower physical standards…these things simply limit Marines. They limit personal expectations, they limit expectations of others. They effectively pat our Marines on the head and say, “nice try, honey, but we don’t think you should bother with this.” Why do that? Why shoot ourselves in the foot and limit our future leaders and the future of the Marine Corps?
Who determines any individual’s physical baseline? Who sets those limits? By delaying the pull-ups and questioning women’s abilities to perform to that standard, we are imposing external limits. We’re saying that women should not be expected to have great strength, that pulling our own weight up to a bar 20 times, or even 3 times, is too much to ask. And that, right there, is what makes me worry. I believed it for years, and I was wrong. And now I’m older—I could have been doing these for years! Instead of limiting our Marines, we should ask more of them: set the bar high, and encourage them to fly right past it. We’re not doing that right now.
(Fun Facts from the Marine Corps Times: the first female PFT, in 1969, required women to perform a 120’ shuttle run, vertical jump, knee pushups, situps, and a 600-yard run/walk. The PFT has only been altered two more times for women: in 1975, it changed to a 1.5 mile run, situps, and the dreaded flexed-arm hang, and in 1996 the 1.5 miles changed to 3 miles. Maybe it’s time for a reassessment?)
Three weeks ago, a good friend and former roommate, Major Jenn Marino, USMC (Ret), started on her cross-country bike ride to connect with Gold Star families. I mentioned this on a previous blog, but now the ride is a reality—she started it over two weeks ago. Jenn was a Ch-46 and Marine One pilot who started meeting and talking with Gold Star families while still on active duty. As she struggled with the question of what she could do to make a difference in the lives of these families, and how she could help, she came up with the idea for a cross-country ride. She decided that one way to honor those we have lost and the families they left behind would be to ride across the United States in honor of them, from Camp Pendleton to Camp Lejeune and ending in Quantico, meeting the families along the way. Over the 77-day trip, Jenn is conducting interviews with many Gold Star families, and is dedicating each day’s ride to someone else as she gets to know them through their survivors.
Her journey gives a voice to these families and to remind us all about what we have lost as a nation. She is also amazed, repeatedly, by how great loss can galvanize people to act, and writes about the people she meets most evenings after her day’s ride. She has a website, www.goldstarride.com, and a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GoldStarRide. She updates the Facebook page daily with stories of those she meets and those she rides in memory of. Please take the time to look through her sites, and to read about the families and sons and daughters they lost.
The enormity of this ride is humbling. Yet at the same time, the work she is doing is life-affirming, as are the memories she relays. Hopefully people will follow along with her on her journey, and perhaps show up along the route in support. She is planning to do two key legs during the last week of October: one in Camp Lejeune on October 23, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Beirut barracks bombing, and the final leg up to the National Museum of the Marine Corps on October 25. A ride like this will need all the support it can get.
Last fall, the Commandant of the Marine Corps announced that starting in January 2014, as part of the annual Physical Fitness Test, female Marines would be required to perform pull-ups just like male Marines. The announcement was a long time coming and way overdue. (And no, I have no innate ability when it comes to pull-ups. On the contrary, my upper body strength is unimpressive, and as work and family demands have increased over the years, my interest in getting stronger regularly falls by the wayside, trumped by everything else that needs constant attention. A weak excuse, sure, but we’ve all been there.)
But PFT changes are way overdue, and adding the pull-up requirement is an honest start. It’s only right that as Marines, if we expect some to perform pull-ups as part of the PFT, we should all be expected to do them. The flexed arm hang is a poor approximation for upper body strength; I consistently max it and have yet to practice it. But critically, for a service that prides itself on its high standards, expecting—requiring—different outcomes based solely on gender creates more problems than it solves. The Marine Corps should expect all Marines to meet the minimum standards, not just some. Pull-ups may be harder for me to do than others, but I should be able to perform them as required. And I will, it’ll just take more work on my end.
So when I recently heard a rumor that the Marine Corps is reconsidering the requirement for women to do pull-ups based on low success rates and sub-par numbers, I slapped my forehead in response. It’s only been seven months since the initial announcement, and we’re already rethinking it? We’re talking about discarding the pull-up requirement before it even goes into effect? This bothers me on every level. To those making this decision: don’t take it back. To say to the women out there, “We were wrong, you’re not capable, go back to your arm hang and sorry we had you all worried?” Please, please don’t. Stick to the standard, keep the expectations high. Force us all, male and female, to hoist ourselves up to that bar. At least three times, and preferably many more.
The PFT has its share of problems: the different standards for men and women, the way it reeks of favoritism, how it diminishes us as Marines by expecting less, and the way the sliding scale also favors age (but no one complains). On one level, I get it: it’s a fitness test, and I recognize that we’re trying to measure a fitness level and not unambiguous strength in three areas. But we go about it wrong, resulting in a convoluted system that misses the boat. We were heading in the right direction with the pull-up change. Let’s get back to that.
Think about this. We’re only seven months into the change. Seven months doesn’t mean squat when we consider the weight of the preceding years and the different expectations many people face in high school and college. There’s a giant gulf between what is expected athletically of men and women from a young age. By my husband’s senior year of high school, he was required to perform ten pull-ups as part of his P.E. classes after years of preparation. By my senior year of high school, I was required, after building up to it over a year, to run a mile. One mile, that was it. Pretty sure we didn’t even have to run the whole time. There was no expectation for girls to do pull-ups, pushups, or any other strength training. Which one of us showed up better prepared?
Many of us have to start from scratch, or at least from a low standard. But we are talking about Marines; if we expect Marines to do something, they generally won’t disappoint. Give the standard time to work. Give Marines time to believe that we can all do it and then to act on that belief. We’ve got time: the requirement doesn’t take effect until next January. This spring, realizing that it had been years since I’d attempted pull-ups, I set up a bar in the hallway, jumped up there, and tried to knock some out. It was an epic failure. But after working on it, I’m there now. I can’t max it yet, but if I can haul my old, mother-of-three self up on that bar and make it happen, then so can anyone.
The point? This is about pull-ups, but it’s really about much more. Don’t go back to the ridiculous arm hang. Make us all work for it. Set the bar high, and Marines will reach it.
Last night I got to visit with a good friend who is about to retire. We spent most of the visit talking about her post-retirement project, which was fitting for Memorial Day: the day after her retirement ceremony, she is embarking on a cross-country bike ride to meet with and interview Gold Star Mothers. The purpose of her ride is to focus on the families and the sons and daughters they lost, to give a voice to the memories that they have, and to remember. She’ll ride from state to state, and as she completes each day or more of riding, she will meet these families and conduct interviews. The interviews are not so much formal interviews as they are a way for these families to share their memories of their sons and daughters so that others will get to know them too. She’ll see baby pictures and scrapbooks, watch videos and hear stories. And in the process, and in her subsequent work on the subject, she will get to know some of those we have lost and—more importantly—will keep their memories alive.
It’s going to be exhausting and draining, and I am humbled by the enormity of her project.
We forget so easily—and yes, those of us who have served tend to forget less easily than others, but we all forget at some point—the enormity of the loss and sacrifice that so many have endured. As a nation, we pay tribute on our appointed “holiday” days. And then life goes on for most.
As a child, I often heard the story of my great-uncle George, who enlisted in the Marine Corps during World War II and was killed in action during the Battle of Iwo Jima. He was the youngest of seven children, the baby of a big, Catholic family in New Orleans. Family legend has it that when he was 17, the Marine Corps recruiter told him he was too short to enlist, and he desperately wanted to be a Marine, so he went home and stretched himself out by holding onto the claw feet of the bathtub. Sure enough, within a year, he was miraculously tall enough to enlist, so he shipped out and ended up on Iwo Jima.
Private First Class Dittmann was present for the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi, but just over two weeks later, he was killed. My great-grandparents received the telegram notifying them of his death. Painfully, shortly after that, the mailman brought a letter from George, written shortly before he was killed. Today, my grandmother remembers with incredible clarity the pain of that time. I’ve only seen two pictures of him, and to the best of my knowledge, that’s all that the family had when he died, barely 19 years old.
Things are different now in some ways: technology has changed that. If he had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, the details of his death might still be fuzzy, but his pictures, videos, and cell phone messages would still be around. But in other ways, nothing has changed. The grief, the painfully empty space, and the loss are all the same. Memorial Day should make people remember, but only if they have forgotten. Memorial Day in the Washington area is a series of cookouts and sales and pool parties and parades. And oh, that’s right, a day to remember those we have lost. For my great-grandmother, and for all of the mothers, fathers, siblings, children, husbands and wives left behind, Memorial Day is not a single, lone day. Memorial Day is every day, every hour, and every minute for the rest of their lives.
As stories of a massive manhunt through Boston and of the still-unfolding drama surrounding Monday’s events capture the attention of every news network, I am struck by our collective reaction to Monday’s attacks. Yesterday morning, the Washington Post’s editorial page carried a number of letters to the editor concerning the Boston Marathon bombing. One letter in particular jumped out: the author worried that Americans feel too safe these days and have grown too complacent, and as a result are less vigilant; she concluded that what this country needs is heightened security and additional precautions, since our current system didn’t prevent the attacks from happening.
In a similar vein, I got hit with an unexpected question Monday night: am I still planning to run the Marine Corps Marathon this fall? The question gave me pause. I’ve run Marine Corps as often over the years as deployments and children allowed, and ran Boston once some years ago (I remember that finish line spectacularly well, mostly because I barely crossed it). The family often comes out to watch, and the team I run Marine Corps with has accumulated a strong cheering squad and support group at the finish. But what would the reverberations of Monday’s events be? Would people want their families to be there after what happened in Boston? Would I? And would I feel safe running it?
The answer is an unequivocal yes. Yes, yes, and again, yes. Absolutely, I’ll run the Marine Corps Marathon, as will thousands of others. We will run it with pride, anger, and disgust, directed at those who spread fear within our borders. What happened Monday is exceedingly rare here, and in that we are beyond fortunate; Boston should remind us of that. What happened is abnormal, horrific, and yet so often, in so many places that are not America, people are numb to it. Not here. Our defenses and security measures are imperfect; we cannot see and catch all. But when a bad apple gets through and inflicts harm upon fellow Americans, we react. We abhor. And we bear witness. Monday’s events had news outlets tripping over each other trying to get the facts out; four days later we can still see the same ubiquitous slow-motion video clip of the explosions everywhere we look. The analysis is too much, perhaps even voyeuristic, sensationalistic. But that’s far better than the alternative, and it keeps us aware.
My immediate reaction to the letter I initially described was primarily an instinctive hatred for the unwelcome image of this nation gripped by fear. We should always be improving security, and we should always be alert. We should embrace our families, and fear for their safety. Yet part of what makes this country amazing is that there will still be marathons, and there will still be spectators at the finish line. We will continue to fly, to travel, and to gather in large numbers in public places. We will continue to be shocked when terrorists attack here, obsessive in the aftermath, and naïve in our beliefs that we can really keep terrorism out of our borders. What scares me most of all is the image of an America where those things cease to happen.
Last Friday, in the wake of the two-week-old announcement overturning the Combat Exclusion Policy, I attended a panel event about the removal of the CEP and its implications for the services. Having seen the damage that the CEP could—and did—do, I wrote about it both for a blog post and as a news article. The policy’s removal was both anticlimactic and embarrassingly necessary. It’s embarrassing that it took us this long—in a force that hinges on the high expectations and ambitions of hard-working people—to dispose of this policy. Despite an entire system set up to evaluate individuals on merit, the CEP codified the idea that ability mattered less than boy-or-girl.
But now that the CEP is—sort of—removed, what comes next? How do we as a military do this right, without overthinking things or treating people like children? The symposium was planned to address specific concerns about how the changes would impact the force, and to discuss past successes and failures both here and abroad. The main concerns included how to ensure that standards are set and remain high, how to avoid overthinking and micromanaging the process, possible impacts on unit cohesion, and more. It featured four different panels and 17 speakers. Most of the panel members were current or retired military; some are still on active duty and will deploy again shortly. Among the panelists were: Specialist Shoshana Johnson, USA (Ret); Major Mary Jennings Hegar, ANG; Sergeant Julia Bringloe, USA; Specialist Heidi Olson, USA; CAPT Joellen Oslund, USNR (Ret); Colonel Martha McSally, USAF (Ret); and Colonel Ingrid Gjerde, Norwegian Infantry.
Anyone interested in watching can view the videos here. The first and second panels were particularly interesting as they included testimony from American and foreign women who had experience in ground combat, among others.
Opponents of allowing women into ground combat roles have expressed concern that if units become co-ed, when under fire, men will forget their training and rush to help the women, risking mission and unit in the process. But panelist after panelist told otherwise. Major Hegar relayed how she and her crew crash-landed while on a mission in Afghanistan; while defending the crashed aircraft, they came under enemy fire. The crew fought back fiercely, as they had been trained to do. Her gender was not an issue. And why? Because they knew and trusted each other, had trained together and respected each other. Specialist Olson, Sergeant Bringloe, and Specialist Johnson emphasized the same points, echoing that the team is paramount, and that the vital piece was always the training: training as a unit allowed for development of the necessary rapport and respect, something that being “temporarily attached” does not provide.
Physical standards, specifically upper-body strength, have historically commanded the majority of the coverage in past discussions. But as most of the panelists pointed out, physical strength—especially upper-body strength—is only one part of the puzzle. Endurance, mental toughness, the ability to remain calm under fire—these cannot easily be taught yet are critically important, and none are gender-specific. I was sitting next to an infantry Marine in the audience, and on a break he mentioned that in Afghanistan, he’d seen a women break down while taking fire. Yet he’d also seen one of his own Marines fall apart and go into the fetal position, and he’d had to send others in after him, endangering them all. We often ignore the fact that while physical strength is one part of it, mental toughness is another. And mental toughness is not gender-specific.
But the physical aspect is undeniably part of it all. Greg Jacob, a prior infantry Marine, related how he had taken command of a company at the Marine Corps’ School of Infantry and found himself working with women for the first time. Amazed that they couldn’t do pull-ups easily, he started them on a pull-up program, and soon everyone was knocking out pull-ups together; the problem was that the women had never trained for them, since the PFT only required the flexed-arm hang. We can develop strength in people, and we can develop endurance. But we have to train to the standards, and to do that we must set—and not lower—high standards.
And as to endurance and toughness, the panelists’ experiences highlighted how those qualities also come in both men and women. One audience member, a prior Marine infantryman, relayed the tale of a deployment he had to Okinawa years ago. He explained that his battalion had performed a number of long marches in full gear, and as they were struggling up the mountains in the Northern Training Area, they were accompanied by older Okinawan women. These women carried large baskets of water and other supplies on their heads and backs, and generally arrived at the destination in much better shape than the Marines did.
The physical standards were a recurring item for discussion throughout the day. Comments in the press by General Dempsey about developing a “critical mass” and having “enough women” are worrisome, and speak to a different path than what is needed to do this right. As I wrote about in the news piece for USNI, standards for each job must be defined, if specific ones are called for, and those should not shift to accommodate anyone. If this means only one or two women serve in each unit, or none, so be it. Some men may get cut as well if the standards are stricter than, for example, the current standard to become an infantry Marine. But every panelist repeatedly urged our leadership to set and adhere to high standards.
As to fears about unit cohesion, so much of it comes down to leadership, and to training to standards and expectations. Co-ed units have been deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade now, and they are strong and successful. Many of the panelists—and many in the audience—had deployed in co-ed units, and those units served ably and confidently. Leadership is paramount, just as it is for everything else we do. Expecting this to be any different is naïve.
Much more was said, but I’ll stop there to keep this from going on longer. At the end of the day, the main suggestions mirrored the panel discussions. Set high standards and stick to them. Expect high performance. Train to higher standards. Treat those serving as functioning adults rather than children who require constant hand-holding. Exercise leadership; as in any unit, the signs are there when trouble is ahead. And so many concerns can be overcome with a small amount of common sense and practicality.
As to the CEP, good riddance. It was a policy proven obsolete time and time again. It caused the “temporary attachment” of women to all-male infantry units that they had little integration or training with prior to deployment, weakening links that did eventually develop, and drove a wedge between those serving, labeling some as less qualified based solely on how they were born vs. actual capabilities. In effect, the CEP held that Justin Bieber is more qualified than Venus Williams to perform the duties of an 0311 (I paraphrased this from Colonel McSally, who used it repeatedly). We’re much better off acknowledging that this is not the case at all.