60 Minutes and Women in Combat Training

Last weekend, 60 Minutes managed to set aside its usual liberal camera and interviewing angles to film female Marine officers attempting to pass the historically secretive Combat Endurance Test, an entrance requirement to the Corps’s Infantry Officer Course.  In the past, the Marine Corps has kept details of this very difficult course and its entrance requirements under wraps in the belief it is better for our adversaries not to know exactly what goes into the making of a Marine infantry officer.  That the Corps allowed CBS to film as much of it as they did was surprising to many Marines.  My belief is that the Corps wants the world to see firsthand that it is the physical requirements of Marine infantry officer training keeping females out, not some bull-headed misogyny, as so many feminists contend.

CBS correspondent David Martin focused on one female 2nd lieutenant, a very determined and prepared young woman, and followed her through the grueling 14-hour physical test.  An overabundance of both strength and determination are essential to completing the 16-mile course that is riddled with difficult obstacles, both physical and mental.  To make the test even more challenging, the candidates do it in full combat gear, which can approach or even exceed a hundred pounds.  And just as the Corps has maintained since the push for women in the infantry began a few years ago, it ultimately is the combination of that weight and lack of upper body strength that keeps women from completing the course.  The promising young candidate whom reporter Martin followed was done in, like so many others, by a rope climb, where upper body strength is paramount.

I watched this 60 Minutes segment and just shook my head – my belief, as a former infantry non-commissioned officer, once again confirmed that women simply are not physically suited for the unique physical needs of a combat infantryman, and not just in matters of strength.  I thought nothing more about it until today, when I received an e-mail from a buddy retired in Guam that contained collected observations on the 60 Minutes piece from some of his many Marine friends around the world.  Most were surprised, as I was, by the fair and balanced presentation, but some of them wished that CBS would have shown the courage to address stickier issues.

My combat was in tropical Vietnam, so I’m familiar with field conditions there.  Over the years I’ve conversed with enough infantry veterans of our Middle East wars and the medics who cared for them to confirm my suspicions about field conditions in that region – particularly in Iraq, where we were fielding very large units spread over very large, remote areas of desert terrain.  The one condition of infantry field conditions that has held constant from the first war our nation fought to present battlefields has been that it is a physically dirty business, an extremely unsanitary process that exceeds in filth anything you are likely ever to experience in civilian life.

Due to excessive sweating, constant contact with dirt and dust, and very infrequent opportunities to bathe, even most superficially, dermatological disease is rampant, from opportunistic fungal infections the troops refer to as "crotch rot" or "foot rot" to untreated cuts, scratches, and insect bites that become secondarily infected to the point of requiring hospitalization and intravenous antibiotics.  In Vietnam, I went on patrols, set up ambushes, and conducted other ground operations with young men so filthy that their own mothers couldn’t have picked them out of a lineup.  Many had open, suppurating sores and boils caused by the omnipresent thorn bushes and the unrelenting biting insects.  Leeches were common, fleas and lice less so but still there.

Another constant problem on the battlefield is intestinal disorders that many times result in uncontrollable and explosive diarrhea.  I couldn’t count how many times I saw a young trooper suddenly dump his gear and drop his trousers right on the trail, in full view of every member of his team.  And no one thought anything of it, save the poor guy who had to squat there with his naked butt and his family jewels on full display while he loudly evacuated his bowels to the hoots, laughter, and catcalls of his team.  Even routine defecation and urination are public functions for infantrymen, including officers and NCOs.  When you are in Indian country, there is absolutely no expectation of privacy, or even a desire for it, because to be out of sight of your team for even minutes is to be at risk of sudden death or capture.

In spite of all the physical misery they had to endure, those tough young paratroopers I so proudly served with sucked it up, cussed their officers and the Army, and continued the mission, because they did not want to be medically evacuated, leaving their buddies shorthanded in battle.  It is this "serving while sick with no privacy" aspect of service in the infantry that those of us who have lived it and survived it would like to see included in every discussion of whether or not women should serve in the infantry.

It looks like the Marine Corps is well on its way to demonstrating the validity of the lack of upper body strength issue, but it would be interesting to hear what an objective panel of gynecologists, preferably some who have served in the infantry and combat at some earlier point in their lives, have to say regarding the hygiene problems associated with menstrual events and increased risks for feminine disease that women in the infantry might experience under conditions such as I’ve described above.  And now that I think of it, how about a panel of military psychologists examining the effects on young women of public urination and defecation while surrounded by grinning, highly aggressive young males, who you can bet your last dime of combat pay aren’t about to avert their eyes?

How about addressing those issues on a follow-up segment, 60 Minutes, and then another follow-up dealing with the sexual ramifications, which is another critical issue unto itself?

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