Opinion: Don’t Lower Standards in the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course

Note: This article originally appeared on ForeignPolicy.com.

As a writer and a Marine Corps infantry veteran, I feel as though I must speak for the countless grunts who have been blowing up my Facebook feed with Colonel Ellen Haring’s op-ed in the Marine Corps Times about standards at the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course.

With all due respect to the Colonel, she is wrong when she says the 152-pound load carried during the IOC’s ruck marches is an unrealistic standard. In fact, infantry Marines and officers regularly carry this kind of weight during both training and operational deployment.

The Marine Corps infantry is an inherently physical occupation; fitness failure equals leadership failure. To argue otherwise reflects a basic misunderstanding of the nature of the Marine Corps infantry. I cannot stress this enough: A physically weak officer in the infantry will never be respected.

Let’s begin with garrison tasks: During conditioning hikes in training, the gear that grunts are required to carry generally reflect their military occupational specialty. Assaultmen carry SMAW launchers (16.92 pounds); Machine Gunners might carry M240b machine guns (27.6 pounds), their tripods (16 pounds), or parts of the M2 .50 caliber machine gun (83.78 lbs together); while mortarmen carry 60 millimeter mortars (cannon, bipod, baseplate, and sight: 47 lbs) or 81 millimeter mortars (91 pounds).

Each Marine might also carry his rucksack (40 to 80 pounds, roughly) and certainly his personal M16A4 (7.18 pounds). Underneath that, he or she might wear a plate carrier (30 pounds).

If a Marine falls back during a hike, someone must carry his equipment. Very often officers are the ones grabbing extra gear. A few months after arriving at my first unit, a new lieutenant grabbed a SMAW launcher from me in the hills of Oahu as I fell back during a particularly grueling hike. I was embarrassed by my own failure but impressed with his stamina. I didn’t know much about the Marine Corps, but I did know that a Marine who could grab someone else’s gear was someone I could follow into combat.

I got better at hiking, thankfully, and then I deployed, twice, to Afghanistan, including once as a leader. In Helmand province I saw every day exactly what Colonel Haring doesn’t believe are “regular” or “recurring” requirements. 

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During Operation Moshtarak, an entire company of Marines with 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines flew to the outskirts of Marjah to secure an intersection in advance of the main invasion.

We carried everything we needed to fight on our persons. Our rucks were heavier than they had ever been in training: I carried three SMAW rockets (18 pounds each, 54 pounds total), four PRC-117 radio batteries (about 4 pounds each, 16 pounds total), three day’s worth of food and water, cold-weather gear, a personal tent, sleeping bag, and a couple of books. The normal ruck gear and clothes probably weighed 40 to 60 pounds. 

I also wore a plate carrier, fully loaded with six magazines and a smoke grenade (40 pounds), a Kevlar helmet (4 pounds), and carried an M4 fully loaded (7.5 pounds) on my front, and a SMAW launcher (16.92 pounds) on my back.

Yes, Colonel Haring, my weight carried exceeded 152 pounds. And so did every single other Marine who walked off of those helicopters at 4 a.m. on the morning of February 9th, 2010, into an unfriendly bazaar and days of firefights.  

The war in Helmand Province, my war, the Marines’ war, was not usually fought by surgical strikes and gunners firing from armored vehicles. It was fought by young Marines on foot, moving out of remote patrol bases. The war emulated Vietnam rather than Iraq.  

The changing demands and realities of combat mean that you always add items. Your pack never gets lighter. 

It adds things like compact metal detectors and Thor 3 counter-IED packs and six-foot bamboo sticks with hooks on the end that we used to pull up wires from IED’s.

In Nawa we patrolled through knee-deep mud, heavy rucks and all, from one patrol base to another every week. We carried our mail to and from our positions in Garmsir. And when a fellow Marine was blown up by an IED, one of us carried him for a half mile to a medical evacuation site. He weighed at least 152 pounds.

In a profession where you often have to patrol for hours through harsh terrain before the enemy even shoots at you, a high standard for infantry officers is acceptable. Many Lieutenants do pass the IOC, and the Corps is better off for them. Every infantry Marine knows that his officer is tough and has proven himself during IOC.

Don’t change the standard.

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6 thoughts on “Opinion: Don’t Lower Standards in the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course

  1. The only thing that you get from lower standards are dead Marines! Just because others choose to go the PC route is no reason for our Corps to go down that road. Keep the Standards high.

    USMC infantry retired

  2. I am a retired U.S.Army N.C.O. a 150 pound ruck is pretty common even in the Army. As is already stated and well illustrated a combat proven necessity Therefore the standard should not be changed. What you practice in training is what determines survival in combat it is this simple,it is the difference between living and dying. In short if you can’t handle your end of the log find another profession.

  3. As a female, non military personnel. ..that has always worked in male dominant professions, for over 30yrs. I NEVER wanted standards lowered for me. (In fact it pissed me off). Not having standards lowered made me stronger & more proficient. Back then women were not allowed in many places unless they met certain requirements, or other places not at all (as in combat, on subs, fighter pilots etc). My opinion has always been if you can do the job, fine. It shouldn’t matter what “equipment ” you have. So, long story short. NO! DO NOT LOWER STANDARDS! “You” will pay for it in the end, in horrible ways.

  4. Good afternoon,
    I have a question regarding this article and the issue at hand (IOC standards). If you want to put this issue to rest once and for all, I recommend that you post the packing list for the Rucksack. I believe that the weight (150 lbs) in its entirety takes the complete load as a whole into the equation and not the rucksack by itself, if this is not true then the actual weight will exceed 150 lbs. and will most likely be around the range of 175 to 190 lbs (weapon, body armor, vest, water, food etc.) if not greater .

    I would encourage you or your staff to provide this information, in order to end the debate and provide concrete proof for everyone who is not familiar with what troops must carry. While I do not have first hand knowledge of the course, I do know what troops need to carry in training (requirements) and in combat (mission essential) both are unique, the latter having greater implications.

    Regarding the distance and time requirements, they are achievable by by both sexes (9 and a half miles in 4 hours: 2.37 miles roughly, per hour). The difference is having a Pickup-truck vs S-10 truck carrying the load, still achievable with a bit of luck for both. In the end it sucks all around for both sexes.

  5. As a female Marine veteran, I have always been in the minority as far as my opinion on women in combat positions. Although I was more physically fit than most women (and a lot of men) and I could run and shoot and fight, I have always been against allowing women in infantry positions. Anyone who is truly educated about the human body knows that there are differences that we can’t override just by our desire to want everyone to be equal. By all means, allow anyone who can meet the requirements be part of the group, but lowering the standards is going to jeopardize the safety of that group. I know that you’re only as strong as your weakest man, but I am also aware that when that weakest man (or woman) is dead then the entire group is stronger. It’s not worth it.