- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Aaron Ferencik
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted
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.
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.
Aaron Ferencik served four years in the Marine Corps infantry and as part of that outfit, vacationed in Afghanistan twice. He is co-holder of the Marine chair on the Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted, which exists to try to give more voice to the majority of people in the U.S. military — that is, the enlisted.
Photo credit: Sgt. Sarah Anderson/U.S. Marine Corps