A Marine's story: Women set up to fail USMC’s most grueling test

On the Radar

At a petite 5’3’’, Sage Santangelo may not look like a combat fighter at first glance. But the female second lieutenant has never let that hold her back from pursuing her dream of becoming an infantry officer in the Marine Corps.

Growing up, Santangelo found she was always able to keep up with the guys and enjoyed playing hockey on all boys’ teams. But when she joined the Marines, Santangelo found the playing field changed; she was segregated into female-only training units and as a woman, was relegated to less strenuous physical training than her male counterparts. And that’s why, Santangelo told “On the Radar,” she didn’t have a fair shot at passing the Marine Corps’ Infantry Officer Course.

“It was an awesome opportunity for me to be able to try the course, and an opportunity for me to learn what the ground combat element does and how I can support them in the future, and how to become a better leader in the Marines overall,” Santangelo said of the Marines’ Infantry Officer course, which she failed out of on the first day.

Santangelo is one of 14 female Marines to have attempted -- and failed -- the grueling course since the ban against women in ground combat was lifted last year. Passing the course is a requirement for any Marine looking to become an infantry officer; and the reality that no woman to date has been able to pass is just one of many challenges the military is facing in fully implementing the ban’s repeal by the 2016 deadline.

“I got to a point throughout the test that my body just couldn't perform anymore,” she said. “And I wasn't able to complete the task that I needed to be able to complete; and you know, I couldn't continue past that point. So, myself and 26 other men all failed at this point. So, it was a tough realization. I really wanted to believe I had a shot of making it through.”

Upon reflection of the disappointing failure, Santangelo said she came to a realization.

“I considered a lot about why I failed, and that you know my hope was to create a discussion and provide my opinions and my perspective on my own experience and how, you know, maybe I could have prepared better,” she said. “I absolutely could have prepared better and maybe the Marine Corps could help prepare people who want to do this in the future better.”

Santangelo made the decision to publish an op-ed in Washington Post about her experience and why she believed she failed.

Stirring up controversy with the op-ed, Santangelo made a case that she wasn’t set up to succeed in the first place and called for reforms within the Marines’ training program for women. She called specifically for holding women to higher physical fitness standards earlier on in their training and also for women to be given the opportunity to take the course a second time if they fail the first attempt -- an opportunity which men have always been allowed.

“My hope was that provide every Marine the opportunity to compete, and meet that standard and they can do the job,” Santangelo said.

And the Marine Corps’ commandant agreed, at least to Santangelo’s second point.

Now, female Marines are allowed a second opportunity to take the course. However, women’s training has not been made more rigorous, as Santangelo advocates it should be. Critics of Santangelo argue that there are biological differences between men and women that make it impossible for women to achieve the same level of upper body fitness; and therefore, to increase the standards for women’s upper body strength would be unfair and only discourage female recruits.

But Santangelo believes women are up for the challenge.

“My thought is with better preparation we can better prepare females to be able to meet that standard,” she said. “I think we can adapt our training. Women can meet those standards. Women can do pull-ups, women can have upper body strength. It just takes training and you know different training than the men have. There are absolutely differences there but they can be reconciled I think by adapting our training.”

To set women up to succeed, Santangelo argues, the standards have to change -- but not so that women can pass with lesser standards -- but, instead, so that the standards of female Marine fitness are heightened.

“First and foremost, the standards cannot change,” Santangelo said. “Those standards are there for a reason, a Marine infantry officer, the expectations that they need to meet is to be able to lead Marines in combat and win battles.”

As for the controversy she’s created, Santangelo said she’s accomplished what she hoped to do.

“I just wanted to provoke a discussion,” Santangelo said. “It's great to see that people are thinking about this issue actively … I think just maybe moving the discussion from ‘if females can do this,’ because they already have proven that they can, to ‘how we can set them up for success in these positions.’”

While she may not have made it through the training course, 2nd Lt. Santangelo will get some real-world battlefield experience next month, when she deploys to Afghanistan.

For more of the interview with Santangelo, check out this episode of “On the Radar.”

ABC News’ Brian Hartman, Alexandra Dukakis, Luis Martinez, Tom Thornton, Chris Carlson, and Mary Quinn contributed to this episode.