Members of a Female Engagement Team assigned to 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, conduct a security patrol Jan. 3 in Marjah, Afghanistan. (Cpl. Marionne T. Mangrum / Marine Corps)
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Sgt. Michelle Stephens is a salty, hard-charging Marine who has hauled 75-pound packs with infantrymen at mountain warfare training, qualified as a rifle sharpshooter while using iron sights and worked off-duty as a bouncer in a bar.
Despite all that, the seven-year Marine will never serve in a combat unit because of something else: she's a woman. The 5-foot-10, 170-pound administrative specialist is taller and stronger than some Marines, but the U.S. doesn't allow women in combat arms jobs.
Stephens is part of a passionate, contentious debate taking place throughout the service — even at its most senior levels.
Marine Corps headquarters established an operational planning team in January that meets weekly to explore whether any changes to its policies for women are necessary, and Commandant Gen. Jim Amos is personally reviewing recommendations — made by a congressionally appointed panel — that call for the ban on women in combat to end.
That panel, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, said in a March 15 report that the Defense Department should open all military occupational specialties to both sexes. Not doing so stunts career opportunities, according to the commission, which comprised active-duty and retired general officers, and senior enlisted personnel.
"I honestly believe that if you put me in the situation, I will adapt and overcome," said Stephens, who works at Headquarters and Service Battalion of Quantico, Va. "I think anyone with the proper mentality in the Marine Corps can do that. If you put 100 women in a room, you'll probably find five who are perfect to be a grunt."
At issue is a specific policy: the Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule adopted by the Pentagon in 1994. It was approved as the military eased other restrictions concerning women, allowing them to serve in fields like combat aviation for the first time. It explicitly banned female service members "from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground." The policy has remained in place for nearly two decades.
In recent years, the Corps has cautiously eased some policy restrictions concerning women in combat, adopting programs that have helped infantry units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ban remains in place, though, and its repeal faces stiff opposition from most men and many women in the Corps.
Critics say the concept of women joining combat units is a politically correct idea fraught with pitfalls. Commanders would need to worry about women who aren't strong enough for the rigors of infantry life, sexual temptations for men and women sharing tight quarters, and women being treated differently from men by fellow Marines while under fire, they say.
The Corps' planning team is reviewing options in case the Pentagon repeals or revises that policy, said Maj. Shawn Haney, a Marine spokeswoman. As of March 30, about 7 percent of the active-duty Corps — 13,673 out of 201,672 Marines — was female. Women are allowed to fill billets in the command element of any Marine ground task force, division, aircraft wing or logistics group, but they are expressly banned from joining any MOS that would allow them to fill billets within ground combat units below the division level.
Women in combat
Make no mistake: Women do find themselves in combat today. In fact, more than 100 female service members have been killed in Iraq. At least 27 more have died in Afghanistan, according to Pentagon statistics. Those casualties include at least nine Marines, many of whom died in convoy attacks.
Since the early stages of the Iraq war, female Marines have operated outside the wire alongside infantry units. In 2004, the Corps created Lioness, which provided female personnel to military units to search Iraqi women. It countered a growing trend at the time in which female insurgents carried suicide bombs and other weapons, knowing that male service members would not search them because it was considered disrespectful in Iraqi culture.
More recently, the Corps has assigned Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan. Typically comprising two to four female Marines each, they spend weeks at a time in austere locations to search and interact with Afghan women, who face strict cultural rules about interacting with men outside their families.
Still, even some female Marines with experience operating outside the wire have mixed feelings about the possibility of women serving in combat units.
Cpl. Michele Greco-Lucchina deployed for most of 2010 as a FET Marine in Helmand province, and earned a Combat Action Ribbon along the way after serving in Marjah and Garmser districts. She is proud of her FET work, but can see where women being incorporated into the infantry full time would raise concerns.
Some women are physically strong enough to do the job, but it could get "very, very messy" to deploy men and women together as 0311 riflemen, Greco-Lucchina said.
"In any work environment, you're going to have sex tension, especially when you're deployed and nothing can go on," she said. "When we were out there, we had to find ways around it because the infantry battalions were not ready for us. We used what they used. If they showered, we weren't around, and if we showered, they weren't around.
"But that can cause many problems on a lot of levels, and I know the battalion commanders and company commanders and senior enlisted, that was, I think, their main concern: ‘How is this going to affect our male Marines?' "
Last summer, commanders in Afghanistan put in place a requirement that FET Marines could not stay at one outpost for longer than 30 days to alleviate some co-location concerns, Greco-Lucchina said. She and her colleagues would cycle back to regimental headquarters at either Camp Dwyer or Camp Delaram for a few days before getting pushed out to another outpost.
Women who haven't served in FETs may not understand how substantial the differences are between serving alongside the infantry and being a part of it, said Sgt. Karina Villatoro, who deployed with an FET in support of 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion in late 2009 and early 2010. The unit included Marines and operators from other branches of service and worked primarily in Afghanistan's Herat province.
"It's a totally different thing to augment them than to be one," said Villatoro, who faced mortar fire and firefights during her deployment. "For the women who want to try it, I think they should adhere to the male physical standards and from there, see how they do."
Questions to answer
Male Marines have raised concerns about the prospect, too. During a tour of European Marine commands in March, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Carlton Kent fielded several questions about the idea. At Naval Station Rota, Spain, he recounted for a group of male Marines a recent discussion at a first sergeants course prompted by a female Marine who asked whether women would ever serve in combat units.
"I turned the question back around on them, because there was a lot of female first sergeants in that course," Kent said. "I said, ‘You all tell me: How do you feel about serving in a ground combat unit?'
"Every first sergeant there but one said they should never serve in a ground combat unit, and they brought up valid reasons," Kent said. "You know, carrying a heavy load like men do. And, they brought up the hygiene issue, staying out in the field like those Devil Dogs in the infantry units right now. One female first sergeant even said, ‘We would distract from the mission.' Because you know how we think: With our culture as Americans, we want to protect our females."
Male Marines also question whether the smaller size of most women would make it worthwhile to screen for those who could do the job.
"Their physical limitations can be a liability in combat," said Cpl. Jared Hohmeier, out of Okinawa, Japan. "Not that all females are physically inferior to men, but we don't have the luxury of evaluating that on a case-by-case basis, and it would be safer for the Marines to the left and right to keep it as all male."
Other male Marines are blunter about their concerns.
"Unit cohesion would, in the long run, cease to exist," said Gunnery Sgt. Phillip Hickey, who works out of School of Infantry-East at Camp Lejeune, N.C. "The young, hard-charging male would try to win her favor, and the young males would fight over her. It may look good on paper, but when it comes to real people, that's a different story."
Retired Marine Commandant James Conway also has questioned whether it's a good idea, and said women don't want the change, either.
"First of all, with regard to women in combat arms, I don't think you will see a change because I don't think our women want it to change," he told the Military Leadership Diversity Commission in 2010. "There are certain demands of officers in a combat arms environment that our women see, recognize, appreciate and say, ‘I couldn't do that — in fact, I don't want to do that because I don't think it best prepares me for success if I am trying to do those things against the male population at lieutenant, captain, major and lieutenant colonel."
Opening ground combat roles to women is possible, but it would present logistical and cultural challenges for commanding officers downrange, said three lieutenant colonels enrolled in the Marine Corps War College at Quantico. They applied their own war-zone leadership experience to envision a gender-neutral Marine Corps.
Lt. Col. Joe Murray deployed to Taqqadum, Iraq, in 2009 as the commanding officer of General Support Combat Logistics Battalion. He oversaw 1,000 Marines, more than a quarter of whom were women.
Murray said female Marines performed regular combat logistics patrols. While on these supply convoys, women drove trucks, manned machine guns and faced improvised explosive devices and small-arms fire. They were "exceptional" in this role, Murray said.
However, Murray said, "Of those females, I could count on one hand those who had the physical capacities that could perform an infantry-type MOS."
Lt. Col. Dan Yaroslaski, an assault amphibian vehicle officer, led Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. Standards must be put in place to ensure that all Marines, male or female, are able to meet the demands of their jobs, he said.
"I support effective combat units," he said. "If that means integrating women into them, great. If it means not, that's fine, too."
Sexual tension would undoubtedly pose a concern, both Murray and Yaroslaski agreed. It became an issue in Iraq, where Murray said the dwindling mission presented a lot of downtime. Sex was against the rules, but it happened anyway.
"Young male and female Marines are hanging out. What's going to happen? And it did," Murray said. "I had to deal with a lot of disciplinary issues." But Murray said he had no doubt infantry officers would be more than prepared to handle this issue.
"Professionalism can move beyond that," said Yaroslaski, who was more concerned with potential logistical requirements female Marines present.
In 2003, while under 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, out of Twentynine Palms, Calif., Yaroslaski commanded Marines on the drive from Kuwait to Baghdad. While bathroom breaks were no issue for male Marines, they needed a mobile bathroom shelter to preserve the "dignity" of the unit's lone female Marine, he said. This was not a problem for the equipment-laden unit, but it could be for smaller infantry units operating on foot, Yaroslaski said.
Lt. Col. Thomas Dolan, a Cobra helicopter pilot, compares this latest debate to one in the 1990s, when women were approved to fly combat missions. Male Marines were worried women would be unable to handle the stress and would freeze when it was time to pull the trigger. If a helicopter crashed, would a woman be able to pull her co-pilot from the wreckage? "All the arguments back in 1993, why there shouldn't be women flying combat missions, have been proven wrong," Dolan said, while acknowledging there are some different concerns about ground combat.
The issue won't go away any time soon. Proponents of changing the policy say FETs once would have been considered questionable, and note that women are eligible to become explosive ordnance disposal technicians and to work on Navy submarines, both of which were once banned.
Sgt. Stephens, who has not deployed, said her experience at the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif., leaves no doubt that some women could make the grade. While participating in a 10-kilometer hike at elevations of more than 7,000 feet, the strap broke on another female admin specialist's pack. She didn't give up. She carried it the second half of the mission in her arms.
"She got the gung-ho award, which was a rock that everyone signed," Stephens said. "She was maybe 5 feet tall and 100 pounds. When you're doing that with 1,000 grunts and some of them are falling out, that's how I know girls can handle it. When you do something like that, it's completely worth it."
Tony Lombardo contributed to this story.