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Corps plans for more women in combat units

Jan. 28, 2013 - 09:47AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 28, 2013 - 09:47AM  |  
Sgt. Crystal Groves, a Female Engagement Team member with 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, stands in formation at Camp Delaram in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The Corps is planning implementation of a new DoD directive allowing women into combat roles.
Sgt. Crystal Groves, a Female Engagement Team member with 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, stands in formation at Camp Delaram in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The Corps is planning implementation of a new DoD directive allowing women into combat roles. (Getty Images)
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Dates to Know

Jan. 24, 2013
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey announce the end of the policy excluding women from ground combat units.

May 2013
• Marine Corps Training and Education Command must identify the physical tasks required for each of the 330-plus military occupational specialties.
• Marine Corps implementation plan due to the secretary of defense.

Summer 2013
Corps tests about 400 Marines on the physical tasks required for each MOS, comparing their performance with their past PFT and CFT scores.

August 2013
Corps begins developing a new test recruiters can use to determine if a prospective Marine can handle the rigors of serving in a combat unit.

December 2013
Test for recruits is due to Commandant Gen. Jim Amos.

All of 2013
Phased expansion of what had been known as "exception to policy" assignments, placing women in billets in units that were once closed to them.

September 2015
Complete gender-neutral standards used to assign personnel for each specialty.

Fall 2015
Services and U.S. Special Operations Command complete all studies regarding exceptions to the policy of assigning women to ground combat units

The services must begin complying with the new policy.

Numbers to Know

13,800 Number of female Marines
53,721 Number of jobs now open to female Marines
38,445 Number of newly opened billets in Marine military occupational specialties previously closed to women
15,276 Number of billets in Marine MOSs that were already open to women, but in ground combat units in which they could not serve

A Pentagon decision to reverse its longtime ban on women serving in ground combat units leaves the Marine Corps with many questions to address, including what physical requirements it should put in place and which jobs should remain closed to female service members.

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A Pentagon decision to reverse its longtime ban on women serving in ground combat units leaves the Marine Corps with many questions to address, including what physical requirements it should put in place and which jobs should remain closed to female service members.

The historic policy shift was announced Jan. 24 by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. It opens to women about 237,000 jobs across the services, including 53,721 in the Corps, Marine officials said.

Some 38,445 of those Marine billets are in military occupational specialties previously closed to women, including in the infantry, reconnaissance and special operations communities, Marine officials said. An additional 15,276 are billets filled by Marines with specialties women already have, but in ground combat units in which they could not serve.

"Every time I visited the war zone, every time I've met with troops, reviewed military operations, and talked to wounded warriors, I've been impressed with the fact that everyone everyone, men and women alike everyone is committed to doing the job," Panetta said. "They're fighting and they're dying together. And the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality."

Panetta said the military will be more effective "when success is based solely on ability and qualifications and performance." However, there are still major hurdles that must be cleared before the Corps has, for example, its first female machine gunner or special operator.

Before opening additional specialties, the Corps will assess if there are fields in which the service's estimated 13,800 women should not be able to serve, and why, said Lt. Gen. Robert Milstead, deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs. The Corps also will develop a list of gender-neutral, job-specific tasks that every Marine must be able to complete to be awarded an MOS, and then create a physical test that recruiters will administer to prospective Marines to determine whether they can handle the demands in a given specialty.

"None of these MOSs will be immediately opened to female Marines," Milstead said in an exclusive interview with Marine Corps Times. "That's not what this means. To simply just open up all MOSs to our female Marines would be irresponsible. We're not going to just push them in there. We're going to do that deliberate, measured, responsible research to make sure that we can responsibly and safely get them into these MOSs."

Guidance from the top

Panetta said the Joint Chiefs, including Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, developed "a very thoughtful approach to integrating women into occupations across the force." According to a Jan. 9 memo from Dempsey to Panetta that was released to the media, the plan includes:

Expanding the number of ground combat units to which women can be assigned, and the number of women assigned to them. Each service will be required to provide periodic updates on its progress, beginning this summer.

Continuing to assign female sailors to afloat units as modifications for female privacy and berthing are completed, officer and enlisted leadership assignments can be made and ship schedules permit.

Developing gender-neutral standards for each specialty, which are to be used to assign personnel by no later than September 2015.

Assigning women to billets in the services and U.S. Special Operations Command as physical standards and operational assessments allow, with all studies to be completed by fall 2015. The services must begin complying by 2016.

Requesting exceptions to the policy when the services deem it is not possible to include women in specific positions.

Amos was not available for interviews, but his staff released a statement saying that he is "dedicated to maintaining the highest levels of combat readiness and capitalizing upon every opportunity to enhance our war fighting capabilities and the contributions of every Marine." In part, it read:

"Our ongoing deliberate, measured and responsible approach to validate occupational performance standards for all Marines is consistent with SECDEF's decision to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women. As our Corps moves forward with this process, our focus will remain on combat readiness and generating combat-ready units while simultaneously ensuring maximum success for every Marine.

"That talent pool from which we select our finest war fighters will consist of qualified individuals, regardless of gender," the statement concludes.

Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett">released a video online late Jan. 24 with similar sentiments. In an interview beforehand at the Pentagon with Marine Corps Times, he said women have served with distinction in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and are an integral part of the Corps and its successes.

"Rescinding this policy will not impair readiness, degrade combat effectiveness or cohesion," Barrett said.

He followed with a prediction: "We are very confident on how good this is going to come out."

What's next

The decision leaves the services with a lengthy to-do list in 2013. The Corps will start by developing its implementation plan, which is due in May to the secretary of defense likely to be former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican and President Obama's nominee to lead the Pentagon.

There also will be a phased expansion this year of what had been known as "exception to policy" assignments, in which women were placed in billets in units that were once closed to them. The process began on an experimental basis last year when the Corps opened 97 company-grade officer and 274 staff noncommissioned officer positions to women in artillery, tank and other combat units. These openings can no longer be considered exceptions to policy, of course, since Panetta and Dempsey lifted the ban on women in ground combat units.

The expansion will include Amos opening additional billets to women in Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company units, and the ground intelligence officer community, Milstead said. Hypothetically, that raises the possibility of women leading scout sniper platoons, but there are stumbling blocks, including the requirement that they must graduate from the grueling Infantry Officer Course in Quantico, Va. The Corps opened IOC to women last year, but only two women attempted it and both washed out, Marine officials said. At least two additional women have volunteered to attend the course beginning in March, and will have the opportunity, Marine officials said.

The Corps' implementation plan will take a two-pillar approach, said Col. Jon Aytes, head of the military policy branch at Manpower and Reserve Affairs. One will focus on previously closed MOSs, and the other on previously closed units.

The first pillar calls for officials with Training and Education Command to identify by May the physical tasks required for each MOS, said Aytes, who is leading an operational planning team overseeing the effort. In part, they'll do so by consulting training and readiness manuals, programs of instruction and other existing doctrine for each specialty, rather than arbitrarily developing new standards.

The assessment will set the bar on what every Marine male and female must be able to do to earn his or her MOS, Aytes said. He cited as an example the demands a tank crewman must meet to load the main gun on the M1A1 Abrams, which fires rounds that weigh more than 40 pounds.

"You have to lift that round from that carriage station in a confined space, sitting. You have to reach over, grab it, pull it from the carrier, flip it over 180 degrees because that's how you load it, and then jam it into the breach," Aytes said. "If you can't do that, we don't have male rounds and female rounds. They're all the same size."

‘Physical ASVAB'

After the list of physical tasks required for each of the 330-plus primary MOSs is set, the Corps will test about 400 Marines this summer using them. For example, male and female Marines alike will be required to load tank rounds. Marine officials will compare the number of rounds they can load to the number of pullups, ammo can lifts and other exercises they were able to complete during their last Physical Fitness Test and Combat Fitness Test. The purpose is to determine the relationship between fitness tests and successful performance of the job requirements.

By August, the Corps will take that data for each MOS and begin developing a new test that recruiters can put prospective Marines through to help determine if they're capable of handling the rigors of serving in a combat unit. Milstead called it a "physical ASVAB," a nod toward the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test that is administered to tens of thousands of prospective service members at Military Entrance Processing Stations across the country each year.

The standard ASVAB comprises multiple-choice questions to determine an individual's ability in science, mathematics, verbal expression and other subjects. This one, due to Amos in December, would likely include pullups, ammo can lifts or other physical exercises, Aytes said. Marine officials haven't decided what will be incorporated, but it will need to be basic enough to be done in the average recruiting substation in a suburban strip mall, Milstead said.

The Army will likely develop something similar, but Marine officials said the Corps' version will have its own standards and reflect its austere, expeditionary nature. Artillerymen, for example, sometimes serve as provisional infantrymen in combat, so service officials would want the test to assess whether prospective recruits for artillery units could handle both missions.

One key point, which Marines are likely to ask about immediately: It's unlikely the PFT and CFT will undergo changes as a result of the new policy on women in combat. While the Corps is identifying standards that male and female Marines will be required to meet in each MOS, it will continue to score them differently in its annual tests of physical and combat fitness, Marine officials said.

In November, Amos announced that as of Jan. 1, 2014, women will be required to do pullups on their PFT, rather than the easier flexed-arm hang that had been included for years. However, women will be required to do eight pullups to earn a perfect 300 on their PFT, while men are required to do 20. That's a sticking point for a lot of male Marines, but officials said it's reasonable to expect the PFT would still have multiple requirements based on age and gender.

Thorny issues

Milstead, a career helicopter pilot, and Barrett, a scout sniper, acknowledged the shift is troublesome for many Marines, both active duty and retired. The Corps is under pressure from some to immediately open all specialties to women, and from others to not budge at all, Milstead said.

"This is a very, very emotional issue," the general said. "Extremely emotional. It's like politics. There are people who are hardcore to one side, and there are others who are hardcore to the other side. The vast majority of Marines, they'll work through this. They'll adapt to it."

However, the senior leaders don't buy the notion, often cited by rank-and-file grunts, that privacy concerns and potential fraternization between men and women are enough to keep women out of ground combat units, even on small patrol bases and outposts.

"You do set shower hours. You do post a guard outside the showers," said Barrett, the Corps' senior enlisted adviser in Afghanistan for about a year, from 2010 to 2011. "There's ways to fix all that privacy stuff. It's really not even a problem. We're going to work ourselves through all that privacy stuff. It can be something as simple as a poncho liner tied to the back of a vehicle, and there's your privacy."

The Corps had Female Engagement Teams complementing infantry units in Afghanistan in the past few years, but they were pulled from patrol bases to larger forward operating bases every few weeks to alleviate concerns about collocation in austere environments. Barrett said that was required by the policy Panetta just lifted, so it's now legally possible to keep women deployed on austere bases for much longer periods of time.

"That's one of those things that was put in place, to pull them back and do reset training and things of that nature," Barrett said. "That's the only reason that was happening over there. We had to pull them back because it was collocation."

Dempsey dismissed concerns about privacy out of hand following the Jan. 24 announcement at the Pentagon.

"We can figure out privacy," he said. "We've figured out privacy right from the start. By the Desert Shield, or Desert Storm/Desert Shield, 1991, we did live in that kind of environment where we were essentially somewhat nomadic in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and eventually Iraq. And we figured out privacy."

Yet to be handled, however, are a few other issues that will arise out of the policy change, Milstead said. One of them is the Selective Service System, which requires most male citizens between the ages of 18 and 25 to register in case a military draft is needed in a future crisis. Women are exempt.

"Federal courts have consistently shown hostility toward any kind of separatism," Milstead said. "I mean, these are questions. That's a lawsuit that's dangling around here."

The notion of volunteerism also must be addressed, Milstead said. Currently, men are required to fill the needs of the Corps from the moment they enlist. Women, on the other hand, have had the option to volunteer for assignment to a ground combat unit since early 2012, even though not all female Marines are required to serve in them.

"Under our previous exception to policy … if a woman wanted to volunteer for an MOS she was good, but if she didn't you [couldn't] do anything," Milstead said. "I would offer that, that needs to go away. Otherwise, you're begging for a lawsuit."

The services also must ensure that it is planning for all forms of war as they incorporate women in new career fields, not just the kind of counterinsurgency operations that have dominated the military's focus in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, officials said.

"Working out of a FOB and doing COIN operations is totally different than having two battalions up and one back moving north up the Korean Peninsula," Milstead said. "That's a totally different thing, so you can't translate that warfare to this warfare."

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