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2 strategies for women in combat

Army ramps up after cautious start; Corps slows to regroup

Jan. 11, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
The Army has no plans to send soldiers to infantry school until combat specialties are opened to women.
The Army has no plans to send soldiers to infantry school until combat specialties are opened to women. (Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod/Army)
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Marine Pfcs. Katie Gorz, Julia Carroll and Christina Fuentes Montenegro were the first entry-level enlisted women to complete infantry training. They graduated in November. (Sgt. Tyler L. Main and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Pau)

The Army's effort to open combat jobs to women is gaining momentum, while Marine counterparts are slowing down to regroup after being forced to scrap new female fitness standards.

The Army's effort to open combat jobs to women is gaining momentum, while Marine counterparts are slowing down to regroup after being forced to scrap new female fitness standards.

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The Army’s effort to open combat jobs to women is gaining momentum, while Marine counterparts are slowing down to regroup after being forced to scrap new female fitness standards.

The differences are due to the distinct paths the services have plotted to reach the same destination.

The Corps, true to its nature, attacked the issue with speed and vigor. Fifteen women volunteered for infantry training in the fall and tackled the same rigorous requirements as their male counterparts. Three grabbed national headlines when they graduated in November. Ten more graduated Dec. 19 from a second class. Four dropped out of that course.

Fourteen female lieutenants have also volunteered for the Infantry Officer Course since 2012, but none has passed. In the most recent iteration of the course, four of those women failed to complete the initial combat endurance test Jan. 9, according to Capt. Maureen Krebs, a Marine Corps spokeswoman. Only one of the 14 volunteers has made it past the grueling initial test, and she had to drop out of IOC due to stress fractures in her leg.

The success — and failure — of each participant is at the heart of the Corps’ methodology to determine which combat jobs should be opened to women. Their plan is to send 300 women through the infantry school by August, although infantry military occupational specialties will remain closed until at least 2015.

For the Army, no women have entered such schools — and it will remain that way until combat specialties are opened to women.

“Why would you send somebody to training and then not be able to use them as they were trained?” David Brinkley, deputy chief of staff, operations and plans for Training and Doctrine Command, told Army Times in December. “We have a fundamentally different approach than the Marines. I’m very confident that we are scientifically and legally grounded.”

Thousands of female soldiers would agree. Roughly 26,000 were surveyed by the Army and a top concern was that the service “find the ‘right’ women for initial implementation” and “make it a process, not an event.” Those concerns were part of a report provided to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services last month.

'These are tough tasks'

The first step was to determine gender-neutral physical standards for all combat specialties, a milestone the Army hit late last year. Approximately 500 random soldiers from eight brigades performed hundreds of tasks required of each specialty to establish 31 baseline requirements for each specialty.

The Corps tested about 800 Marines in a similar effort, but its results remain unknown. The plan was to test 400 men and 400 women using five strength tests meant to represent the demanding physical tasks Marines perform in various combat units. These tests include:

■Dead-lifting a barbell.

■Clean-and-pressing a barbell.

■Lifting and carrying a 95-pound 155mm artillery shell replica 50 meters.

■Lifting and loading a 120mm tank round that weighs more than 50 pounds.

■Scaling a wall, up to 7 feet high, while wearing a full combat load.

The Army tests were more job-focused. For example, researchers in one test had 34 soldiers (23 men and 11 women) conduct 12 engineer tasks from which they collected roughly 400 data points.

Among the many tasks required of each test taker, artillery soldiers had to load 90 rounds, weighing 96 pounds each, into an ammunition carrier in 20 minutes. Infantry soldiers had to ruck 12 miles in three hours wearing upward of 100 pounds of body armor and gear. Tankers had to load a 52-pound multipurpose anti-tank, or MPAT round. They had seven seconds to pull it out, turn it around, then lean forward and slam it into the tube.

Other tests included such things as loading tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided missiles; pulling casualties out of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle; moving a heavy bridge; and throwing a grenade 15 meters, dragging a casualty to safety and moving under direct fire in full body armor.

Roughly 90 percent of an Army infantry unit coming off the battlefield in Afghanistan would be able to perform the tested tasks, said Gen. Robert Cone, commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, in a December interview with Army Times. He followed that statement with an assurance that the standards are not too easy.

“These are tough tasks,” he said. “Believe me, if this was easy or if this was ridiculous, you would have heard about it by now. The people who have done this have said, this is about right, and it’s really hard.”

The U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine is validating the results and will use that data to develop physical tests that mimic the strength and endurance needed to get the job done. These predictive tests will assess what muscles were used, the duration and resistance. From the data, a new Army fitness test will be developed that will have additional MOS-specific events.

'Still in the process'

While the Army goes slow and steady in its development of a new fitness test, the Corps was forced to scrap new fitness test rules it planned for 2014. These would have required women to do at least three dead-hang pullups, just like the men. But more than half of female Marines in boot camp couldn’t meet the standard. Current rules require women to do a flexed-arm hang for at least 15 seconds.

The new rules were to help even out physical standards. Pullups were deemed a better measure of physical strength for combat-related tasks. But the new approach still would have left a considerable gap. Eight pullups would give women a perfect score, while male Marines still have to hit 20.

When asked to speak with program officials about the way ahead, Marine spokesman Col. Sean Gibson provided this statement: “The Marine Corps has conducted, and is still conducting, research as part of a deliberate, measured, and responsible approach to integrating females into ground combat operational specialties. We are still in the process of collecting and analyzing data and no conclusions or decisions have been reached.”

Meanwhile, the Army will open the combat engineer and artillery fields to women this year. The combat engineer field needs little integration as it has a large number of female officers and noncommissioned officers who already conduct integrated training. Field artillery also has women in the ranks. From there, the Army will set standards for armor and infantry, which should open by the end of 2015 or early 2016.

Officials are working now to “set conditions for success,” in Cone’s words. For example, schools will open to female NCOs and officers to ensure women are represented at ranks other than private. This will facilitate mentorship and provide opportunity for seasoned female warriors who want to take the challenge, officials said.

This was a top priority for 80 percent of the 26,000 female soldiers who took part in the Army’s propensity survey. Also topping the list was:

■Adequate MOS training.

■Leadership emphasis on discipline and respect.

■Male perceptions of female capabilities — specifically, that standards are not lowered.

Roughly one in five women surveyed said they were moderately or very interested in transferring to combat arms. The greatest desire was shown by those under age 26 who have higher than average fitness test scores, according to Army data. Women who served on cultural support teams or female engagement teams also are more likely to be interested than their peers, as were soldiers serving in the combat-arms community or combat support branches.■

Staff writers Hope Hodge Seck and Antonieta Rico contributed to this story.

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