The few, the proud, the fit: Women strive for combat jobs

In this Feb. 21, 2013 file photo, female recruits stand at the Marine Corps Training Depot on Parris Island, S.C. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith, File)
In this Feb. 21, 2013 file photo, female recruits stand at the Marine Corps Training Depot on Parris Island, S.C. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Six months after the Pentagon ordered all combat jobs open to women, seven female Marines are either serving in those posts or waiting to serve, and 167 are performing noncombat duties in front-line units, according to new data obtained by The Associated Press.
The numbers underscore the difficulty of integrating women into the demanding jobs, and reflect the small number of women who want to be combat Marines and can pass the new tough physical standards required to qualify. So far this year those standards have weeded out most female hopefuls and have also disqualified some men.
Six out of seven female recruits — and 40 out of about 1,500 male recruits — failed to pass the new regimen of pull-ups, ammunition-can lifts, a 3-mile run and combat maneuvers required to move on in training for combat jobs, according to the data.
Failing the tests, taken about 45 days into basic training, forces recruits into less physically demanding Marine jobs.
The high failure rate for women recruits, however, raises questions about how well integration can work, including in Marine infantry units where troops routinely slog for miles carrying packs weighed down with artillery shells and ammunition, and at any moment must be able to scale walls, dig in and fight in close combat.
The new standards are a product of the Pentagon’s decision to allow women to compete for front-line jobs, including infantry, artillery and other combat posts. But Marine leaders say they are also screening out less physically powerful Marines — both men and women.
“I think that’s made everybody better,” Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller told the AP in his first in-depth interview on the subject. “We’re trying to raise everybody’s bar a little bit and we’re trying to figure out how to get closer together, because at the end of the day we’re all going to be on the battlefield and we all have to be able to do our job.”
The seven women already serving in combat jobs or in the pipeline are almost all Marine officers who requested open combat posts.
The one recruit among the seven has enlisted for an infantry job, but hasn’t reported yet to boot camp. One of the officers was injured in the infantry officers’ course and is waiting to retake it. Two women graduated from the artillery officers’ course — one ranked third in the class and the other graduated with honors.
Three more participated in the infantry research program last year and asked to move into infantry jobs. They’ll take advanced infantry training and then report to battalions this fall.
The 167 other female Marines are working in intelligence, logistics or communications, but asked to be moved to front-line combat units.
Neller said he wasn’t surprised that few women are interested in the combat jobs.
“Some of them are not interested at all, some want just to make it gender neutral and we’ll just figure it out,” Neller said. “The majority of them, when you get them together, they say, ‘Look, I’m not really interested in this. I love being a Marine, I like what I’m doing as a Marine. And I’m really not interested in this, but I don’t want you to tell me I can’t try.’”
Marine Corps leaders initially balked at allowing women into certain infantry, reconnaissance and combat engineer jobs, pointing to studies that showed mixed gender units did not perform as well as male-only units. But Defense Secretary Ash Carter ordered all combat jobs open to women.
The Marines developed a detailed progression of physical standards that recruits must meet to get into the combat jobs. And officials insist that standards will not be lowered to allow more women to pass.
Nearly 86 percent of the women failed the tests, compared with less than 3 percent of the men.
Before the standards test existed, the 40 men who failed would have moved on to combat jobs anyway, a Marine Corps analysis said. So Neller said that the overall quality of the force will eventually improve.
The tiny success rate for women presents additional challenges if only one or two qualify for a combat job in a previously male-only unit.
If two women qualify, they will be placed in a combat unit together. But, if only one qualifies, she’ll be put in a unit with men she trained alongside in school. Those men, the Marine Corps said, will have seen her go through the training and know that she had done as well, or better, than they did.
The Marines will also put a female officer and a female senior enlisted leader in the combat units. Early on, those will likely be women doing a noncombat job — such as an intelligence or logistics officer. And they will be required to pass a physical fitness test to qualify to serve in that combat unit.
Neller said it will be an adjustment for Marines with women in previously male-only units, adding, “there are some things we’re going to have to work through.”
Would he want his daughter to serve in the infantry?
“No,” was his quick answer. But, he added, “She should be able to do whatever she wants to do, that she’s qualified to do. So if she wanted to do it, I’d tell her about the culture and the climate and if she wanted to do it, I’d say OK, here’s what we have to do to get ready. And then, if she met the standards, she should be given the opportunity to compete.”

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