Just three pull-ups: Too many for women in the Marine Corps?

The Marine Corps reports that most women in recruit training are unable to do the minimum three pull-ups. As the US military moves toward allowing more women in combat roles, this raises questions about physical standards.

By , Staff writer

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    Pfc. Cristina Fuentes Montenegro, 25, left, and Pfc. Julia Carroll, 18, during a graduation ceremony Nov. 21, 2013. Montenegro and Carroll were two of the three female Marines who became the first women to graduate from the Corps' tough-as-nails infantry training school.
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Should women in the Marine Corps be as physically strong as men? How best to measure such strength?

Such questions follow the announcement this week that most women in Marine Corps boot camp were unable to complete three pull-ups, the minimum standard that was supposed to take effect in 2014.

The integration of women into the US military fighting force has seen significant advancement in recent years, accelerated by lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Women now are fighter pilots and ship captains, and they are completing a physically and mentally demanding infantry training course – as three female Marines recently did for the first time in Marine Corps history.

Although they’ve found themselves in battle alongside men since the US-led invasion of Iraq (and some have been killed in action), they’re still officially barred from ground combat – a situation the Pentagon is reviewing with an eye to lifting that restriction by 2016.

Major criticisms of the trend involve unit cohesion (especially among US Navy SEALs and other special operations forces) and physical requirements.

The military services have been examining physical requirements to make sure they’re appropriate based on the jobs to which active duty men and women are assigned. In essence, the brass needs to prove any assertion that certain measures of physical strength – push-ups, pull-ups, running or marching with heavy packs, etc. – are necessary to the job.

The Marine Corps found itself in such a predicament this week when it reported that 55 percent of female Marines in boot camp couldn’t perform the minimum three pull-ups. (The top score for male Marines is 20 pull-ups; for women, it’s eight pull-ups.)

For the moment, the Marine Corps is delaying implementation of this standard.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos “has decided that Training and Education Command will continue to gather data and ensure that female Marines are provided with the best opportunity to succeed,” spokeswoman Captain Maureen Krebs said in a statement. “The commandant has no intent to introduce a standard that would negatively affect the current status of female Marines or their ability to continue serving in the Marine Corps.”

The situation has revived the debate over women in the combat arms.

The decision to suspend the scheduled pull-up requirement "is a clear indication" that plans to move women into direct ground combat fighting teams will not work, said Elaine Donnelly, president of the conservative Center for Military Readiness and a critic of allowing women into infantry jobs.

"When officials claim that men and women are being trained the same, they are referring to bare minimums, not maximum qualifications that most men can meet but women cannot," Ms. Donnelly wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "Awarding gender-normed scores so that women can succeed lowers standards for all. Women will suffer more injuries and resentment they do not deserve, and men will be less prepared for the demands of direct ground combat."

Like most things in the military, focused and sustained training may be the answer to having most women in the Marine Corps (and other service branches) be able to meet the minimum physical standards – including pull-ups.

“At an early age, we have been telling young girls, that they cannot do regular pull-ups because they will never be as strong as boys,” writes former Navy SEAL and military fitness trainer Stew Smith on Military.com. “Well, part of that statement is true – the strongest woman will NEVER be stronger than the strongest man – but I have seen 40-50 year old mothers of three do 10 pull-ups. How is that? They practice pull-ups as well as the auxiliary exercises that work the muscles of the back, biceps, and forearms – the PULLUP muscles!”

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