Cover Story

How women are scaling barriers to combat (+video)

One year into a controversial experiment, what the US military is learning about women training for combat duty.

By , Staff writer

  • close
    Female Marine recruits drill at Parris Island, S.C. This is the cover story for the May 5 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

    Related

    View Caption

Cpl. Jacqueline Beachum steels herself for the daunting task ahead: saving a fellow Army soldier who lies unconscious a few yards away. Focused and determined, she makes her way across the ground toward her wounded colleague. Then comes the hard part. She has to drag the soldier to safety even though, at 270 pounds clad in full body armor, he weighs about twice what she does. Summoning all her strength, she grabs his vest, tugs on the body, and starts sliding him across the ground.

Finally, when she has pulled him 50 feet – a safe distance from danger – she stops. And listens. The sound she hears isn't gunfire but ... applause and hoots of support from other troops.

Beachum isn't in a theater of war but in a mammoth motor-pool warehouse at Fort Stewart, Ga., stockpiled with rockets, mortars, and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The soldier she saved is a dummy, and one of the main obstacles she had to face was a clock.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test? Find out.

Staff Sgt. Terry Kemp, in charge of training a unit of men and women here, timed the drill with a stopwatch, quietly encouraging Beachum as he strode alongside her. The result: Beachum, a medic who served in Afghanistan, pulled the "soldier" to safety in less than 20 seconds.

Welcome to one of the most sweeping studies ever undertaken of the latent physical strength of men and women. Here amid the smell of sweat and diesel fuel, US soldiers in fatigues and 70 pounds of body armor are simulating a few of the toughest tasks involved in waging war in the American Army: quickly loading 65-pound antitank rounds into gun barrels, ferrying 80-pound cans of ammunition, scaling six-foot walls, and rescuing fellow soldiers from the turret of a tank.

The tests are part of an attempt to answer one of the most pressing questions facing the modern military, one that will shape the look of the armed forces of tomorrow: whether women can handle the most grueling rigors of war as well as their male counterparts.

The secretary of Defense has ordered the Pentagon to let women serve beside men on the front lines of battle. Now, one year into the experiment to decide if that's possible and how to do it, the military is already learning some unexpected things about how women adapt and how men interact with them. It is also highlighting some cultural differences between different branches of the military.

Under the Defense secretary's order, each of the services must be ready to open all combat jobs to women by January 2016 – or come back with a marked reason why they shouldn't and ask for an exemption.

To do this, the Pentagon has launched a grand plan to develop "gender-neutral standards" that involve breaking down precisely what it takes to be a warrior in the modern military. After this, military officials say, they will decide whether women – and some men – are capable of doing the job.

The Army is already opening up more than 33,000 jobs to women this spring and is "going full steam" in preparing to bring female soldiers into all other combat specialties, says Maj. Gen. Mike Murray, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, whose soldiers are taking part in the study at Fort Stewart.

Yet there remain serious reservations among many in the military about putting women in combat roles – particularly, defense analysts say, in the Marine Corps. Col. Jeffrey Conner, who heads the training program for entry-level marines, says no one wants to compromise combat readiness.

"The Marine Corps is in the process of researching in a deliberate, measured, responsible way how to integrate female marines to the greatest extent possible," he says. "The male marines – and the female marines as well – understand that this is still an open question."

• • •

The opening days of testing at Fort Stewart looked less like an unprecedented military endeavor and more "like a high school dance," says Murray. The 60 female and 90 male volunteers taking part in the experiment mingled very little at first.

One week later, as troops jogged together, shared meals in the mess hall, and bonded over tough physical conditioning, "They really became integral teams," he says.

The process did involve overcoming some initial skepticism. "There were times at the beginning the males were saying, 'I don't understand why we're doing this,' " says Kemp, a cavalry scout who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "They would say, 'I'm nervous about working with females.' "

The key to the success of the training, Army officials believed, would be for the men not to feel as if the women were getting any special treatment – which is just what the women wanted, too. "Neither group is interested in lowering the standards," Murray says. "They're interested in meeting the standards."

And so Kemp made no effort to hold back on anyone as he launched into the demands of the training regimen. "Height and weight didn't play into it," he says. Instead, his goal was to "induce the stress."

When it came to getting ready for dragging the 270-pound casualty, 2nd Lt. Allison Eiseman was having trouble. "I couldn't budge it at all," she says. At 5 ft., 5 in. tall and weighing 125 pounds, she adds, "You'd probably think, 'It's impossible for her to do that.' But doing the impossible is what drove me to be in the military."

Kemp began by having his trainees lift weights and do "a lot" of shoulder exercises. Before long, they were carrying 270-pound loads in their own body armor, uphill through the grass, for twice the required distance of the test. There are techniques to doing these things, and learning them was key, Eiseman says – like grabbing the body armor by the handle and lifting most of the weight off the ground.

The same applied to loading the antimissile rounds into the Bradley. When many of the women first started, they rested the 75-pound rounds on their shoulders while struggling to force them into the barrel.

"Most females don't really know what's going on inside a turret," says Sgt. Robon McCoy, a tank crew member from Eugene, Ore., because that job is closed to women.

During the training, though, his fellow troops shared their techniques. They taught Eiseman how to hoist the heavy rounds, line them up, and slide them in – without using unnecessary energy. She would seek out tips, too. "I'd ask around and say, 'You make that look so easy – how do you do it?' "

Knowing now that she can save the life of a fellow soldier by carrying him to safety gave her confidence – and the trust of her male counterparts, she says.

After five weeks, each of the 25 men and 15 women Kemp was responsible for training passed. The process, he says, is changing the attitude of his fellow male soldiers.

"We all joke around a lot now with each other," he adds. "A lot of the male soldiers are saying that once the study is over, they're really going to miss the females when they're gone."

• • •

David Brinkley learned a few things about the differences between men and women in combat in a less controlled setting – combat itself. In the early days of the Iraq war, Mr. Brinkley was commanding a combat engineering battalion in violent Anbar Province, in the western part of the country. Though only men could serve as combat engineers, he had a number of women in his unit, many regularly patrolling with platoons as medics. Brinkley quickly found that his female soldiers brought some unique skills to the fight.

"The Iraqi women would talk to my women and tell them stuff that Iraqi men or women wouldn't tell the men," he says. "We would actually learn things."

Over dinner one night at the mess hall, Brinkley's fellow battalion commander noted the success he was having. "He said, 'I'd like to try something like that in my area,' but he didn't have any women in his artillery battalion," Brinkley recalls.

So Brinkley began handpicking female mechanics, cooks, bulldozer operators, and medics in his unit, and training them in close-combat techniques. "We batted it around and called them the 'Lioness teams.' "

Today Brinkley, deputy chief of staff for operations and plans at US Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Eustis, Va., is heading up the Army's efforts to integrate women into its ranks. He learned in the field what a study conducted by the Army later found on paper: that men who have deployed with women do not worry about their abilities, while men who haven't served with women, as Brinkley puts it, "seemed to be overly concerned with monthly menstrual cycles."

It was one of the key insights in a study that was widely criticized when it was first launched. The gender-integration study, as it was called, was intended to unravel just how infantrymen and other combat arms units would handle having women among them in sandbag bunkers and other venues of war.

The Army sent out 180,000 surveys and got 30,000 responses. But it contained controversial questions such as whether male soldiers would be concerned that "female soldiers expect special consideration for their female problems?"

It struck both men and women as "really patronizing," says Col. Ellen Haring, an Army reservist and program director of the Combat Integration Initiative, particularly considering that more than 280,000 women had already been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and more than 1,000 had been wounded or killed in action.

What's more, she says, a survey constructed with questions like these "sounds pretty biased from the outset – and it doesn't matter what infantrymen think women can do."

That's a sentiment Capt. Marissa Loya would certainly echo. She recently deployed as the leader of a descendant of the "Lioness" units, a Marine Corps "female engagement team" in Afghanistan.

Although women were not technically allowed to go on assault missions, they did, often carrying 100-pound loads and patrolling side by side with the men. They would also volunteer to carry extra gear, such as radios and ladders, to prove they could haul their weight, "if not many times more," Loya says.

In trying to integrate women into combat roles, the Army has looked closely at what lessons could be learned from America's police and fire departments. Brinkley says that with firefighters, in particular, he found that physical assessments "designed by men for men" tend to be focused on upper-body strength and less on core body and leg strength.

The departments tended to equate pull-ups or push-ups with the ability to be a firefighter, and "women weren't very successful," he says. But when they were asked to quickly climb several flights of stairs in full gear, they were "very successful." The departments "didn't take into account that women do physical tasks differently than men." The challenge for the Army now, he says, is "to figure out how women can do these high-demand physical tasks."

That process began one year ago as specialists started studying something that, surprisingly, had never been examined before: the specific strength requirements of jobs closed to women. "There are hundreds of them," says Brinkley. Four mechanics, for instance, must be able to remove a 450-pound radiator from a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Army engineers build bridges with heavy parts. Artillery troops have to lift and load 95-pound artillery rounds.

The key was boiling it down to the 31 most demanding tasks. For that, officials asked combat commanders to name the hardest jobs their soldiers perform regularly.

Army researchers compiled them and then tested 500 combat soldiers – randomly selected – to see if they could all actually do the jobs. If 10 percent or more of the soldiers couldn't, then the Army would reevaluate the standards. But the requisite number of men did summon enough strength, so the Army moved on to testing both men and women soldiers, which included the drills in the expansive warehouse here.

It's a scene that is one part Gold's Gym, one part ER. Researchers hook up the volunteers to oxygen masks attached to fanlike devices. As they exhale, the fan creates an electric signal that helps measure how much oxygen soldiers are consuming against the carbon dioxide they are exhaling. Scientists watch the data stream in on laptops.

"We wanted to know, to do this task, how much strength does a person need? How much endurance does it take to do it over a long period of time?" says Edward Zambraski, division chief of the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, who is leading the research teams here.

The answers will be used to create pretests for the strength and endurance required for combat jobs. Pass the test and you're eligible. Fail and you're not a combat soldier.

These tests could ultimately eliminate men as well as women from some of the jobs. "There are a lot of men who got into these units who aren't strong enough to be there, frankly," says Brinkley.

• • •

Up the highway from Brinkley's headquarters, in Quantico, Va., the women aren't faring as well as the Army volunteers. Quantico is where the Marine Corps puts its officers through infantry basic training. More than a dozen women have attempted the rigorous training course. None of the women have yet passed.

For opponents of putting women in combat roles, it has been proof that they aren't capable of doing the job. But others argue that the Marines are simply not training women in a way that prepares them to do it right.

To make this point, critics say look no further than the enlisted infantry course at Camp Geiger, N.C., which 40 women have successfully completed. Troops engage in squad-sized attacks, perform military operations in urban terrain, and hike 12 miles with 85-pound packs.

What they do not have to do is take the "combat endurance test" (CET), a grueling course at the beginning of the 90-day Quantico training that candidates must pass in order to continue.

The Marines are secretive about what, precisely, the CET entails, citing the importance of chaos and surprise in training: Reacting to it coolly and competently, they say, is the true test of a potential infantry officer's skill. The problem is that women don't get a chance to train for the CET, says Greg Jacobs, policy director at the Service Women's Action Network and a former marine.

What's more, if men fail the CET the first time, they can take the course again. Women have not been permitted to do this: Since they are not allowed to be infantry officers in the first place, the Marine Corps cannot afford to keep retraining them, explains Col. Todd Desgrosseilliers, commander of the Basic School.

"Typically the men who remediate do OK," he says. "Women can't be recycled because they can't go into the infantry." Instead, they must go on to their military occupational specialty.

This practice may now be changing. After widespread criticism of the practice, Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps's top officer, said in April that women will be given a second chance at the course.

That is only fair, says Mr. Jacobs, who as a former Marine instructor, would routinely retrain troops who were failing at tasks such as, say, throwing a grenade the distance it must travel beyond its "kill radius," about 50 feet.

"We had plenty of men that couldn't do that – men who had never thrown a baseball or a football," Jacobs says. "We'd sit them down with pine cones and rocks and baseballs and get them to throw it in a straight line first, and then throw it 15 meters."

The same was true for pull-ups when the Marines announced that women needed to be able to do them; prior to the training, very few could. Jacobs simply brought female troops in his unit to the gym for upper-body weight lifting. "Then they could do them, no problem," he says.

This way of thinking made sense to Desgrosseilliers, a veteran of some of the fiercest fighting in Fallujah, Iraq, and a Silver Star recipient. He began to ask himself what he could do to reduce the number of troops – both men and women – who fail the course.

He started a training program, handpicking marines to staff it. "If you know there's a shortfall in strength, then we should be doing something to improve their strength, to be fair," he says.

Since the program has been in place, rates of attrition for the men going through the course have been cut in half, from 16 percent to 8 percent. He hopes to soon see a similar effect on women who go through the training.

At the same time, at Camp Geiger, commanders have temporarily moved three female instructors from the basic training course to the enlisted infantry course, so that the women "can serve as role models and mentors, not only for female marines, but also for male marines," says Conner.

The Marines continue to stir controversy surrounding the integration of women into their ranks, though. The service recently announced plans to launch the Ground Combat Element Experimental Task Force, which officials say is designed to track the long-term physical wear and tear caused by combat jobs. Some 460 marines – one quarter of them women – will take part in the study, which will begin in September and extend into the summer of 2015.

The point of the study is that being a marine is not just about passing entry-level basic training, says Brig. Gen. George Smith Jr., who is in charge of the Marines' integration efforts. While completing the 12-mile hike with an 85-pound pack required to pass infantry training is "something to certainly be proud of, it is a one-time event," he says.

The concern is that women may be more prone to injury over time. "We're not just going to open positions up to women and that's it," a Marine Corps official says. "We want to make sure it's a viable career path over a number of years, allowing for promotion, top-level schools, command. We're not just going to stop assessing in 2016."

But conducting such a study strikes some as moving the goalposts – in other words, a stalling tactic. "They're creating this thing, and saying, 'We're going to see if women can do it.' Well, that's a moot point," says Jacobs. "Women have already been fighting side by side with their male counterparts in two wars. This is a ridiculous waste of time."

• • •

Time is quickly running out for some highly motivated women, like Alicia Ellis, in their quest to become combat soldiers. The first encounter she had with an Air Force recruiter was a debacle.

"I walked right up to him and said, 'I want to be Special Ops,' " she recalls. "He thought I was kidding – then it dawned on him that I wasn't, and it was a horrible realization for both of us."

She bounced back. "I said, 'OK, then, get me as close to the action as you can.' "

For the next four years, she went to war, working as an air battle manager on a jet aircraft crew. Her job was to monitor troop convoys on the ground.

Then she applied for a special assignment, as a liaison officer who would deploy with Special Operations units and call in air support when they were under fire. Her application was denied because she was a woman.

"At that point I realized I still do live in a world where you can't do everything you want to do," she says. She took an early retirement from the military and now serves as a captain in the Individual Ready Reserve. If you can take the "most gung-ho, give-me-something-to-blow-up person" and turn her into someone who doesn't want to be in the military anymore, "that's something you need to fix," she says.

Senior military commanders acknowledge this point. They also note that there are enough women who now want to be on the front lines of combat – roughly 1 in 5 Army women says she is "moderately to very interested" – to form at least the nucleus of an integrated fighting force.

"We learned a long time ago that diversity is a strength," says Murray, the commander of the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart. "I think the Army will be better 10 years from now because of this effort."

Pfc. Alexandra Seccareccio would like to think so. Part of the first small wave of women who went through training to be an artillery crew member last year, she ended up being the honor graduate of her integrated class.

When she packed up her gear at the barracks, it included the congratulatory coins top commanders hand out for excellence. Seccareccio, a National Guardsman, is now back at her day job working at a Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealership in Orlando, Fla.

But at home she treasures the coins. "I look at them all the time," she says. "It's not good to say you want war, but I would just be so excited if that opportunity came."

"I crave being out there in the middle of nowhere, with my soldiers and my [rocket] launchers."

And that, she adds, is not about being male or female. "It's about being a good soldier."

Share this story:
 
 
Make a Difference
Inspired? Here are some ways to make a difference on this issue.
Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.
 

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...