Army Toughens Regimen to Retain Co-ed Training

America's largest Army training base hopes to show that gender integration won't lower standards.

Amid the scrub pines and sandy training ranges at this sprawling Army base, new recruits are ordered to complete a grueling training event known as "victory forge."

Modeled after the Marine Corps' 54-hour marathon, "the crucible," it is the Army's ultimate test for basic trainees, involving arduous marches, tricky problem-solving exercises, and very little rest for the next three days.

Quietly, Fort Jackson's commanders have moved to toughen the rigors of basic training in the past year. With battalions of congressional Republicans pushing for gender-segregated training, the Army has moved to allay their concerns about lax standards and the potentially negative consequences of placing men and women in the same basic-training units.

"We've taken the last steps in ensuring that training is identical, regardless of gender," says Maj. Gen. John Van Alstyne, Fort Jackson's commander. "We're trying to make sure there are no overt distinctions."

Those changes include increasing the physical-fitness requirements for all trainees. Drill sergeants and other commanders now have the option of not graduating trainees with questionable character traits. But the centerpiece of the new standards is the challenging "victory forge."

Fort Jackson, which once trained some of World War II's famed combat divisions, is today at the center of a stormy debate over the value of gender-integrated training.

Since 1994, the Army's largest basic training site has integrated men and women during its eight-week course. As more women opt for an Army career, it is becoming increasingly likely that men could be led by female commanders in support roles (women are banned from combat duties). General Van Alstyne says because of this trend, it is important to train men and women together from Day One.

Many of the Army's future clerks and mechanics - about 40,000 trainees in all - pass through the base's gates each year.

But now, more of them are finding they cannot make the grade because of the stricter standards.

Van Alstyne notes the failure rate has nearly doubled in the past 12 months, from 8 to 15 percent. That puts Fort Jackson close to the attrition rates for all-male infantry basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., and the Marines' gender-segregated recruit base at Parris Island, S.C.

Since a sex scandal erupted in 1996, involving charges of harassment and rape at an army base in Aberdeen, Md., conservatives have sought to separate men and women in basic training.

The Army, Navy, and Air Force train them together at boot camp, but the Marine Corps keeps segregated units. Many congressional Republicans see the Marines as a model for the other services.

Despite pleas from the services' leaders and Defense Secretary William Cohen, the House voted May 20 to resegregate the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

President Clinton has threatened to veto any defense bill that mandated segregated training units. Two weeks ago, House-Senate compromisers moved to accept separate housing for men and women recruits.

Van Alstyne is such a strong believer in gender-integrated training that he has vowed to find a way to bypass any order to resegregate, even if it means training all-male and all-female units close together.

But he may not have to. The tougher standards and higher failure rate seem to have quieted some critics and may serve to persuade others that the Army is serious about gender integration.

Col. Jack Carter, Fort Jackson's chief of staff, says the changes will reap benefits. "When they see the increased rigor and attrition, you recognize having women is not the issue," he explains.

Another factor is driving the new standards: More than one-third of those who join the Army today fail to complete their first enlistment.

Tom Wall, a retired basic-training battalion commander, says he believes the Army is wise to weed out marginal soldiers in basic training, before they become problems in operational units.

"It passes the common-sense test," he says, adding that "it's cheaper to get rid of them sooner, rather than later."

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