First female Marines pass infantry training – but no combat yet

In a historic first, three women graduated from US Marine infantry training school Thursday. But unlike their male counterparts, they won't be assigned to infantry units.

Lance Cpl. Justin A. Rodriguez/U.S. Marine Corp./AP
Two of the first female Marines, Pfc. Cristina Fuentes Montenegro (l.) of Coral Springs, Fla., and Pfc. Julia Carroll of Idaho Falls, Idaho, stand during the graduation of Delta Company, Infantry Training Battalion, School of Infantry-East at Camp Geiger, N.C., Nov. 21, 2013. Earlier this year, the Pentagon lifted the ban on women serving in combat jobs.

"Mama, Mama can't you see? What the Marine Corps’s done to me," goes a Marine Corps cadence sung during marches. "After I passed the really hard test, They stuck a ribbon in my chest."

In a historic first, three women graduated from US Marine infantry training school Thursday, having passed 59 days of, indeed, "really hard" tests, including a 12.5-mile march through the woods of North Carolina, lugging 85-pound packs. But these newly minted US Marines, who were held to the same standards of physical and combat readiness as 221 male counterparts, will not be assigned to infantry units, despite the Pentagon's announcement this year that it would lift the ban on women in combat.

"The male graduates will join infantry units right away," The Washington Post reported. "The women will have to take other jobs, though their successful completion of the course will be noted in their personnel files."

Marine Corps leaders told the Post they need two more years to observe women's attempts to pass infantry training courses, to evaluate the feasibility of placing them in combat positions. Among the 10 women who have enrolled in the even harder infantry training course for officers, they noted, none have passed.

“Any force-wide changes to be made will occur only after we have conducted our research, determined the way ahead and set the conditions to implement our recommendations,” wrote Capt. Maureen Krebs, a Marine spokes­woman, in an e-mail to the Post.

Ground combat units are to be opened to women no later than 2016, the Pentagon has said. And the secretary of Defense has ordered that assessments of how the services will integrate women into such units be completed by July 2014. However, exceptions may be granted that keep certain positions male-only, and some see the Marine Corps as resistant to the changes.

A report published by the Marine Corps Times about the women's achievement this week alludes not only to the physical strength but also the judgment skills deemed necessary for the armed forces' most male-dominated branch:

"Their successful completion of the program, confirmed Monday by a Marine official with knowledge of ongoing efforts to determine what additional ground combat jobs should open to women, is a historic milestone, one that would suggest at least some female Marines posses both the physical strength and acumen to keep pace with their male counterparts on the battlefield," wrote the paper, an independent outlet that reports on the military.

In recent wars, women have served increasingly important functions. As the Post put it: "The decision [to lift the ban on women in combat] was prompted in part by the recognition that women played a critical role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where commanders stretched rules to allow them to bear arms and support combat forces."

The ban on women in combat has made military careers less viable for them, according to the Los Angeles Times. "Since combat experience is crucial to career advancement, many women who served in Afghanistan and Iraq say they face difficult decisions about whether to stay in the military if they are not allowed to compete for such assignments," the paper says.

The milestone of the three US Marines – Pfc. Julia Carroll, Pfc. Christina Fuentes Montenegro, and Pfc. Katie Gorz – comes amid an alarming rise in the number of sexual assaults reported by servicewomen, along with a tense congressional debate over how to protect them. The US Senate and its 26-member Armed Services Committee are divided over whether to support a bill introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York, which would strip commanders of the authority to decide which serious criminal charges from within their command are brought to trial. Her proposal would shift that authority to high-ranking military prosecutors, who might be less hesitant to pursue divisive criminal charges.

In a survey last year, the Post reports, 1 in 6 male US Marines said he would probably leave the service if he had to serve alongside women in ground combat units. The rate of female enlistment in the Marine Corps is 7 percent, which is half the rate of the military overall.

Carroll, Montenegro, and Gorz appear to have broken a meaningful barrier. According to United Press International, some 40 female US Marines started the enlisted infantry program in the past few weeks, up from 15 who started two months ago with Thursday's graduates.

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