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For women-in-combat debate, strength is key

Feb. 3, 2013 - 01:53PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 3, 2013 - 01:53PM  |  
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QUANTICO, Va. The debate over whether women should serve in infantry and other direct ground combat roles has come to this: Are they physically strong enough?

To find out, the military services have launched an extensive effort to verify the specific physical requirements needed to succeed in each of dozens of fields that had been closed to women.

"We're not going to just throw open the doors and say, ‘OK, go at it,' " said Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Milstead, deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs. "We're doing this responsibly."

In the past, the debate over women in the infantry and other combat-arms fields had centered on questions of privacy or the impact on discipline of having men and women share foxholes.

But last month, the Pentagon ordered the service to lift the ground combat exclusion and to allow women the opportunity to join all fields, putting those other issues to rest.

"If a woman can do it, then we're all for it," Milstead said. "But we just want to make sure."

The Pentagon has said if the services want to keep an occupation closed to women it will require the approval of the secretary of defense.

"The burden has now shifted to the services," said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center.

The Marine Corps, the most male of the services, is about 7 percent female. The Army is 13 percent female. The Pentagon's order could open as many as 230,000 positions to women across all the services.

As it opens the new fields, the military said it will apply the same standards to men and women and will not lower requirements.

The task is not as simple as it sounds. Some requirements are straightforward. A tank shell weighs about 40 pounds, and a member of a tank crew would need the strength to take the shell off the rack and load it in the main gun.

Other requirements are more complex. An infantryman carries an average of 100 pounds of gear on his back, but other questions are more subjective. For example, how far should he be required to walk with that load or what height wall should he be able to scramble over?

When the Canadian and Australian militaries opened combat-arms fields to women, they learned some standards did not accurately reflect what is required for a specific field, Campbell said.

Officers say they are confident they know the physical requirements for the ground combat occupations. "We've been in the Marine business for a long time," said Marine Col. Jon Aytes.

But now it is isolating those physical requirements so it can create a "gender-neutral test." More than 30 primary occupations are closed to women in the Marine Corps.

"The standards have always been there," Aytes said. "It's just that now we're reviewing them."

The military knows that the standards process will be closely scrutinized, because it will determine how many positions are open to women. The Marine Corps has said that some occupations could remain closed if women do not qualify in sufficient numbers.

"I think we are going to be challenged every step of the way," Milstead said. "There will be people who question: ‘Why do you have that standard?' "

The Marine Corps said it will not rush the process. The Pentagon required the services to create a plan by May 15 and complete the process of integrating women into ground combat units by 2016.

"This is a very emotional issue," Milstead said. "We're not dragging our feet. We're doing this responsibly."

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