Women Break Gender Barrier in Marine Infantry Training

Women in the U.S. Marine Corps for the first time graduated alongside their male counterparts today after successfully completing the grueling infantry training course at Camp Geiger, North Carolina.

Of 15 women who started in September after boot camp, three made it through the 59-day infantry training program that required meeting the same combat skills and physical requirements as the men -- including a five-hour, 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) march carrying about 90 pounds of gear. Of the 266 men who started, 221 are graduating today, according to Captain Geraldine Carey, a Marine Corps spokeswoman.

“For these first female enlisted Marines to complete this training, that’s quite an accomplishment,” Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps major general and a former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a phone interview. “It certainly is a milestone and certainly is something for the commandant and the Marine leadership at all levels to be very proud of.”

The women’s achievement isn’t likely to end the running political and military debate over whether women should be permitted to serve in combat even if they’ve met the same standards as their male counterparts. Some opponents also argue that, given the women’s lower graduation rate, the extra expense of training them isn’t cost-effective.

The female Marines’ training follows the action by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in January rescinding the rule that banned women serving in direct combat roles. That change will open as many as 200,000 positions to women by January 2016, the date set for final implementation.

Marine Milestone

Women, who make up about 15 percent of all active-duty troops, have increasingly been exposed to combat as the traditional front lines of battle have become blurred in an age of terrorism and unconventional warfare. The Marines already have deployed women into combat situations, such as those who were part of the female engagement teams in Afghanistan.

The three women are Privates First Class Julia Carroll, Christina Fuentes Montenegro and Katie Gorz. Their accomplishment marks a milestone for the Marine Corps, which opened the enlisted infantry training to women volunteers.

The women were required to meet the same physical standards as the men and show competence through written exams, leadership skills, and combined arms exercises.

Drop Outs

Seven women remained before the 20-kilometer hike, and three were among a group of 29 Marines who fell out while hiking. A fourth woman, Private First Class Harlee Bradford, was injured late in the training and is expected to graduate in December, according to the Marines.

Unlike the men, the three female Marines who graduated today won’t receive the “0311 rifleman” combat specialty designation nor be assigned to infantry while the service studies how to integrate women into combat arms jobs such as infantry, artillery and special operations. Their accomplishment will be noted in their personnel files and they will move on for training in their occupational specialties.

Carroll, 18, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, will be trained in signals intelligence. Montenegro, 25, of Coral Springs, Florida, will receive aviation mechanic training. Gorz, 19, of St. Paul, Minnesota, will be trained in logistics, according to Carey.

Womens’ Roles

More women are following them into the program. About two dozen are currently in the infantry training battalion at the Marine Corps School of Infantry-East at Camp Geiger, a satellite facility of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune near Jacksonville, North Carolina. The Marines have had less success so far in seeing women get through the 13-week infantry officer course at Quantico, Virginia, which none have completed.

Congress has directed the services to fully integrate women into combat positions -- or seek exception from certain military occupation designations -- by the start of 2016.

“Our military could not succeed today without the tremendous females we have in military service -- whether they’re jet fighter pilots, or helicopter pilots, or intelligence officers, or these new young infantry-trained Marines,” said Punaro.

Even so, beyond the physical, intellectual and leadership capabilities of women, the Marine Corps also needs to consider issues such as unit cohesion and morale under the difficult conditions and close quarters of small-unit operations, he said.

Training Standards

While the training standards weren’t altered, the Marine Corps doesn’t permit gender-integrated sleeping facilities. Women in the training are “billeted under the same conditions but separated from male students,” Carey said in an e-mail. They have separate, dedicated female sleeping areas and toilets.

The Marines operate School of Infantry training battalions at Camp Geiger and at Camp Pendleton, California. Marines who have recently completed recruit training are instructed in skills such as marksmanship, patrolling, land navigation, grenade usage, and identifying and countering improvised explosive devices, according to the infantry school website.

The success of the women is important “particularly because the Marines are the service branch that has by far the lowest percentage of women” at about 7 percent, said Laura Browder, a professor of American studies at the University of Richmond, Virginia, who has studied women at war. Women make up about 16 percent of the active-duty Army.

Research Phase

“Part of the Marine identity is that if you are a real Marine, you are in combat, you are part of the infantry,” Browder said. “I think that is more true of the Marines than other service branches.”

The Marine Corps seeks to gain information from the experiences of the women going through the infantry training battalion program, said another spokeswoman, Captain Maureen Krebs.

“Their experiences and feedback have been documented throughout training using various surveys,” she said in an e-mail. “That information will be included as part of our data collection during this research phase of our implementation plan and will assist in making an informed recommendation” about integrating women into combat designations.

“Any force-wide changes to be made will occur only after we have conducted our research, determined a way ahead and set conditions to implement our recommendations,” she said.

‘Combat Effectiveness’

Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, has pressed the military services not to lower standards in their efforts to expand the role of women.

“If you lower standards for anybody for any reason, it lowers the combat effectiveness, and that cannot happen,” he said.

While applauding the successful Marine women, he said he opposes the “arbitrary” 2016 deadline for decisions about putting women into direct combat jobs. It takes time to develop a training record and to develop female infantry officers, he said, adding that about 10 women have failed to make it through the Marines’ infantry officers training.

“You can’t have one or two females in an all-male unit with all male superiors; I think you’re asking for trouble there,” said Hunter, served as a Marine officer in Iraq and Afghanistan. “So you have to have female leadership and that hasn’t happened yet.”

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