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4 women break riverine course's gender barrier

Nov. 8, 2012 - 10:39AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 8, 2012 - 10:39AM  |  
Chief Engineman (SW/EXW) Patricia Cooper, right, and Master-at-Arms 3rd Class Brittney Hellwig (EXW), students in the Riverine Combat Skills Course, prepare for field training exercise at Camp Lejeune, N.C., on Oct. 23.
Chief Engineman (SW/EXW) Patricia Cooper, right, and Master-at-Arms 3rd Class Brittney Hellwig (EXW), students in the Riverine Combat Skills Course, prepare for field training exercise at Camp Lejeune, N.C., on Oct. 23. (MCSN Heather Paape / Navy)
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Women may not be able to serve in riverine boat crews, but that doesn't mean they can't train like it.

Chief Engineman (SW/EXW) Patricia Cooper, Master-at-Arms 2nd Class (EXW) Brittney Hellwig and Master-at-Arms Seamen Brianna Tran and Angela Evans became the first women to graduate from the Riverine Combat Skills Course on Oct. 26 at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

The course was opened to women after riverine and maritime expeditionary security forces merged in June under the Coastal Riverine Force banner. Because MESF is an integrated force, women were allowed to participate in the riverine training, according to a news release, but still cannot serve on riverine boat crews. The billet is closed to women under the Defense Department's combat exclusion rules, alongside SEAL and special warfare combatant-craft crew jobs, as well as positions serving with Marine Corps ground combat companies.

Some women said they hoped taking the course would open up opportunities in the future, such as becoming a crew member if the billet ever opens up.

"As it stands right now, we can't, but hopefully later on in the future, they may make other courses available for women," Evans said.

Regardless, the skills the quartet picked up won't go to waste.

"We spent a lot of time on the gun range and became very accurate and better with the weapons systems," which are the same ones used at her command, Hellwig said.

The five-week course covered combat and weapon skills, land navigation and patrolling.

"It overall made me better at my job," Tran said.

The female sailors were selected by their commands to be the first women to complete the course, and most felt some nervousness before reporting to the school; since no women had previously completed the course, advice was hard to come by.

"A lot of my male counterparts talked it up to be way more than I thought it would be," Hellwig said. "It was easier than I thought."

The curriculum at the school was not changed to accommodate the women. Although all four said the intensive physical training with weighted vests or packs was difficult, none thought it needed to be tailored to accommodate female participants.

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"We're able to compete," Cooper said. "Women can do the same things men can."

Evans called the training a "mind over body" course and said her potential role as a groundbreaking graduate served as motivation.

"I thought of being [one of] the first females to actually pass and not quit," Evans said. "And I thought of making my command proud."

Others pushed their first-female status to the back of their minds to make it easier to focus on the task at hand. However, that became more difficult during physical training.

"Especially during PT, you're with a lot of guys," Tran said. "You want to keep up and show them that you're capable of doing the job and performing at their level."

The men in the course were supportive, the female sailors said, but having the camaraderie of the other women going through the course for the first time made difficult times easier.

"We definitely had a bond," Evans said of the relationship among the four women. "We knew we were the first group to go in, and we were all supporting each other."

The next riverine course will run in early January, according to Barbara Wilcox, a Navy spokeswoman. Though Navy officials expect women to be in that class, they cannot say for sure because the names of those selected will not be released until two to three weeks before the course begins.

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