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Corps rolls out new plan to test women's suitability for combat jobs

Jun. 24, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Female Engagement Team supports Marines, builds re
Sgts. Jessica Lugo (left) and Autumn Sekely (right), of Female Engagement Team 6, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), walk into a village leader's compound Dec. 7 in Sangin district, Helmand province. (Cpl. Katherine Keleher / Marine Corps)
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The Marine Corps is moving forward with its next steps in incorporating women into more combat assignments, administering new strength tests to hundreds of Marines, preparing to open some ground intelligence officer billets and developing new screening tests that will be used by recruiters.

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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, VA. — The Marine Corps is moving forward with its next steps in incorporating women into more combat assignments, administering new strength tests to hundreds of Marines, preparing to open some ground intelligence officer billets and developing new screening tests that will be used by recruiters.

These and other details are outlined in an implementation plan released by the Pentagon on June 18. A report was required from each of the services and U.S. Special Operations Command following January’s decision by senior Defense Department officials to overturn the 1994 Direct Combat Exclusion Rule, a move that opened 237,000 jobs across the services, including about 53,721 in the Corps, Marine officials said.

The Marine Corps’ 14-page plan details its approach to opening jobs across combat arms disciplines, including the infantry and reconnaissance communities — a major concern among personnel who worry that senior leaders will bend to political pressure at the expense of making the military weaker. However, pending the outcome of detailed research, the services will be allowed to ask to keep some career fields closed to women, though it remains to be seen if and where they will do so.

Efforts this year will include:

More infantry officer training. Two female second lieutenants are expected to report to the demanding Infantry Officer Course here in Quantico on July 1. Commandant Gen. Jim Amos told Congress this spring that five had volunteered, but Marine officials said three subsequently decided against it. If the other two report, they will be the latest female Marines to undertake the 13-week course, and their experiences will inform a future recommendation to civilian leadership at the Pentagon about how and if women can be incorporated into the Corps’ infantry and reconnaissance communities.

To date, four women have reported to IOC. Last fall, one failed IOC’s arduous initial Combat Endurance Test, while another was dropped about a week into training due to stress fractures. Two more women reported to IOC in March, and also failed the initial endurance test.

New strength tests. The Corps is testing up to 400 male Marines and 400 female Marines using five strength tests meant to represent the demanding physical tasks Marines perform in various combat units. These tests include:

■Dead-lifting a barbell.

■Clean-and-pressing a barbell.

■Lifting and carrying a 95-pound 155mm artillery shell replica 50 meters.

■Lifting and loading a 120mm tank round that weighs more than 50 pounds.

■Scaling a wall, up to 7-feet tall, while wearing a full combat load.

The results will be used this fall as the Corps develops strength tests that recruiters will eventually administer to prospective male and female Marines to determine if they can handle the rigors of combat assignments.

Ground intel jobs open. The Corps will open to women some 56 ground intelligence officer assignments. The commandant has approved the change, and the Corps notified Congress of the decision recently. There is a catch, however: Any Marine who wants to become a ground intelligence officer must pass IOC, something no woman has done to date. Ground intel officer assignments in infantry units would remain closed, but if a woman passes IOC, she could fill a 0203 billet in logistics units and division intelligence battalions.

Feedback from tank, artillery units. Women will continue to report back to senior leadership on their experiences serving in artillery, tank and other combat units opened last year. Ninety-seven officer and 274 staff NCO positions were made available, each designated for specialties women already held, like supply chief and adjutant.

Women in these assignments provided feedback to Marine Corps headquarters soon after arriving in their units, and then again six months later, Marine officials said. A third wave of feedback is expected this summer, as the majority of the women reach the one-year mark in their experimental assignments. Their short-answer responses have not been made public.

The Corps’ implementation plan includes a notional timeline for when future decisions will occur. Research could dictate changes to the schedule, said Col. Jon Aytes, who is leading an operational planning team for the effort. He spoke to Marine Corps Times here on June 19. However, all decisions must be implemented by 2016, as announced in January by Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and recently retired Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

A decision about the infantry and reconnaissance communities is expected no sooner than 2015, after Amos is expected to retire. Marine officials placed those decisions at the end of the timeline because they “didn’t want to degrade anyone’s ability to go to war” inadvertently, Aytes said.

Decisions on other combat assignments are coming more quickly, however. Specifically, the Corps is expected to decide early next year about whether to open the 7204 low altitude air defense officer MOS. Later in 2014, officials will make a call on the 1802 tank officer MOS, as well as the 1803 amphibious assault vehicle officer MOS and the 7212 low altitude air defense gunner MOS. Those specialties are less physically demanding than the infantry and recon, which frequently operates without vehicles for days at a time.

“There is more opportunity for mechanized support to be there, whereas for infantry and recon, there is not,” said Aytes, head of the military policy branch at Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs. “We are a dismounted, foot-borne unit in infantry and recon. We don’t have mechanized infantry like the Army does.”

Elaine Donnelly, president of the independent Center for Military Readiness, said Amos and the Marine Corps must be transparent as the process plays out, and release testing and survey results as possible.

She cited as an example a survey the service conducted last summer of 53,000 Marines to gather feedback on how personnel feel about women being incorporated into more combat assignments. The Corps released a five-page summary early this year acknowledging that Marines raised concerns about the possibility of intimate relationships, sexual harassment and female service members being taken as prisoners of war, but officials declined to release a detailed breakdown of the results. They explained their decision by saying some of the written responses contain sensitive information.

Donnelly urged Marines to make their case to Capitol Hill if they believe women should not serve in combat units. Building political opposition to the idea, she said, is one of the best ways to combat it.

“I know the Marines are insisting that standards will not be lowered, and they sometimes suggest that they may not open all communities including the infantry and Special Operations Forces,” she said. “But it is disingenuous to deny that the elite culture and combat effectiveness of the Marine Corps will be degraded in pursuit of gender-based ‘diversity.’ President Obama will choose the next commandant, who will take it the rest of the way.”

Physical 'proxy tests'

In January, Marine officials said they would develop a list of gender-neutral, job-specific tasks that every Marine must be able to complete to be awarded an MOS, and then create a physical test that recruiters will administer to Marines to determine if they can handle a given specialty. That’s still the plan, Aytes said, but they’ve altered how they will do it.

Training and Education Command, also based here at Quantico, recently wrapped up its assessment of the physically demanding tasks for each of the Corps’ 330-plus primary MOSs, Aytes said. Some 259 items, ranging from lifting tank rounds to carrying a machine gun, were registered. The Corps had planned to test up to 400 male and 400 female Marines on each of those items, but decided that doing so would be too unwieldy, Aytes said. Instead, five physical “proxy tests” were adopted, with Marines lifting various weights depending on their MOS.

“It becomes a problem of logistics,” said Aytes of swapping to the proxy tests. “To run 800 Marines to do 259 individual physical tasks, you can imagine how much work that would be.”

The proxy tests began in May with Marines from the The Basic School at Quantico, Marine Combat Training at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and the recruit depot at Parris Island, S.C. They should be complete within a few weeks, officials said. Marine officials will compare how they perform on each test to the number of pullups, ammo can lifts and other exercises they were able to complete on their last Physical Fitness Test and Combat Fitness Test, thus determining the relationship between fitness tests and successful performance of job requirements.

By late this summer, the Corps will take that data and begin developing a new test recruiters can use to determine whether prospective Marines can handle the rigors of life in combat. Some defense officials have compared it to a “physical ASVAB,” a nod toward the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test taken by tens of thousands of prospective service members at Military Entrance Processing Stations across the country each year. Aytes said they are shying away from calling it that, however, because the test will be Marine Corps specific.

The Corps’ implementation plan suggests recruiters will begin training on how to conduct the new physical screening test next spring. Aytes said it is too early to say what tasks the screening could include.

Also this summer, women serving on an experimental basis in units previously closed to female Marines will provide feedback to Marine Corps headquarters on their experiences. Aytes said that a number of women in those assignments initially said they had their guards up around their male counterparts, but have since settled into their jobs.

“As time has gone by and they have proven themselves professionally, they have seen that they can hack it and do their job, and the other Marines have seen that,” he said.

Commanders and sergeants major also will provide feedback to top Marine officials, and command climate surveys will be conducted to gather rank-and-file opinion.

Women and the infantry

The issue that has drawn the greatest interest — and concern — from Marines is whether women will join the infantry and other communities that most closely support it. The Corps’ plan calls for a decision no earlier than early 2015 for 0302 infantry officers, 1812 tank crewmen, the Corps’ 08XX enlisted artillery and 21XX ground ordnance maintenance specialties.

The decision for enlisted infantrymen will come even later in 2015, according to the plan. That includes the rifleman, assaultman, light armored vehicle crewman and reconnaissance communities.

Military officials told reporters at the Pentagon on June 18 that it is not clear how women would be integrated into the infantry, or whether they would be in all units or those designated “co-ed.” The Army and Marine Corps are examining how the militaries in Australia, Canada, Israel and the United Kingdom have done so, Aytes said.

“We do want to make sure we do this thing the right way, and we’re going to look at everything, but it’s too premature to say where they would go exactly right now until we get the full breadth and depth of our analysis complete,” he said.

Any requests for exceptions that would keep the infantry, reconnaissance and special operations communities closed to women will hinge in part on how implementation proceeds in other units, the plan says.

The commandant could not be reached for comment, said his spokesman, Lt. Col. Wesley Hayes. In January, Amos said he wants to make sure standards are not lowered as a result of the policy change, adding that he understands many infantrymen are concerned.

“I think from the infantry side of the house, you know they’re more skeptical,” Amos said during a defense conference in San Diego on Jan. 31. “It’s been an all-male organization throughout the history of the U.S. Marine Corps, so I don’t think that should be any surprise. I think the rest of it is all what you’d expect.”

In a letter distributed to his general officers the same day the Pentagon announced the policy change in January, Amos said the plan that he and the other Joint Chiefs developed calls for a three-year research period before the top officers in the Marine Corps and Army must make recommendations to civilian leaders. He stressed that no decisions have been made, including in the infantry, reconnaissance and special operations communities.

“I believe we have created the conditions for [the next commandant] to provide his best analytically informed military advice on this critical matter to the civilian leadership, who have the constitutionally enshrined power of final decision,” Amos wrote. “I don’t know what my successor’s recommendation will be, but the end state is not a foregone conclusion, as some have suggested.”

The Corps’ way of researching the integration of women in the infantry comes at IOC, and the experiment will continue for the foreseeable future. Plans called for at least 90 women to attend, giving the Corps a “significantly significant” number on which to draw conclusions, Aytes said.

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