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First Female Marines Take Combat Leadership Test

Oct 4, 2012
Originally published on October 4, 2012 10:19 am

Women in the U.S. military have been flying warplanes for years, and recently began serving in artillery and tank units. But they're still barred from direct ground combat.

Now, for the first time in the course's 35-year history, the Marine Corps is putting the first women through its grueling Infantry Officer Course: 86 days crawling through obstacle courses, lugging heavy machine guns, navigating the woods at night.

Col. Todd Desgrosseilliers, the top trainer at Marine Base Quantico in Virginia, says there's a good reason the course is so tough that 1 in 5 Marines fail.

"These officers, these lieutenants are going to go out there and lead platoons of enlisted Marines on the battlefield," he says.

The official reason for the prohibition against women in combat roles stems from "job-related physical requirements" that would exclude the vast majority of women.

No Slack For Anyone

On the first day of the training course, it's pitch-black when dozens of Marine lieutenants spill out of their trucks, along a dirt road.

They drop to their knees, pull out their compasses and open their maps under the red glow of a headlamp. They must navigate to three locations and then meet up at a precise time. Within minutes, they all disappear into the wet and tangled woods.

Hours go by.

As the sun rises, the first of the 109 Marines participating in the course emerge from the woods. They jog down a road with their 20-pound packs and assault rifles.

One of the Marines wears her blond hair pulled back into a tight bun. Her face is covered in sweat as she reaches the rallying point and approaches the instructors.

"You realize you're late?" one of the officers tells her. "Two minutes, 30 minutes, at this point it doesn't matter."

She's three minutes late. No one gets any slack — not the women, not the men, some of whom are still trotting in.

She turns and heads off to her next event in this combat endurance test that will stretch well into the night.

Physically And Psychologically Grueling

The 24-year-old, stocky young woman is a Marine lieutenant and college athlete from the Southwest. The only other woman in this course, a 33-year-old officer from the West Coast, is a serious distance runner.

The Marine Corps won't disclose their names. The women have been promised anonymity for volunteering to take part in this research study.

Eventually, the Marines hope to have 100 female volunteers to see how many — if any — can pass this tough test that's required of all Marine infantry officers.

The Marines are never told what will come next. Capt. Brian Perkins says that's part of the plan. Combat is always uncertain, and officers need psychological stamina along with physical strength.

"You don't have to be in the absolute best shape of your peers coming here," Perkins says. "But if you're mentally tough, you can outlast a lot of guys."

They may be asked to reassemble an M-16, or fix a radio, or do squats, push-ups and pull-ups — seven hours into the test — under Perkins' critical eye.

He watches the 24-year-old officer as she does pull-ups.

"She doesn't look any different than the men so far," he says.

The other woman, the 33-year-old officer, can barely do one.

Another officer comes over to show her the right way to do a pull-up. That officer — Maj. Scott Cuomo — is in charge of the course and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Upper-body strength, he says, helps Marines in combat climb over walls or pull themselves out of canals.

On a standard patrol, Cuomo notes, a Marine carries 70 to 80 pounds of gear.

"You need the strength. If you got it, great," he says.

'Stay Motivated, Ma'am'

Later, the Marines are in a long line waiting to sign up for one of the most rigorous parts of the course. The Marines asked NPR not to describe it, but it involves hand-to-hand combat and is very violent.

An officer tells them to take off their packs, empty everything out of their pockets and grab a mouth guard. They divide into twos.

There's a tangle of bodies, grunting, swearing. An instructor stands over the Marines.

One woman, the one who couldn't handle the pull-ups, quickly loses her match. The other woman holds her own against a male Marine. The match ends in a draw.

Even so, the instructor is disgusted. It's evident in his voice when he tells them to hurry up and climb into a waiting truck.

The woman who fought to a draw finds a friendlier Marine at the next event, who offers encouragement: "Stay motivated, ma'am."

She seems motivated as she trots away with her assault rifle. She survives this 16-hour day. The other woman failed, along with 26 men — a quarter of the class.

As for the woman who made it through the first day, she told Marine leaders that she wants to try to open a door for women after her.

Now she's got just 85 more days of training.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States Marines have begun preparing women for a role that does not exist just now. It's the role of leadership in direct ground combat. Women have yet to formally assume that role, though they have been flying warplanes for years and recently began serving in artillery and tank units. But in preparation for the possibility of an infantry role, the Marines are putting the first women through their grueling infantry officer course - 86 days of lugging heavy machine guns, crawling through obstacle courses, navigating woods at night, a course that many men fail. NPR's Tom Bowman went along on the women's first day.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: It's pitch black when dozens of Marine lieutenants spill out of their trucks along a dirt road.

COLONEL TODD DESGROSSEILLIERS: Second platoon, go to the rear of the column with Captain Cummings. First platoon, link up with me here.

BOWMAN: They drop to their knees, pull out their compasses and open their maps under the red glow of a headlamp. They must navigate to three locations and then meet up at a precise time. Within minutes they all disappear into the wet and tangled woods.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

BOWMAN: Hours go by.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

BOWMAN: As the sun rises, the first Marines emerge from the woods.

They jog down a road with their 20-pound packs and assaults rifles. One has her hair tied in a tight blonde bun. Her face is covered in sweat as she reaches a rallying point and approaches the instructors.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good morning, gentlemen.

DESGROSSEILLIERS: You realize you're late?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, sir.

DESGROSSEILLIERS: Two minutes, 30 minutes - at this point it doesn't matter.

BOWMAN: Three minutes late. There's no slack given anyone here - not the women or the men, some of whom are still straggling in. The young woman is 24 and stocky. She's a Marine lieutenant, a college athlete. The only other woman in this course is a 33-year-old officer from the West Coast. She's a serious distance runner. The Marine Corps won't reveal their names. They've been promised anonymity for volunteering to take part in this research study. Eventually, the Marines hope to have 100 female volunteers to see how many - if any - can pass this tough test that's required of all Marine infantry officers.

CAPTAIN BRAIN PERKINS: Group six, you're done.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK.

PERKINS: Go sign out with Sergeant Pyle(ph) .

BOWMAN: These Marines are never told what will come next. Captain Brian Perkins says that's part of the plan. Combat is always uncertain. Officers need psychological stamina.

PERKINS: You don't have to be in the absolute best shape of your peers coming here. But if you're mentally tough, you can outlast a lot of guys.

BOWMAN: They may be asked to reassemble an M-16, or fix a radio, or what they're doing now seven hours into the test.

PERKINS: All the way down on your squats.

BOWMAN: Squats, push-ups and pull-ups under the critical eye of Captain Perkins. He watches the 24-year-old officer - the one with her hair tied in a bun - doing pull-ups.

PERKINS: You know, she doesn't look any different than the men so far.

BOWMAN: The other woman, the 33-year-old officer, can barely do one.

PERKINS: She's going to be struggling in that one exercise for sure.

BOWMAN: Another officer comes over to show her the right way to do a pull-up. That officer - Major Scott Cuomo - is in charge of the course and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Upper-body strength, he says, helps Marines in combat climb over walls or pull themselves out of canals.

MAJOR SCOTT CUOMO: When I'm on patrol, on a standard patrol with 70, 80 pounds of gear, you need the strength. If you got it, great.

BOWMAN: It's just after 12:30 now. The Marines are in a long line for one of the most rigorous parts of this course. They told us not to describe it, but it it's very violent.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You would drop your (bleep), everything out of your (bleep) pockets. The one thing you need is a mouthpiece and you're going to report over there. No watches...

BOWMAN: They take off their packs, everything out of their pockets, and they divide into twos.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Let's go.

BOWMAN: There's a tangle of bodies. An instructor stands over the Marines.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Quit making those noises.

BOWMAN: One woman - the one who couldn't handle the pull-ups - quickly loses her match. The other woman holds her own against a male Marine. But that's not good enough.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Your Marines (bleep) demand winners.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Okay.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: So win.

BOWMAN: The match ends in a draw. The instructor is disgusted.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Both of you go.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Aye, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Go to the truck. Go to the truck.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hurry up.

BOWMAN: She finds a friendlier Marine at the next event, who offers encouragement.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: The captain's up there at the table. Stay motivated, ma'am.

BOWMAN: She seems motivated as she trots away with her assault rifle. She survives this 16-hour day. The other woman failed, as did a quarter of the class. As for the woman who made it through day one, here's what she told Marine leaders: I want to try to open up a door maybe for women after me. Now she's got just 85 more days of training. Tom Bowman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.