In the LINE of FIRE No longer trained in gender-segregated platoons, women at Quantico join combat exercises

November 18, 1992|By Joe Nawrozki

At the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., women are making history.

For the first time in the 216-year history of the corps, females are training alongside their male counterparts in the Officer Basic Course, a grueling 6-month period when these new second lieutenants become acquainted with virtually every job a marine must carry out.

Prior to the August start of the current OBC class, women Marine officers trained in segregated platoons. They were also relegated to learning limited "defensive" field tactics.

The new policy means the 19 women going through the course are -- again for the first time -- learning offensive combat training. They are throwing live hand grenades, firing heavy machine guns, calling in artillery and mortar fire, getting acquainted with demolitions and discovering the devestating power of a claymore mine.

A female captain is also commanding one of the training platoons, according to Marine spokesman 2d Lt. Sean O'Brien.

In so doing, the female trainees are also discovering the unrestrained joys of toting a 65-pound rucksack, grunting through the woods with only a couple hours of sleep and finding it keeping with the finest tradition of one of America's most noble callings -- the infantry, ah, infantryperson or rifle platoon commander.

But when they graduate in March and look to other specific infantry training, these women will still not be allowed to sign up ,, for such training and eventually engage in ground combat against the enemy.

A presidential commission has recommended that military women not be allowed to participate in action with a line infantry outfit. However, the group said the armed services should have greater leeway in defining what comprises modern-day fighting.

The 15-member Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forced voted 8-2 to recommend exclusion of women from direct land combat units or those which actually engage in fighting.

The panel did, however, considered sea and air combat roles for women and said service secretaries should recommend to Congress what units and positions should fall under a combat exclusion.

The role of women in the military has been a prominent issue since the Persian Gulf War, when 35,000 women served -- most in non-combat air and sea units. Some women where in combat aircraft and one female Army enlisted person was taken prisoner by the Iraqi army.

While some recent polls have indicated that women in the armed forces generally do not want to serve in infantry-type units, a majority still feels that the option should be left open for those who can physically and emotionally withstand the rigors of field existence and killing the enemy.

"We have crossed the Rubicon as far as woman in combat goes," said Harry Summers, a retired Army colonel, decorated for valor in Vietnam and Korea, and a military hisotorian who resides in Bowie.

"In both world wars, women were decorated for their combat actions as medical personnel," Mr. Summers said. "They were in England during the blitz, in France after the invasion and many females served in the Pacific theatre, so many of the morale arguments boiling about this issue were really answered 50 years ago."

Mr. Summers said that "no reasonable person can outright deny a women the right to serve in a line combat outfit if she has the qualifications. Everybody can't meet the demands of the infantry and that includes men.

"Granted, there are women who can hunt bear with a switch and those people could go days at a time with a heavy pack," he said. "But what about those who can't? Should the rules be changed just because they have a desire to be in the infantry?"

Mr. Summers points to "gender norming" a practice of having one set of qualifications for men and another, less demanding, for women.

At the Basic Office Course, for instance, and throughout the Marine Corps, women are required to do less on the semi-annual physical fitness tests for situps, pullups and runs.

A male Marine between 17 and 26-years-old gets a minimum passing grade in the test if he can do 40 situps in 2 minutes, three pullups and run three miles in 28 minutes, according to Lt. O'Brien. If the male marine doesn't score over these minimums in at least one category and amass a required total score, they fail the test overall.

Female Marines, the spokesman said, get minimum passing scores if they can do 22 situps, hang in a flexed-arm position for 16 seconds and run 1.5 miles in 15 minutes. That minimum score total would qualify them to pass the test, the spokesman said.

"Again, women can hold up under the hardships of direct attack...that's not the question." said Mr. Summers, who taught at the Army War College and who served as a military consultant for CBS TV during the Gulf War.

"We have to make sure the standards are meaningful," he said. "The issue starts out as equal opportunity but winds up as equality of output and that's dangerous.

"Armies have to be reflective of their societies and this must be pressed forward," he said. "I personally believe women should pilot combat aircraft, that's different.

"And some who don't want to have women in the military point to fraternization of the sexes on the battlefield as a potential problem. Well, what do male and female police officers do in the front seat of a police cruiser?

"It seems to work out in the end, doesn't it?"

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