If you've spent any time around members the US Armed Services, you know there is something special about the Marines. Or so they like to tell you. It’s the smallest of the four branches of the military and generally the first to respond in a crisis. In my experience, they are the most competitive people alive, always trying to outdo each other with their feats of strength and derring-do. Hence the slogan: the few, the proud, the Marines.

Like all of the branches, they are under orders to allow women to serve in all front-line combat units for the first time starting in 2016. Any exceptions to the policy will have to be justified. So the Marines are putting women to the test in a $25m experiment known as the Ground Combat Unit Integrated Task Force.

"This is not about whether it is morally right or wrong," explained Paul Johnson, the civilian researcher who designed the test. “It’s about physicality and how their performance contributes to the outcome, whether their presence helps, hurts or has no impact on group performance.”

I met Johnson as his 8-month experiment was coming to an end at the Marine Corp's Mountain Warfare Training Centre in Bridgeport, California. As the name suggests, it was rugged terrain. The Task Force had spent most of its time at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina but the training was culminating with a month of punishing field exercises in California, first in the 29 Palms dessert and now here.

Johnson's staff was set up inside a field tent with a couple of laptop computers, collecting the data. The task force consisted of 350 volunteers – 75 of them women – who were given group assignments meant to replicate combat missions: in this case hiking with gear about 5 miles, crossing a gorge, scaling a cliff. Each one was wired with a heart monitor and GPS.

If you can do it, if you can physically hack it shouldn’t matter what your gender is.

Corp. Jacklyn Dean

Johnson, who had served as a Navy medic in the first Gulf War, pulled out a set of dice to illustrate how the experiment worked. The red dice were men; the slightly smaller, white dice represented women. He arranged them in sets of 12, like your standard rifle squad in the Infantry. One was all red. One had a couple white, the other a slightly higher concentration.

"What we’re doing out here is running collective tasks that are mission orientated and taking quantitative or numerical measures," he explained. “Things like elapsed time, hits on target, ammunition expended. We get to see what kind of person thrives in this environment, what do they look like from physical standpoint, their height, weight, lean body mass."

The scenery at 7,300 feet was beautiful, but the altitude also makes it hard to breathe. My crew and I were relieved when the public affairs officer assisting us offered to carry the 35-pound camera tripod as we hiked to the gorge to watch members of the Task Force cross. I asked PAO Lt. Philip Kulczewski what they did when they weren’t training since they’re not supposed to leave the base. His answer: go to the gym! I don’t think he was kidding, though I noticed the Marines do joke a lot. 

When we got to the gorge, a group had gathered. Their backpacks were off, as each waited for a turn to pull themselves and their gear across on a rope. I asked Corp. Jacklyn Dean what she thought about the experience of hanging 170 feet above a rushing stream.

"Absolutely thrilling, exciting," said the 25-year-old from Florida, “I love to do stuff like this.” She said she had an older brother and grew up always trying to outdo him. So when he joined the Army, she joined the Marines.

Gaining acceptance

By now they had already done the gorge at least a half-dozen times, alternating a day of training with a day of rest. Each day, the squad groupings changed, an effort to minimise the impact of leadership and personality differences on their collective performance.

Dean said the 75 pound packs they were carrying seemed light compared to the 140 pounds they had been hiking with at 29 Palms, a full 25 pounds more than her body weight. The proper way to put on the pack is to flip it over your head, and after miles on the move the women found it would dig into their back and hips. Dean said she survived it with lots of stretching and Ibuprofen. But even that wasn’t as hard as gaining acceptance from the men.

"The hardest part, honestly, had to be when we first arrived, showing up to a unit that had never really seen a female marine, let alone worked with one. That in itself was a struggle."

Dean and her colleague, Sgt. Emma Bringas, said they had been surprised on joining the Marines that certain jobs were not open to them and volunteered for the Task Force so other women could have the opportunities that had been denied to them.

"You're told by your parents growing up that you can do whatever you want to do - be whatever you want to be," said Bringas, who had wanted to be a tank mechanic. "You want to serve your country and you’re told oh wait you can’t do this job, this job or this job."

Female US Marines say women proved they could do the job, though they may not be the first to finish [Al Jazeera]

Bringas said the women had proven they can do the job, though they may not be the first to finish. Separate from this experiment, the Marines have also opened up the Corps' grueling officer training school but so far, of the few dozen women who have tried none have succeeds in passing.

"If you can do it, if you can physically hack it shouldn’t matter what your gender is," Dean added.

Still, just getting the job done may not be enough when the Marines take the results of this experiment and use it to design gender neutral standards for combat. Once the new standards are in place some men may not make the cut either, Johnson conceded.

"They’re all marines and they’re all good marines, but not everybody is best suited for every job,” Johnson explained. “Particularly these physically demanding jobs. We want to pick the people who are robust and sturdy, and can handle the load."

The male Marines were careful in their answers when I asked whether or not they think women should serve in combat. After all, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta already gave the order to make it happen. Sgt. Ryan McCauley said the tests he was taking part in would provide that answer, but he expressed respect for the women on the Task Force.

“When the going gets tough and I look over my shoulder and see someone smaller and shorter and they keep pushing makes me rethink and I keep pushing on.”

Over a drink at the base’s one restaurant, Johnson revealed that his wife is a former Marine, who now works for the National Museum of the Marine Corps. I asked what she thought about women in combat.

"If they can meet the standards," was his reply, before challenging me to find a way to move a quarter on the bar on top of dime, without using my hands. This task involved blowing the quarter until it flipped over.

When I asked Sgt. McCauley what he thought the most important qualifications were for being a Marine, however, his answer had nothing to do with size or strength. "Perseverance," he said. "And desire."

If that’s the case, the women in the Task Force have already shown they have what it takes.

Source: Al Jazeera