Carolina Ortiz moves away from a 155 mm artillery piece after loading it during a live-fire exercise at the Marine base in Twentynine Palms, Calif. The Marine Corps is trying to determine whether women can serve in ground combat jobs: artillery, armor and infantry. Alpha Company is undergoing training in the Mojave as part of a months-long experiment to figure that out.
Sgt. Kelly Brown adjusts her helmet before a weapons check.
Both male and female Marines take their lunch break of meals ready to eat (MREs) after a live-fire training exercise.
Brown, 30, cleans her weapon under the shade of camouflage netting at the Marine base at Twentynine Palms. Her grandfather's service in Korea and Vietnam inspired her to participate in this experiment.
Letty Jamie carries all of the weapons for her team during a rescue simulation on the range during a live-fire exercise. Marines routinely carry packs and equipment weighing between 50 and more than 100 pounds.
A Marine places a testing device on the barrel of a weapon before a live-fire exercise.
Sgt. Courtney White carries her machine gun before a live-fire exercise.
Both male and female Marines ready to go on the range during a live-fire exercise. Marine officials estimate that about one third of the women in the infantry company (or Alpha Company) have dropped out, most due to injuries, though precise numbers have not been provided.
Male and female Marines hike up to a range at Twentynine Palms for a live-fire exercise.
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More than a dozen Marines from Alpha Company fan out across California's Mojave Desert, far into the distance. Machine-gun fire gives them cover. The small forms dash ahead. Some drop to one knee, others fall on their stomachs, firing at pop-up targets.
Only one woman is part of this group. Until last fall, Sgt. Kelly Brown was fueling helicopters and trucks. Now she's running with an assault rifle.
"Sgt. Brown. She's a good Marine, she's adapted well," says Capt. Ray Kaster, Alpha Company commander, as he walks up a gravel road toward the training range at a Marine base in Twentynine Palms, Calif.
"She's a natural leader. She's been very good for us. Very good to have a positive influence amongst the females," he says.
But the number of women is dwindling. Kaster estimates he's lost about half of them, though Marine officials later say about one-third of the nearly 30 women dropped out.
Kaster says the majority of those dropouts were due to hip and leg fractures, injuries that come from the heavy load an infantry Marine must carry: weapons, ammunition, a pack that can weigh from 50 pounds to more than 100 pounds.
"Some of the females were great, were doing a great job," Brown says. "It's just some of the stress fractures on the hips."
Brown says female Marines can prevent injuries by shifting the weight of the pack off the hips to the shoulders, and more conditioning.
For Cpl. Jasmine Abrego, it's also attitude.
"Mentally it's just being strong, you just get stronger," she says. "You just push yourself through it, that's what I've been doing."
Abrego is just 5 foot, 1 inch. She left her job as a Marine clerical worker to train for the infantry and, as she puts it, "kick bad guys' butts."
"I've never wanted to quit," she says. "It's like, God this really sucks, but most of the time, I'm still here, I'm still going to do it."
This infantry exercise goes beyond just physical strength. Marines are supposed to fight and win the nation's wars. That's where the targets on this desert range come in.
Brown and the other Marines have sensors on their weapons to determine who hit the targets, which have sensors, too.
Paul Johnson is watching all of this. He's a civilian who designed this and other tests. He monitors the exercise from a small room inside a tower that rises above the range. A computer screen displays the human targets scattered around the range.
Paul Johnson is a civilian who is monitoring the Marine exercise and collecting data to help the Marines answer the question of whether to open combat jobs to female Marines.
Johnson's experiment will show how a Marine attack performs with all men, then with one woman taking part, then two women. The number of women remains low to reflect reality: Women make up just 7 percent of the Marine Corps.
At this point, Johnson says he doesn't know the answer to a key question: How are the women doing at killing the enemy?
At this point, he is looking at the data blind; he doesn't know which squad, or the makeup of the squad.
Johnson will have the results by the summer, when he files a report to the Marine leadership. Based on this and other data, the Marines will have to decide. Do they open up ground combat to women, or ask for an exception?
Kaster, the Alpha Company commander, says the bottom line in all of this is combat effectiveness. Can women Marines carry the load and kill the enemy?
"That's what this [experiment] will show. Is there a difference? Does having a high or low female concentration in an infantry rifle squad, does that inhibit or complement, enhance the ability of that unit to fight?" he says.
Meanwhile, all the Marines, men and women, continue to train in the desert: shooting at targets, digging in defenses, carrying the load.
Up ahead: a nearly five-mile hike with a fairly light pack — about 55 pounds.