Women Break New Ground In Marine Infantry Training

Female Marines have been training for the past month at Camp Lejeune, trying to make it through infantry training. They've got a month to go, including a 12-mile hike with a heavy pack. They're the first ones ever to handle the training, part of an effort to integrate women into combat positions by 2016.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Okay. For the past month, a dozen female marines have been training at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina. They are trailblazers, the first women marines to endure the Marine Corps' eight-and-a-half week infantry course. It's the same training as for men, everything from tossing grenades to climbing over walls to hiking with a full pack.

The training is part of the Pentagon's effort to learn if the women can meet a requirement to integrate women into ground combat positions by 2016. Here's NPR's Tom Bowman.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Fifteen women fresh out of boot camp started the course in late September. One dropped out for medical reasons, two others could not meet the fitness tests, though one plans to try again later. That leaves a dozen female volunteers with another month of shooting, hiking and living in the field with their Marine brothers, and that means carrying in what they need.

CAPTAIN GERALDINE CAREY: Their packs are about anywhere between 82 and 87 pounds.

BOWMAN: Captain Geraldine Carey is a spokeswoman for the Marine Corps' School of Infantry East.

CAREY: They've been carrying that weight for all of the hikes.

BOWMAN: All of the hikes - so for three, six and nine miles. This all came about because the Pentagon lifted the ban on women serving in ground combat jobs - infantry, armor and artillery. Military officials ordered the services to begin planning for women in ground combat roles during the next three years. Some of the elite combat units that require even more intense training, like Navy SEALS and Green Berets, may still be allowed to exclude women.

But they'll need an exemption from the Defense secretary. But the Marine Corps and the Army are pushing ahead. Officials say women and men will have to handle the same tasks, from carrying and loading artillery shells to pulling a wounded comrade from an armored vehicle.

CAREY: We've set our standards and we don't intend to lower the standards. If there's somebody, male or female, that cannot meet that standard, they don't continue in training.

BOWMAN: Camp LeJeune hopes to have as many as 300 women volunteers take part in this training during the next year. Captain Carey says that will allow the Corps to gather sufficient data on whether women can handle the physical rigors of the infantry. Both female and male marines have washed out on those hikes. A big test will come next week when all the remaining marines will set out on a 12 mile hike, or 20 kilometers.

CAREY: It's not like they do the 20k hike and then they're done for the day. This is the 20k hike leads right into an entire week of field exercise.

BOWMAN: Again, Captain Carey.

CAREY: So it's can you get to the fight. If you get there, now do you have enough in you to continue to fight.

BOWMAN: Even if these women pass, they still won't be able to join the infantry. Those assignments aren't expected to open up for two more years. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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