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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.

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