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More than 200 Marines have been training since late September in the pine forests of North Carolina. They have hiked for miles, carrying 87-pound packs and assault rifles. They have slept in the field, and attacked mock-enemy positions. And for the first time, some of them are women. They are there to help the Marines answer this question: Do women have what it takes to become combat infantry Marines?

Well, this morning, three of them graduated. NPR's Tom Bowman witnessed their training, and he has this report.

PFC KATIE GORZ: Hey, second squad, get over here real quick.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The Marines from D Company line up just off a winding dirt road. Pfc. Katie Gorz is in charge, getting them ready for a simulated attack on an enemy force, dug in a mile away in the woods.

GORZ: Just get into, like, a single rank right here - not including these guys. Lusar(ph), Hyam(ph) and Marks(ph) are going to be out of it.

BOWMAN: Lt. Col. David Wallis runs the training and says the women Marines have met the challenge. And Katie Gorz has earned a leadership role.

LT. COL. DAVID WALLIS: We've assigned her to serve as a squad leader for a patrol. She's performed very well relative to her male counterparts in that position.

BOWMAN: Gorz is just 19 and from Minnesota. Sturdy and about 6 feet tall, she is one of just three women who volunteered for combat training and made it to the end of the course. Fifteen women started, but the rest dropped out for a variety of reasons.

WALLIS: There are certain physical difficulties associated with our curriculum. Looking at it, upper body strength is a significant factor.

BOWMAN: Earlier this year, the Pentagon lifted the rule barring women from ground combat. They'll be allowed to serve in those jobs beginning in early 2016. The Marines say they won't lower their training standards. If the Marines argue that women can't make it, they'll have to persuade both the Defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs - a high hurdle.

UNIDENTIFIED MARINE #1: You guys, stay together. We'll work as a team. We'll get through this whole thing. Good to go?

UNIDENTIFIED MARINES: (In unison) Yes, Sergeant.

BOWMAN: The Marines move down the dirt road. One of them is Pfc. Cristina Fuentes-Montenegro. It's hard to pick her out. They all look the same. And if you look closely, you can just see this tight bun of hair poking out from the bottom of her helmet.

She's 25 and from Florida. Her brother and brother-in-law are Marines. She wasn't allowed to talk during the training.

The Marines have added some female instructors here to serve as advisers. One of them is Staff Sgt. Juanita Towns. She served in Afghanistan as part of a female engagement team reaching out to Afghan women in the villages, and sometimes coming under fire.

STAFF SGT. JUANITA TOWNS: They didn't know where the fire was coming from. But then, they actually started seeing Taliban run around the village that we were occupying.

BOWMAN: So you were shooting at the Taliban?

TOWNS: Yes.

BOWMAN: Sgt. Towns says there's no doubt that the women training now can serve in combat.

TOWNS: If there's no challenges here at the school, then there shouldn't be any later on down the line. As Marines, we know about change because everything changes five minutes, maybe 10 minutes down the road. So we're kind of used to change.

BOWMAN: Some people talk about, if you put one woman in a company or a platoon, it changes the dynamic. What would you say to people who suggest that?

TOWNS: It's not. It wasn't a change. We were actually part of the team. We went on patrols. We carried our weight, and they didn't treat us any different at all.

BOWMAN: Some Marine officials conducting the research say it's an open question whether women can handle it. Few women are showing interest so far. Of those who do, some have trouble carrying the heavy packs or knocking out the required three pull-ups. That's not a problem for Sgt. Towns.

TOWNS: I'm sitting at 13 pull-ups now, and counting.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

BOWMAN: The attack begins with simulated mortars and machine guns.

UNIDENTIFIED MARINE #2: Spread out! Spread out! Get on line!

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

BOWMAN: The Marines from Company D slip out of the trees. Cristina Fuentes Montenegro and the male Marines dash across a field.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE, MARINES CALLING OUT, ANSWERING ORDERS)

BOWMAN: She gets up with a weapon, runs some more, and flops down again on her stomach, and continues to fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARINES CALLING OUT, ANSWERING ORDERS)

STAFF SGT. BILLY SHINAULT: Hey, listen up, quit messing around with your ammo...

BOWMAN: Staff Sgt. Billy Shinault has served three combat tours. He's an instructor here, and criticizes their attack.

SHINAULT: I know we all want to kill somebody. All right? I understand that. But in real life, if we get out there and we go out of our lane, the people we're killing is our own fellow Marines...

BOWMAN: Sgt. Shinault says just because women pass this training doesn't mean they can make it in combat.

SHINAULT: We came into this knowing there would be select individuals that would pass it. But as you see with male Marines in the past, just because a Marine passes the school, it gets tougher from that point. And that's another bridge we'll have to cross when we get to it.

BOWMAN: He doubts many women will even want this kind of life - sleeping in the dirt, patrolling, fighting.

SHINAULT: I talked to Staff Sgt. Towns and a couple other of them. They're content where they're at, in their job field. I've yet to meet one.

BOWMAN: Yet to meet one who what?

SHINAULT: Wanted to be in the infantry.

BOWMAN: Sgt. Juanita Towns stands nearby. She shoots a look that says: He doesn't speak for me.

The three women who passed the course today won't go to the infantry now. The Marine study has just begun, and they want a good research pool first: as many as 300 women hiking with heavy packs and attacking with their assault rifles, day after day in these pine woods.

Tom Bowman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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