STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In this country, dozens of women are training for ground combat. They're doing it in the dry and craggy hills of California's Mojave Desert. They're spending a month at Twentynine Palms, a training center for the Marines. The Marines are testing whether women have what it takes to serve in ground combat - armor, artillery, infantry.
NPR's Tom Bowman has just returned from the first week of training at Twentynine Palms. He reports that almost half the women in the infantry unit have already dropped out, which is a much higher dropout rate than for men.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Captain Ray Kaster commands Alpha Company, and he tries to speak above the din of a machine gun.
CAPTAIN RAY KASTER: That's one of your issues...
BOWMAN: His Marines, one of them a female sergeant named Kelly Brown, are mounting an infantry attack at this desert range. Brown is one of about a dozen women still taking part in the training. About the same number have dropped out, Kaster says.
KASTER: The majority of those were injuries.
BOWMAN: What kind, shin splints?
KASTER: It's the same stuff - hips - hips and legs, more fractures, I would say.
BOWMAN: Only one of the women dropped out while in the Mojave Desert. The rest dropped out because they got injured at Camp Lejeune, N.C., getting ready for this live-fire event. At Camp Lejeune, the women had to perform exercises that in the past were done just by men - lift ammunition cans and machine guns, carry fellow Marines to simulate a wounded comrade.
KASTER: You know, the load obviously is something that the majority of them are not used to.
BOWMAN: Does that surprise you?
KASTER: No, it doesn't. I mean, we're all different, and that is one of the things that we're here to do is to show, you know, what are those differences, and do they affect the readiness? What toll on the readiness of the infantry unit - small unit - does that have?
BOWMAN: Readiness means a unit is trained and equipped for the fight. The only woman who's taking part in this mock attack, Sergeant Kelly Brown, agrees that the focus must be on a unit's ability to defeat an enemy.
SERGEANT KELLY BROWN: If females do want to do it and this is what - you know, there needs to be a standard put in place to ensure that combat effectiveness is not going to be altered for the infantry.
BOWMAN: The mock attack is over, and Sergeant Kelly Brown pulls off her gear, checks her weapon and gets ready for the next round of training.
BROWN: I didn't think about it when I was just downloading mine. I...
BOWMAN: Whether women like her get to serve in ground combat won't be determined until later next year when the Marine Corps looks at all the data from these training exercises. Depending on the results, the generals could recommend that some jobs, including infantry, stay closed to women. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Twentynine Palms, Calif.
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