RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
A yearlong experiment aimed at settling whether women can handle the punishing world of ground combat has also been looking to the sea. On the shores of southern California one recent morning, female Marines were heaving heavy chains to secure amphibious assault vehicles that would soon roll into the waves. Told by the Pentagon it must open all combat roles to women by 2016 - unless it can show a good reason not to - the Marine Corps has partnered with the University of Pittsburgh to scientifically measure skills, strength and endurance.
NPR's been following those Marines from the beginning, when 400 volunteered - a hundred of whom were women. Female Marines have scaled cliffs, crawled over obstacles, trekked across rugged terrain with packs almost as heavy as they are, in the desert and the mountains. Here at Camp Pendleton, we're on a beach.
CORPORAL KATHRYN BYNUM: As soon as I got out here, I started working out. I gained ten pounds just from lifting every day.
MONTAGNE: Until she volunteered for this last summer, Corporal Kathryn Bynum had never needed to, say, pull herself up and out of an amphibious assault vehicle.
BYNUM: And whenever I was able to do the exact same things that males were able to, it was awesome, it was a great feeling. You know, from opening the cargo hatch to picking up the ammo cans - and seeing those things get easier as I got stronger was - it was really rewarding.
MONTAGNE: Overseeing all of this is Captain Alex Puraty, a combat veteran who commands a company that includes this platoon.
CAPTAIN ALEX PURATY: So what we're trying to establish out here is gender-neutral standards. We've never had a standard before. It's always been the physical fitness test - so a timed run, some pull-ups and crunches. But that hasn't really been an accurate predictor of success. So the Marine Corps as a whole, we took a step back. They put a lot of time and effort into figuring out, hey, what are the hardest jobs out here? Let's take a look at these and let's run all kinds of body types through it and let's see what's successful.
MONTAGNE: It's not like men haven't had to worry about body types. One gunnery sergeant told us he wanted to be a Navy pilot, but at 5'3", was too short. Corporal Bynum is also small, which would be a positive for anyone trying to fit into the cramped space inside what amounts to a floating tank. As it happens, Bynum volunteered to test for this specialty without being all that keen on opening up combat duty to women.
BYNUM: I didn't think it was a good idea. I didn't see the need. Why fix something that's not broke? But I wanted to know for myself. I wanted to experience it and see like, is it really that hard? What are the real challenges that I'm going to face if I go out and do this?
MONTAGNE: Out on the water, we get a vivid demonstration of how closely these Marines - women and men - are being monitored. Data collectors stand on the roofs of the amphibious vehicles floating around us, observing, taking notes. The Marine volunteers also wear heart monitors, all part of the mix of data that will be analyzed this summer by researchers.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Little bit back, little bit, yeah.
MONTAGNE: One exercise has Marines throwing ropes from one amphibious assault vehicle aiming to tow another that's in distress. On our boat, the head of the research monitor team, Major Jane Blair, watches a team struggle to pull up through a narrow hatch a life-size dummy standing in for a wounded comrade in need of a rescue.
MAJOR JANE BLAIR: OK, the dummy is designed to simulate the average Marine, so he weighs about 175 pounds himself, but then with his equipment on, he ends up weighing about 225 pounds. So that would be standard with the flak and the Kevlar. The idea is that if women can perform the job, they should be able to perform all the tasks the same as any other Marine. And one of the biggest concerns was if there's a casualty, how women would perform, so it is actually a pretty critical task. I mean, everyone wants to know that if they were a casualty, they'd be able to be extracted.
MONTAGNE: Right then we spot Corporal Bynum preparing to do this very exercise.
BLAIR: Corporal Bynum, she's amazing. She's like one of the smallest females and she...
MONTAGNE: She actually said she was the smallest.
BLAIR: Yeah, no doubt. She's like 110 pounds. And she - I've had Marines tell me that they'd take her in a heartbeat to be one of their Marines 'cause she's just - she's got that spunk and energy that, you know, just enables her to do the job really well.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXERCISE)
MONTAGNE: When the exercises are over, these hulking amphibious assault vehicles roll back on land. That's where we find Zarina Flemming. She's a sergeant deployed in 2011 to the then, big, bustling Marine base in southern Afghanistan. She had a desk job, which didn't necessarily shield her from the war around her.
SERGEANT ZARINA FLEMMING: Just because I'm an administrator, there could have been a time where, you know, something were to happen. So as a Marine, you're always prepared. Like we're trained as rifleman first just in case, you know, stuff does happen. And I know many, many females that, you know, do have Purple Hearts. So they have, you know, been involved in some conflict, they have been blown up, they've sustained injuries. So it really depends on how you portray the front lines.
MONTAGNE: That women in uniform can hold their own when suddenly thrust into combat has been proven over and over during these long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The question Sergeant Flemming and her female comrades are helping to answer is, what are women best or least suited for in front line jobs that involve looking for the fight? In this controlled and close environment where everyone is constantly being monitored, Zarina Flemming says she's been treated as a Marine first and foremost.
FLEMMING: I mean, the guys have been great, it's just that respect for each other. Hey, I need to change, do you mind stepping that way real quick? Ok, cool. If it's time-consuming, hey, sometimes we just take our shirts off. We have sports bras on. It's not a big deal. You know, we have that brother-sister mentality and mindset.
MONTAGNE: Though when it comes to her real family, Sergeant Flemming says acceptance hasn't come easy. Her mother doesn't approve. It's a story echoed by Navy medic, Beatriz Byers, known as Doc.
MONTAGNE: What does your family think?
BEATRIZ BYERS: (Laughter). Yeah, my mother, yeah, she didn't want me to do this. From beginning was like, do you really have to do this?
MONTAGNE: At 35, Beatriz Byers has become something of a den mother for these young volunteers. Traditionally for Navy corpsman, being attached as medics to Marines in battle was reserved for men. But now, Doc Byers could also be eligible for combat duty.
MONTAGNE: Would you raise your hand?
BYERS: Of course, yes. Oh, yes. I would love to. Yes ma'am, in a heartbeat. Even though it's tough duties, we have to set the grounds. We have to start somehow, right? If I don't do it, you know, who else is going to do it?
MONTAGNE: As Doc Byers and the female Marines see it, they are women making military history.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.