RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S. Marine Corps is training women to fight on the frontlines of war. It's part of an experiment to determine whether women can be allowed to serve in ground combat units. NPR, along with public radio stations around the country, has launched a project called Back At Base. We're chronicling the lives of America's troops here in the U.S. And as part of that project, Jeff Tiberii of North Carolina Public Radio visited Camp LeJeune, where he tried to keep up with one woman training to fight.
JEFF TIBERII, BYLINE: Kristy Rodriguez is sprinting on a treadmill. She's wearing dark green shorts, a matching T-shirt and white sneakers. The pace keeps getting faster.
SERGEANT KRISTY RODRIGUEZ: A lot of people think that we can't do it. And I don't think the same.
TIBERII: As Rodriguez runs, she's staring at a photo - the iconic shot of Marines planting the American flag at Iwo Jima.
RODRIGUEZ: It doesn't matter, women or male. They're just like if you can't cut it, you can't cut it. They don't really care about what gender you are. They're just like if you can't make it up that hill and save someone's life, there's really no point for you to being here. And that's what it's all about.
TIBERII: What it's all about is determining if women can make it in ground combat. Sergeant Rodriguez has deployed twice to Afghanistan as a supply chief. She's been in the Marine Corps for eight years and has been married for seven. Her mission on this day at Camp LeJeune is to complete an initial physical. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh are looking at speed, strength and susceptibility to injury, among other things. Rodriguez moves from the treadmill to the bike.
SERGEANT JOHN DOBER: Let go, let's go, let's go. You're doing great. Finish strong. Let's go. Dig it, dig it, dig it, dig it - ten seconds, ten seconds. Come on.
TIBERII: The 5 foot 1, 135 pound native of Queens, New York has her hair tied back. Sweat beads through the T-shirt. Rodriguez is one of about a hundred women who are part of a military experiment.
DOBER: Somebody thinks that we need to take a harder look at things, and that's when we're going to do.
TIBERII: First Sergeant John Dober has been the core 15 years. About 300 men are also in this first-ever task force of men and women. The experiment is working to determine if women will be allowed to fight in infantry, artillery and armor units. Sergeant Dober concedes this is a sensitive topic, but says his orders are clear. Train all of his Marines - men and women.
DOBER: So as far as what anybody thinks or what our feelings are - it doesn't matter. We're going to do this. And we're going to do it smartly. We're going to do it efficiently. We're going to do it scientifically, methodically. And we're going to turn some data in. Somebody is going to analyze it. And then we're going to do what we're told.
TIBERII: The Marines will train here in North Carolina, than the Mojave Desert and at 16,000 feet above sea level in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Results of that training, as well as data collected by the researchers, will be turned over to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. The Pentagon must decide by 2016 whether women can serve in ground combat. This experiment isn't just about what women are capable of. It's also about whether the Marines have the right standards. Are pull-ups the best measure of upper body strength, for example? So the experiment includes training exercises that test strength and shooting accuracy. Long hikes with heavy packs will test endurance. Sergeant Rodriguez finished her six mile hike carrying an 80 pound backpack a day after her treadmill test.
TIBERII: Pack today about how heavy? How does that feel come mile 5, 5 and a half?
RODRIGUEZ: To be quite honest with you, if you pack your gear right and you sit it on your body well, especially for females that we have, like, the hip area, you barely even feel it.
TIBERII: For her this training about having an opportunity and trying to prove she can do it. She's not sure what the answer is yet.
RODRIGUEZ: My worry is not about being able to, it's about being as fast as the other guys. I know that I can pick you up. That's not a problem. But I know that I'm not going to pick you up as fast as - and run with you as fast as he can.
TIBERII: How she does could determine if women will be fighting on the ground in the next war. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Tiberii .
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