As Women Try Out For Armor Units, 'If You Can Hack It, You Can Hack It' As part of an experiment, the men and women of a Marine armor unit are being assessed on difficult physical tasks, such as hooking up heavy towing gear. The women are keeping up, but it's a struggle.

As Women Try Out For Armor Units, 'If You Can Hack It, You Can Hack It'

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In California's Mojave Desert, female Marines are training alongside males. Their efforts are meant to help decide if women can serve in the unforgiving world of ground combat. The answer might not be a simple yes or no. Ground combat can mean different things. The life of a Marine on foot - the classic grunt - is different than it is for those who are using - I was about to say manning artillery and armor. Those specialties may offer women a better chance. NPR's Tom Bowman reports.

LANCE CORPORAL PAULA PINEDA: Got it?

LANCE CORPORAL JULIA CARROLL: Yep.

PINEDA: Turn around. To your right, to your right, to your right.

CARROLL: His foot's stuck.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Lance Corporals Paula Pineda and Julia Carroll are struggling this morning with Carl.

PINEDA: Yeah. You're good. I got it. Let's go.

CARROLL: I can't get up.

PINEDA: You got it.

BOWMAN: Carl's a 220-pound dummy. He simulates a wounded Marine. Julia Carroll's knees buckle for a moment. And as a dusty wind picks up, the two women pull Carl out of their light armored vehicle. They carry him to safety, careful not to let his head drag on the rocky ground.

PINEDA: Slow down, slow down, slow down.

BOWMAN: Both women are out of breath. I caught up with Lance Corporal Pineda.

I'm Tom Bowman.

PINEDA: Pineda. Nice to meet you. Yes.

BOWMAN: So what are you doing here, doing this?

PINEDA: Making history.

BOWMAN: She's just 5-foot-2, 21 and from LA. Last summer, she was driving Marine trucks in Okinawa. Now she wants to be a warrior. On the back of her helmet is a piece of masking tape with the words mad Max.

PINEDA: This is bigger than us. It's bigger than us. Right now, we can't see the big picture. But in a couple years, we'll the difference on how females can work alongside with males in an infantry unit, yes.

BOWMAN: You always wanted to do this?

PINEDA: Yes.

BOWMAN: How come?

PINEDA: Your adrenaline's rushing. You're pumping - trying to save lives, make a difference.

BOWMAN: Weather Pineda and the other women will work alongside male Marines in ground combat units is an open question. And it's why they're here in the Mojave desert for the next month before moving on for more training on the California coast. The Pentagon has lifted the ban on women serving in infantry armor and artillery units. Now the Marines and the Army are testing to make sure that's a good idea. The top generals could request an exception by the end of the year. Already, about half the women in Alpha Company, the infantry unit here, have dropped out, mostly because of injuries. But nearly all the women with Bravo Company, a unit of tanks and armored vehicles, are still training.

CAPTAIN ALEXANDER PURATY: This is all my show here.

BOWMAN: Oh yeah?

PURATY: I'm company commander.

BOWMAN: Captain Alexander Puraty is a combat veteran who commands Bravo Company. He has around a hundred Marines for this experiment, including about 20 women.

PURATY: From day one, we just treat everybody like Marines. It's kind of been the viewpoint that I put out there - that Marines are Marines. And I don't care.

BOWMAN: So men and women must complete the same exercises. But some of the female Marines here are struggling. They're taking more time pulling the dummy Carl to safety, setting up a tow line for the armored vehicle or changing a tire that weighs about 170 pounds. Captain Puraty knows there are some who say women just don't belong in ground combat.

PURATY: Everybody has a different opinion about it. And I know it gets pretty contentious, but...

BOWMAN: What's your opinion?

PURATY: Oh, we'll see how the data goes. I want to see how this experiment turns out.

BOWMAN: The experiment continues. Lance Corporals Pineda and Julia Carroll get ready to change one of the massive tires on the armored vehicle. Corporal Ryan Donk is part of the team.

CORPORAL RYAN DONK: Lift up. All right, drop it.

BOWMAN: Them men use their arms to change the tire. Pineda flops on her back in the dirt, using her stronger leg muscles to push the tire into place.

CORPORAL THOMAS DEBATT: They use everything to their advantage that they can. I mean, they just have a different technique.

BOWMAN: Corporal Thomas Debatt is a veteran armored crewmember.

DEBATT: There's no task they can't complete that any man can complete. It's all pretty much the same.

BOWMAN: But Corporal Donk, who helped the women change the tire, is more circumspect.

DONK: I mean, they're putting out their best effort. At the end of this, the data will show what the Marine Corps needs to do to move in whatever direction they choose to.

BOWMAN: And what you think from what you've seen? Can women be part of this crew?

DONK: I'm going to decline that question.

BOWMAN: Nearby, Lance Corporal Brittany Dunklee is trash-talking with the men. She says those who oppose women in combat are stuck in the old ways.

LANCE CORPORAL BRITTANY DUNKLEE: A lot of our men here - they're very supportive. And if you can hack it, you can hack it.

BOWMAN: Last year, she could do one pull-up. Now she can knock out seven.

DUNKLEE: I know a lot of males that can't do what I can do. But as long as you can do it, there's no reason why you shouldn't be in combat.

BOWMAN: She's just 19, small and wiry with an intense, dark stare. As a high school wrestler, she took on the boys.

DUNKLEE: I kicked some boys' [expletive].

BOWMAN: Her future - she hopes to be a first sergeant leading Marines in combat. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Twentynine Palms, Calif.

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