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The Marine Corps is trying to determine whether women can serve in ground combat jobs - artillery, armor and infantry. So they've set up a months-long training exercise for female and male Marines. The exercise recently moved to California's Mojave Desert. NPR's Tom Bowman focuses now on what many say is the most grueling job in ground combat - the infantry.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: More than a dozen Marines from Alpha Company fan out across the desert. A machine gun gives them cover. Some drop to one knee. Others fall on their stomachs, firing at pop-up targets. Only one woman is part of this attack - Sergeant Kelly Brown. Until last fall, she was fueling helicopters and trucks. Now she's running with an assault rifle.
CAPTAIN RAY KASTER: Sergeant Brown - she's a good Marine. She's adapted well.
BOWMAN: Captain Ray Kaster is Alpha Company commander. He walks up a gravel road toward the training range.
KASTER: She's a natural leader. She's been very good for us - you know, good to have a positive influence amongst the females, especially...
BOWMAN: But among a dwindling number of females - Captain Kaster estimates he's lost about half of them though Marine officials later say about one-third of the nearly 30 women dropped out of the infantry training.
KASTER: 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: And Kaster says the injuries come from the heavy load an infantry Marine must carry - weapons, ammunition, a pack that can weigh from 50 pounds to more than 100.
CORPORAL JASMINE ABREGO: It don't matter. I can put it in my what's the name.
KASTER: Number two?
SERGEANT KELLY BROWN: I have ammo.
KASTER: All right. Unload it. Number three?
BOWMAN: The exercise is over, and Sergeant Kelly Brown unloads her weapon, pulls off her helmet and body armor. She's 30, lean and athletic. She played softball at Virginia Tech. Her grandfather's service as a Marine in Korea and Vietnam inspired her and landed her on this desert range with these male and female volunteers. Her biggest challenge?
BROWN: I would say definitely the hiking and being able to carry that amount of weight 'cause the standard is 114 pounds. That's almost close to my body weight.
BOWMAN: And what do you weigh?
BROWN: I weigh about 130 pounds, so I'm carrying pretty close to my body weight. But, you know, you get stronger. Your shoulders get stronger. Your back gets stronger.
BOWMAN: Brown may be getting stronger, but she says some of the other women were overwhelmed by the load. The Marines had no immediate figures for the men who dropped but say the number is far less.
BROWN: Some of the females were great - were doing a great job. And it's just, you know, the hips - you know, stress fractures and things like that in the hips.
BOWMAN: Marines must carry the extra weight - food and water, ammunition and extra clothing - for a combat mission where re-supply is difficult. Brown says female Marines can shift the weight of the pack off the hips to the shoulders to prevent injuries. And she says more conditioning helps. For Corporal Jasmine Abrego, who's also training here, it's about attitude.
ABREGO: Mentally, it's just being strong. And get stronger - you just push yourself through it. That's what I've been doing.
BOWMAN: Abrego is just 5-foot-1. She left her job as a Marine clerical worker to train for the infantry and, as she put it, kick bad guys' butts.
ABREGO: I've never wanted to quit. Like, God, this really sucks. But most of the time, just, like - I'm still here - still going to do it.
BOWMAN: This infantry exercise goes beyond just physical strength. Marines are supposed to fight and win. That's where those targets on this desert range come in. Sergeant Brown and the other Marines have sensors on their weapons to determine who hit the target. Watching all of this is Paul Johnson. He's a civilian scientist who designed this and other tests. He wears a blue sweatshirt with the words in touch with my inner dork. He sits in a small room inside a tower that rises above the range. A computer screen displays the human silhouette targets scattered around the range.
PAUL JOHNSON: So really what they're shooting at is the top half from about the waist up.
BOWMAN: So it looks like a little soldier on the screen there.
JOHNSON: It does.
BOWMAN: Johnson's experiment will show how a Marine attack performs with all men in a squad, then with one woman taking part, then two women. The number of females is kept low to reflect reality. Women just make up 7 percent of the Marine Corps. Johnson says he doesn't know the answer to a key question - how are the women doing at killing the enemy?
JOHNSON: I look at the data, at this point in the experiment, blind. I don't know which squad - what the makeup of the squad is. I deliberately avoid...
BOWMAN: Doesn't it drive you crazy? Don't you want to know?
JOHNSON: You know what? I didn't ask what my kid was going to be before it was born when they did the sonogram.
BOWMAN: Johnson will have those answers by the summer when he files his report to the Marine leadership. Based on this and other data, the Marines will have to decide - do they open up ground combat to women or ask for an exception? Captain Ray Kaster, Alpha Company commander, says the bottom line in all of this is combat effectiveness. Can women Marines carry the load and kill the enemy?
KASTER: And that's what this will show - is there a difference? Does having a high or low female concentration in an infantry rifle squad - does that inhibit or complement, enhance the ability of that unit to fight?
BOWMAN: Meanwhile, all the Marines, male and female, continue to train in the desert, shooting at targets, digging defenses, carrying the load. Next up, a nearly five-mile hike with a fairly light pack around 55 pounds. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Twentynine Palms, Calif.
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