Marines Gear Up For Women In Combat, But Will They Sign Up?

Mar 28, 2016
Originally published on March 31, 2016 2:14 pm

The Marines will begin training the first women for ground combat jobs in June. But it could be a challenge because so far no women recruits have signed up for armor, artillery or infantry positions.

In addition, some 200 women Marines already completed ground combat training last year as part of an experiment. But so far they have chosen to stay in their current jobs, ranging from truck drivers to comptrollers to helicopter refuelers, and have not opted to switch to combat jobs.

There are potential candidates: More than 200 women Marines already completed ground combat training as part of an experiment. But the Marines are still waiting for applications.

Just a year ago, Marine Capt. Ray Kaster was leading his infantry company during training in the Mojave Desert. Male and female Marines ran across the sand, shooting at pop-up targets. It was part of the effort to see if women could make it in the unforgiving world of ground combat. Living in the dirt, carrying a pack weighing more than 100 pounds.

The physical demands cost Kaster about half of the women in his company.

"The majority of those were injuries," he says, citing hip and leg injuries, including fractures.

Since then, Defense Secretary Ash Carter opened armor, artillery and infantry jobs to women — though the Marine Corps wanted to keep infantry jobs closed to females. The women in the experiment, the Marine leadership said, did not perform as well as the men.

Kaster, a combat veteran who's now at Camp LeJeune, N.C., expressed doubts about the future of women in ground combat.

"I don't think there's going to be a giant rush of female Marines, or current female Marines, who want to be in the infantry," he says. "It is a very difficult way of life. It is not a job. It's a lifestyle. It's who you are; it's what you do."

Around 100 women Marines made it through the nearly year-long Marine experiment, including desert and mountain training. Some women trained in artillery, others in tanks or infantry. Another 100 or so current Marines went through basic infantry training at Camp LeJeune.

"There are absolutely female Marines out there that can do the job," Kaster says. "The concern that I have as a leader is how long can that be sustained? As you know, from what we saw is that the injury rates were very high."

No Applicants To Date

So far not one of these 200 women Marines has stepped forward for a career move to artillery, infantry or armored vehicles.

Brig. Gen. James Glynn, a Marine Corps spokesman, said he suspects they want to stay in their current Marine jobs, like driving trucks or refueling helicopters.

"What we've learned from talking with some of them is it doesn't mean that their aren't intentions to do so," he says. "It's a matter of where are you in your career and does it fit inside your career."

Col. Anne Weinberg, who was involved in the training effort, says she still expects recruits to step forward.

"What's really going to be telling is the civilian female coming in and wanting to be into those ground combat arms," she says.

The Marines are reaching out to those civilians who signed enlistment contracts, telling them they can now go into combat arms. But so far, not a bite.

Still, the Pentagon estimates that 200 women will sign up each year for Marine ground combat jobs.

In the meantime, the Marines are preparing for women in the combat ranks.

They're starting to send women sergeants and officers to ground combat units to work in support jobs, like logistics or intelligence.

Col. Weinberg said women leaders in those jobs will serve as mentors to women recruits. They'll also send a subtle message to male Marines by "acculturating the males to see that there's a competent female that is doing her job and she's hanging with us and she's out there in the field with us just like every other male."

The Marines are also coming up with better physical training for women, so they don't wash out with shin splints or fractures.

Kaster has some recommendations on that: pull-ups, and hiking with a 60-pound pack.

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Later this spring, the Marines will begin training the first women for ground combat jobs, although it's unclear how many women will even be there to take the training because, so far, no women have signed up for armor, artillery or infantry positions. That includes the more than 200 female Marines who completed ground combat training as part of an experiment. NPR's Tom Bowman tried to find out why so few women are signing up to go the distance.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: It was just a year ago that Capt. Ray Kaster was leading his infantry company during training in the Mohave Desert. Male and female Marines ran across the sand, shooting at pop-up targets, all part of the effort to see if women can make it in the unforgiving world of ground combat - living in the dirt, carrying a pack weighing more than 100 pounds. Already, the physical demands have cost Kaster about half of the women in his company.

RAY 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: Since then, Defense Secretary Ash Carter opened armor, artillery and infantry jobs to women, even though the Marine Corps wanted to keep those infantry jobs closed. The women in the experiment, the Marine leadership said, did not perform as well as the men. So I reached out to Capt. Kaster, a combat veteran, at his base, Camp LeJeune, N.C., for his thoughts about the future with women in ground combat.

KASTER: I don't think that there's going to be a giant rush of soon-to-be female Marines or current female Marines that want to be in the infantry. It is a very difficult way of life. It is not a job. It is a lifestyle. It is who you are. It's what you do.

BOWMAN: Around 100 women Marines made it through that nearly year-long Marine experiment with Capt. Kaster and others. It included desert and mountain training. Some women trained in artillery, others in tanks or infantry. And another hundred or so current women Marines went through basic infantry training at Camp LeJeune.

KASTER: There are absolutely female Marines out there that could do the job. The concern that I have as a leader is, how long can that be sustained, because as you know, what we saw was that the injury rates were very high.

BOWMAN: So far, not one of those women Marines has stepped forward for a career move to artillery, infantry or armored vehicles. Brig. Gen. James Glynn, a Marine Corps spokesman, said he suspects they want to stay in their current Marine jobs, like driving trucks or refueling helicopters.

JAMES GLYNN: What we've learned from talking to some of them is it doesn't mean that there aren't intentions to do so. There's a matter of it - you know, where does it fit? Where are you in your career, and where does it fit inside your career?

BOWMAN: And Col. Anne Weinberg, who took part in the training effort, says she still expects recruits to step forward.

ANNE WEINBERG: What's really going to be telling is, you know, the civilian females coming in and wanting to be into those ground combat arms. That's what's really going to be telling, I think.

BOWMAN: The Marines are reaching out to those civilians who signed enlistment contracts, telling them they can now go into combat arms. So far, not a bite. Still, the Pentagon estimates that 200 women will sign up each year for Marine ground combat jobs. In the meantime, the Marines are preparing for women in those combat ranks. They're starting to send women sergeants and officers to ground combat units to work in support jobs, like logistics or intelligence. Colonel Weinberg said women leaders in those jobs will serve as mentors to women recruits. They'll also send a subtle message to male Marines.

WEINBERG: And acculturating the males to seeing that there's a competent female that is doing her job, and she's hanging with us, and she's out there in the field with us just like every other - other male.

BOWMAN: And the Marines are coming up with better physical training for women so they don't wash out with shin splints or fractures. Capt. Kaster has some recommendations on that - pull ups and hiking with a 60 pound pack. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.