Marine Corps women look back on historic combat experiment
By GRETEL C. KOVACH | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: September 2, 2015
SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — Will the Marine Corps fight to keep women out of the infantry? Female Marines who volunteered for research to help the commandant decide that question are eager to find out, along with many others tracking the contentious debate over women in combat.
A landmark policy shift on the horizon could eliminate the last gender restrictions on military employment by the end of this year, opening many front-line ground combat jobs to women for the first time.
The Pentagon included a loophole, however, when it announced the plan in 2013 to open all jobs to women. The services have until the end of this month to apply for exceptions, presenting recommendations to the Defense Secretary and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs based on extensive research.
As the Jan. 1 deadline for full integration approaches, more than 245,000 positions remain closed to women, after the opening in recent years of about 91,000 positions.
Only the Marine Corps — the most male-dominated of the conventional forces and one fervently devoted to its traditions — is expected to lobby for the status quo in some all-male combat units. The Corps also was the only service that sought to retain "Don't Ask Don't Tell" restrictions on gays in the military (and experienced relatively few problems when forced to accept the change.)
Final decisions haven't been announced, but the outgoing heads of the Navy and Army spoke in support of expanded combat roles for women. The conventional Air Force has already integrated women into all jobs. And leaders within U.S. Special Operations Command indicated during public remarks in San Diego and elsewhere that they feel women should be allowed to compete for elite commando jobs like Navy SEAL.
The Aug. 21 graduation of the first two women ever to finish Army Ranger School added momentum to the campaign, demonstrating that some female troops have the mental, physical and tactical strength for one of the military's toughest leadership courses.
The Marine Corps, which is about 93 percent male, has taken a conservative approach to the gender integration program mandated by defense leaders and Congress. The Marines have not added female support staff to infantry units, for example, but the Army has.
Supporters say the Corps is preserving combat effectiveness without regard to politically correct social engineering. Critics say the institution is hobbled by hidebound sexism.
The Marine Corps established the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force at Camp Lejeune, N.C., last year to help gauge the impact of female troops on combat effectiveness. Before the task force deactivated this summer, researchers tracked performance and injury rates among mixed-gender units of infantry, artillery and armored vehicles during an extensive combat assessment at Twentynine Palms and other California bases.
Going into the experiment, the female Marines who served as research subjects had mixed feelings as a group about whether the Corps should accept women in its ground fighting force. Now that their work is done, some are more convinced than ever that it's time to change history.
"I definitely hope I contributed to them letting females eventually into the infantry because I worked my ass off for it and I don't want to see it go to waste," said Lance Cpl. Ashleigh Howell, who served on a light armored vehicle in the experimental task force.
"Mainly for girls down the road who have dreams... They're 15- or 16-years old and they want to fight for their country. If I'm the reason they won't be able to do that just because our trials weren't good enough, that would make me feel pretty (crappy)," said Howell, 19, of Grand Rapids, Mich.
As far as she knows, there's no danger of that, however.
The Corps hasn't released results of the experiment. But it was obvious whose times improved during 10 months of combat drills.
They didn't need the scorekeeper to tell them who was working harder down range — lazy crews got lapped by Marines who started after them.
"All the females, all of us improved over the entire time," Howell said.
She applied her competitive streak and work ethic to mastering her favorite task — gunnery. "My goal is to beat you," she told more experienced comrades the first day they disassembled the main gun.
In time she became faster and more accurate than some of her male counterparts, and Howell was named best female gunner in her platoon at Twentynine Palms.
The real satisfaction was seeing tracers hit the target and hearing "kill-kill-kill" over the radio. "Everyone loves it when you get in the LAV behind the gunner seat. The turret is rotating. Wherever you want it to go, it goes. The three-round burst makes the whole vehicle recoil. It's an awesome feeling," Howell said.
The combat trials at Twentynine Palms were grueling and tedious, involving repetitive tasks like take a gun apart and put it back together half a dozen times. Howell's company got one day off and a shower after each 12-days bivouacked in the desert.
So why does she miss it so? The camaraderie, she said, and the challenge.
Howell was one of seven women in her platoon called "Big Seven." Their motto was "if you can hack it, you can hack it." Despite bruises and aching muscles, all the women made it through more than 70 rounds of combat testing.
"The last few trials it was like, okay, this is it. Give it all we got. This is our last chance to make a good impression. To make a good time. No one gave up hope or heart until the end," Howell said.
Looking back, Howell feels she left the task force a better Marine, because of the serious approach and knowledge of salty riflemen like her platoon sergeant, a Fallujah veteran.
"It made me realize how different the infantry is compared to the more supporting roles of the units," she said.
Howell didn't want the experiment to end. But she stood in formation at a Camp Lejeune field house during the task force's July 15 deactivation ceremony. Col. Matthew St. Clair, their commanding officer, said "I couldn't be more proud."
The Marines rolled out a dolly with "Cpl. Carl," the 220-pound dummy used during combat trials. Howell spent three months pulling him in and out of the turret. "You just stare at him with hatred in your eyes," Howell joked, laughing. "He was heavy. His head fell off. His arms fell off."
The task force Marines were awarded meritorious unit citation ribbons. Then they folded the colors and marched off to their old jobs.
Howell is back to dispersing ammunition for other Marines doing the shooting. Even the excitement of training for her first overseas deployment next year on a Marine Expeditionary Unit can't compare.
"It's definitely bittersweet since we left Twentynine Palms," Howell said, sighing. "It sucks. I wish... I wish we could transfer already. I'm patiently waiting for the call they're going to make. I miss it."
Should women be allowed in the infantry, with "straight leg" forces on foot or traveling in light armored vehicles?
"Yes, of course. 100 percent," she said. "If they can excel, if they can look better than their male counterparts and do just as well as them, then why not?"
If the Marine Corps decides otherwise, that will be hard to accept.
"A lot of us want to stay in the full 20 years. But wow, if the Marine Corps doesn't let us into this MOS (job category) and we've done all we could for it..." Howell said.
Sgt. Mindy Vuong went from computers to cannons when she joined the task force. The data specialist with the 2nd Marine Division served as an artillerywoman for the research.
Building the strength to lug 90-pound howitzer rounds was the most difficult part for an information technologist. "We were all pretty ripped by the end of that," said Vuong, 29, of Seattle.
A couple female Marines in the artillery battery had to drop out of the task force because of injury. Vuong started trials at Twentynine Palms sick with a fever and finished while gritting through a toothache, but she put off a root canal and stuck it out.
By the end of the combat assessment, the artillery teams cut hours off their daily regimen, allowing them to finish around lunchtime instead of dinner.
Vuong considered it a privilege to serve in such an important experiment. "This is the kind of thing I have always thought they should do — a scientific study on whether or not women can handle it. Pretty much every argument I've seen prior to this has been based on personal anecdote.
"I was really excited when I heard about it. I've always thought women can do what they put their minds to," Vuong said.
Did they prove that artillerywomen are capable of serving in combat? "We'll see...," Vuong said.
She might be one of the Marines that recruits yell ditties about someday at boot camp, someone told her.
"I didn't really do it for that," Vuong said. Not for glory. For science.
Vic Brown is still in awe of what his daughter accomplished as an infantry riflewoman. Sgt. Kelly Brown, a 31-year-old bulk fuel specialist, excelled at marksmanship in the task force. She also managed to finish the nearly year-long experiment without injury — a difficult feat for many others assigned to the infantry.
"A lot of women couldn't make it, because of the physical demand. Their bodies just couldn't take it," said the elder Brown, a retired public works technician from Winchester, Va., near the Marine base at Quantico.
Serving in the Corps is tough under any circumstances, especially for a single parent of a toddler like Sgt. Brown. As her parents, "we're just really impressed," Vic Brown said.
Sgt. Brown is preparing to be an instructor, following a rigorous course at Quantico. Her father is conflicted about permanent duty in the infantry if that opportunity arises, because of the danger. "I'm not worried about her physically and mentally doing the job. She's a tough kid," he said.
Brown made his daughter play on the boys' basketball team when she was growing up. She wasn't tall, but she was fast and aggressive, "a bit of a tomboy" with a no-nonsense demeanor. "She actually did really well up until she was about 12 years old. So many parents complained about it I had to take her out," he recalled.
Vic Brown is the son of a career Marine. His younger brother served as well. When his daughter decided to enlist, he was supportive.
"She's always seeking out the tough stuff. The majority of the guys, they kind of frown about women in the Marine Corps.
"There's a reason they call them leathernecks. You've got to have thick skin. She made it all the way through boot camp without crying. There wasn't too many of them girls who could tell you that," Brown said.
A friend walked into the community recreation center shrugging his shoulders after hearing Sgt. Brown on National Public Radio. The retired Army colonel in his 70s muttered: "I don't know, I don't know..."
Vic Brown knows this: his daughter would make a fine infantrywoman. "Honestly I think there's certain things in the ground combat arms that they can do just as well as men. They are just as good or maybe better under pressure."
At 59, "I've gotten to the age I'm realizing that myself," he said.
The Marines have opened about 6,000 positions in ground combat units to women since the military plan to phase in gender-neutral employment standards was announced in January 2013.
Some 25 percent of the Corps' job slots remain closed to female troops, compared to 18 percent in the Army, 2 percent in the Navy, and 1 percent in the Air Force, according to a July report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Special Operations Command, which draws from all four services, has the largest proportion of male-only positions — 41 percent.
According to the Marine Corps, the service has benefited from its first attempts to integrate women on staff all-male units. Commanders studied biases of all kinds, unit cohesion during personnel turnover, and strengths of a diverse force, gaining insights beyond civil rights or gender equity.
"It's making people realize that everyone is different ... everyone brings something different to the fight," said Capt. Maureen Krebs, who served as the Marine Corps' public affairs officer for the gender integration roll-out.
A training toolkit issued last year encourages Marines to look beyond gender to capability, with the recognition that there is often more than one way to accomplish the mission, whether it's hoisting a tank shell overhead or changing a bulky tire.
"You saw that at the integrated task force and the different ways that people were doing things. Once those units were working together for awhile and they realized (the women) could do the job, they looked at them like Marines."
Not female Marines, Krebs said. Just Marines.
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Lance Corporals Brittany R. Dunklee, left, gunner, and Ashleigh Howell, center, driver, carry a simulated casualty while Cpl. Benjamin Alexander, right, vehicle commander, provides security, during the CASEVAC portion of a Marine Corps Operational Test and Evaluation Activity assessment at Twentynine Palms, Calif., in March, 2015.
PAUL S. MARTINEZ/USMC