Army may train women for rigor of front lines

Studies predict injury, attrition

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To graduate from boot camp, soldiers must perform 35 pushups and 47 situps and run two miles in at least 16 minutes and 36 seconds — but that’s only for male soldiers.

Female troops are required to do 13 pushups and 43 situps and run two miles in 19 minutes and 42 seconds.

As the Army weighs integrating women into armor and infantry combat positions, the command in charge of soldier training is looking at requiring women to meet the same physical goals as men.

If wartime studies over the past decade are a guide, the Army can expect an increase in injuries and attrition among female soldiers as they seek to match men in strength and endurance.

The Pentagon bans women from direct combat roles, but this year opened 14,000 support jobs that can put female soldiers closer to the front lines on battlefields.

The Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) is evaluating whether direct combat units should be open to women, and Army officials have talked of making a decision before the November elections.

The Washington Times asked the training command whether it plans to require women to meet the same physical standards as men if female soldiers begin infantry training at Fort Benning, Ga. The command basically said yes.

“In preparation for this potential future decision, TRADOC is starting the long-term process of gathering data to provide the Army decision-makers the information they need to determine the way forward,” the command stated. “That said, an example we currently have would be the Sapper Leader Course, where both female and male soldiers attend. The standards throughout the course are the same for all soldiers who attend.”

The Times earlier this month published a two-part series about two female officers who recently completed the 28-day Sapper combat engineering course.

Since June 2010, women, who make up 2.5 percent of Sapper students, have a graduation rate of 60 percent, compared with 52 percent for men, according to the training command.

The Army’s Ranger School, a 61-day combat leadership course, is still off-limits to female troops. (Ranger School is separate from the 75th Ranger Regiment, the combat special operations unit whose members are classified as Rangers.)

If women were to enter the all-male Ranger School — an option being weighed — they would have to meet physical standards more rigorous than those for men in boot camp.

Would-be Rangers must be able to do at least 49 pushups and 59 situps, run five miles in less than 40 minutes and do six pullups from a dead hang.

Ranger students then face a series of other tests, such as balancing on a beam, crawling across a rope and then dropping 30 feet into water.

The Army’s training command operates Ranger School as a skills-building exercise, and almost all students come from some branch of combat arms. Graduates get to wear a Ranger badge on their uniforms.

At a news conference in May, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno mentioned Ranger School as a possibility to make female soldiers “successful.”

“As we look at our senior infantry officers, about 90 percent of our senior infantry officers are Ranger-qualified,” Gen. Odierno said. “So if we determine that we’re going to allow women to go in the infantry and be successful, they are probably at some time going to have to go through Ranger School.

“We have not made that decision yet, but it’s a factor that I have asked them to take a look at and, again, to come back to us as we look at this problem. We have to look at the all-encompassing problem that we have in terms of if we decide to do this, we want the women to be successful, and how do we make them most successful.”

Women make up about 14.5 percent of the military’s 1.4 million active-duty troops.

Studying women at war

George Wright, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, told The Times last week that Gen. Odierno had not made a decision.

“We are still reviewing current training requirements based on the operational needs of the Army,” he said. “It would be premature for any decisions or recommendations by senior leaders at this time.”

About a dozen nations — including Israel, Norway, Canada and Germany — allow women in combat roles.

Sporadic studies about the effects of training and war on women have been conducted.

In the 1990s, the British army, under political pressure to put women in traditional male jobs, adopted a “gender-free” policy with identical fitness requirements for both sexes and abandoned its “gender fair” system of separate standards.

A decade later, Dr. Ian Gemmel conducted a study for the British army’s personnel center. He found that the number of women who could qualify for basic training decreased in the “gender-free” system, as more women dropped out of training because of injury, compared with the “gender fair” system of separate fitness requirements.

“This study confirms and quantifies the excess risk for women when they undertake the same arduous training as male recruits,” Dr. Gemmel reported.

In a second study, the British Defense Ministry conducted an extensive two-year assessment of women and their ability to perform routine ground combat tasks, such as lifting and carrying gear over certain distances.

Its May 2002 findings, in a report titled “Women in the Armed Forces,” were not encouraging for advocates of women in combat.

The study concluded that only 0.1 percent of female applicants and 1 percent of trained female soldiers “would reach the required standards to meet the demands of these roles.”

“The military viewpoint was that under the conditions of a high intensity close-quarter battle, group cohesion becomes of much greater significance to team performance and, in such an environment, the consequences of failure can have far-reaching and grave consequences,” the report stated. “To admit women would, therefore, involve a risk with no gains in terms of combat effectiveness to offset it.”

In 2010, the British government reviewed its policies and opted to retain the ban on women in combat.

That year, a group of U.S. Army physicians studied one brigade combat team deployed to Iraq in 2007.

Their study, published in the journal Military Medicine, examined the number of soldiers who sustained a disease or noncombat injury. Of 4,122 soldiers (325 women in support roles), 1,324 had a disease or injury that forced them to miss time or be evacuated.

“Females, compared with males, had a significantly increased incident-rate ratio for becoming a [disease or noncombat] casualty,” the doctors found.

Of 47 female soldiers evacuated from the brigade, 35 — or 74 percent — were for “pregnancy-related issues.” Women had more than triple the evacuation rate of men.

“I infer from this that women are twice as likely to suffer non-battle injuries in current specialties,” William Gregor, a professor of social sciences at the Army’s Command and Staff College, told The Times. “They will probably have a greater injury rate in heavy physical occupational specialties and the combat arms. The British experience with gender-free or neutral training standards suggests the injury rate will dramatically increase.”

Fight load and body bags

Last year, Mr. Gregor presented a lengthy paper at an armed forces seminar in Chicago that concluded: “The physical capacity of women is significantly less than that of men and even more difficult to sustain. Women are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to performing military physical tasks because they have a significantly higher percentage of body fat and generally much lower total lean mass.”

As an example, Mr. Gregor examined physical fitness test results from Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) dating back to 1992 and 74,000 records of male and female commissioned officers. Looking at pushups and the two-mile run, he found that only 2.9 percent of women were able to attain the men’s mean score.

The “fight load” — the gear an infantryman carries on patrol — is 35 percent of the average man’s body weight but 50 percent of the average Army woman’s weight, Mr. Gregor found.

“The increased weight of the combat load combined with the high altitude in Afghanistan has placed a premium on strength and aerobic capacity and presents a significant challenge to sustaining performance in continuous operations,” Mr. Gregor said.

In tests of aerobic capacity, the records show, only 74 of 8,385 ROTC women attained the level of the lowest 16 percent of men.

“No training system can close this gap,” he said. “The reason men and women cannot truly be trained together is not a matter of attitude. It is physical.

“The difference in male and female body composition and the components of strength and endurance training are firm obstacles to designing mutually beneficial training events.”

Retired Army Brig. Gen. Maureen K. LeBoeuf, a helicopter pilot by training who ran the physical education department at West Point, said opponents of putting military women in new positions always raise strength and fitness issues.

“The big argument is always the physical component,” Gen. LeBoeuf told The Times. “There was a time people didn’t think women could go to the academies because of the physical piece. Women have been at the academies since 1976. And they’re absolutely successful.”

Then there’s the specter of body bags.

“The argument used to be that the people of the United States are not ready to see women coming back from war in body bags,” she said. “And the reality is women have come back from war in body bags and women are suffering the same kinds of issues that men have suffered in combat because they are in combat.”

Today, she said, with women showing that they can perform in support jobs in a war zone, taking and returning fire in gun battles with insurgents, now is the time to let them try out for infantry.

“Women can’t rise to the highest ranks in the military because certain specialties are closed to them,” said Gen. LeBoeuf, who serves on a Pentagon advisory committee on women. “Let them into Ranger School. Let them into infantry school. Let them into the armor. I’m confident that there are some women who will be successful.”

She said the same standards for men in infantry school should be applied to women.

“Put them through the infantry officer basic for the officers and infantry course that the enlisted soldiers go through, and see how the women do,” Gen. LeBoeuf said. “Even if there’s one woman, then that woman needs to have that opportunity.”

In February, the Pentagon announced that it was opening 14,000 positions, mostly in the Army, for women in combat support jobs such as intelligence and communication.

George Little, spokesman for Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, told reporters to stay tuned.

“I would like to stress that Secretary Panetta believes that this is the beginning, not the end, of a process,” Mr. Little said. “The services will continue to review positions and requirements to determine what additional positions may be opened to women. Our goal is to ensure that the mission is met with the best-qualified and most-capable people, regardless of gender.”

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