When an Army recruit lands in the all-male infantry school at Fort Benning, Ga., he hits the ground running — literally. And lifting, toting, marching and training in how to survive and succeed amid the chaos of combat.
A drill sergeant puts new soldiers under tremendous physical and mental stress during those first few weeks. Recruits eventually must complete a 12-mile march with equipment-laden rucksacks within five hours and a 5-mile run at a 9-minutes-per-mile pace.
The aim is to assess whether the rookies can meet the demands of gritty, continual warfare in insurgent-plagued Afghanistan or in a great armored land battle on the Korean Peninsula.
The vast majority make it. Of the nearly 4,000 soldiers attending the infantry school at any given time, only 11 percent fail.
Soon, women will join them. The question traditionalists are asking is: Will the standards stay be eased to help females graduate?
The infantry's standards and those of other direct combat jobs are being reviewed to accommodate women, now that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has repealed the ban on women in combat. The armed forces are to report by May on how they plan to introduce women into what has been, for decades, a man's world.
With Republicans lacking the votes to reinstitute the ban as federal law, conservatives are focusing on how to make sure the Pentagon does not lower the standards — and with them, combat readiness — to ensure that female service members graduate.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, signaled to commanders at a news conference that if women cannot meet certain standards to become combat warriors, then the services had better have a good reason why that bar should not be lowered.
He already is getting resistance.
"We've had women in combat for as long as we've had a nation," Douglas Sterner, curator of the Military Times Hall of Valor and a Vietnam combat veteran, told The Washington Times. "Women have demonstrated they are capable of rising to the same level of achievement and accomplishment that men can, so I don't think we need to change any standards. And I don't think most women want to see the standards changed. They want to stand on their own merit."
A retired Green Beret who fought in Afghanistan told The Times: "No undue influence or command pressure there. What would you guess the result will be?
"I'd ask the civilian leadership, if you're are on the third floor of a burning building and aren't ambulatory, do you want to look out the window to see Bruno or Mindy coming up the ladder to carry you down?" he said. "I have personally witnessed women in the military in riot situations where rocks are being thrown at them. They put their hands to their faces because they didn't want scars. The men in the same riot got hit in the face and got mad."
'That was the standard'
At a news conference last month, Gen. Dempsey said: "If we do decide that a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn't make it, the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the secretary: Why is it that high? Does it really have to be that high?"
He also said the goal is to have a significant number of women, not just a few, qualify as land combatants.
Gen. Dempsey said job performance for men and women will be assessed by the same standards. This means that, if a certain standard is to be lowered, it will be reduced for men and for women.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, who flew scores of fighter combat missions over Vietnam, told The Times: "That is most worrisome, because he is saying to the young officers and commanders, 'We are going to challenge your standards, which means your job and career are on the line if you push back on me.'"
John E. Hamilton, the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a former Marine rifleman, issued a statement that served as a warning to military leaders not to tinker too much with combat qualifications.
"We fully recognize that not everyone volunteers for the combat arms career fields, but the VFW wishes all who apply much success in meeting the arduous physical and demanding performance standards," said Mr. Hamilton, a triple Purple Heart recipient for his service in Vietnam. "Societal norms may have changed, but the mission and environment in which our ground forces operate have not."
The top brass have weighed in with statements that seem at odds with Gen. Dempsey's flexible approach.
Navy Adm. William McRaven, a SEAL who heads U.S. Special Operations Command, welcomed women to join, but he signaled that he is not interested in lowering the bar for what some consider the most physically daunting tasks in the military.
"The one thing we want to make sure we maintain is our standards," Adm. McRaven said at a Jan. 29 conference. "We haven't had 'gender standards.' We had no female population to have to worry about gender. We had an all-male population so that was the standard."
Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, told USA Today after the Pentagon announcement last month: "We can't afford to lower standards. We can't make adjustments on what's required on the battlefield."
The Corps was the first to open a closed course to women while Mr. Panetta was planning the ban's removal. It welcomed two female Marine volunteers to the Infantry Officer Course. Neither was able to complete the training. Two other female volunteers are set to try this spring.
Mr. Panetta has pledged no reduction in competence.
"If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job — and let me be clear, I'm not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job — if they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation," he said last month.
Today, that is not the case. At a bare minimum, a female soldier must be able to do 13 pushups and 43 situps to graduate from boot camp. A male infantry school soldier must do 42 pushups and 53 situps, both within two minutes.
Gen. Dempsey, besides broaching the idea of lowering the bar, has suggested a two-tiered system of standards — not based on gender, but on the type of land war being fought.
Fighting a great land battle, compared with conducting a counterinsurgency such as the mission in Afghanistan, requires a "very different environment that requires a different level of physical stamina," the Army general said.
To some Green Berets, whose forte is counterinsurgency, his words seem to be the first step in lowering standards for the Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) process at Camp Mackall, near Fort Bragg, N.C., the heart of Army special operations.
On Day One, Green Beret candidates are subjected to long runs and marches carrying 50-pound rucksacks, navigation tests in austere terrain and water survival. The graduates then move on to team events in which they must lift and carry heavy, bulky items over several miles.
"Those who cannot keep up with their teammates are dropped immediately," an active-duty Green Beret told The Times.
Survivors then go on to even more demanding challenges in the next phase — the qualification course to graduate with the bestowal of the famous Green Beret.
Can women pass such training?
"The challenge for women is not the Army physical fitness test," the Green Beret said. "They can pass the current men's standard without too much difficulty if they are in good shape. The challenge is the miles upon miles they must endure with that 50-pound rucksack while trying to keep their body from falling apart."
This officer agrees with Gen. Dempsey. He said there are soldiers who can excel as a Special Forces warriors yet fall short of some of the more daunting Camp Mackall challenges.
"I would argue that the SFAS standards are far harder than they need to be even for recruiting men," he said. "But the selection programs follow an archaic tradition that overvalues physical fitness and undervalues quality soldiers who are not necessarily built for such a test."
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