Combat Leaders Mull Equal Standards for Women

Female soldiers

The heads of U.S. Special Operations Command said women will be welcomed into America’s elite combat units as long as they can meet the same physical standards as men.

Retired Amy Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick just hopes females will be judged as fairly as their male counterparts.

Helmick, who once commanded the physically and mentally grueling U.S. Army Ranger School, said he applauds the Pentagon’s recent decision to allow women to serve in direct combat units.

 “It is inevitable that there is going to be a female that is going to go to Ranger School and quite honestly, I think that is a good thing as long as the standards do not change,” Helmick said. “The biggest challenge that the Army will have is to ensure that the instructors and the chain of command are making the playing field level for everybody.”

While mostly supportive, direct-action combat arms communities such as special operations and infantry forces continue to react to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s decision to lift the ban that would open up about 237,000 combat-arms jobs to women.

Navy Rear Adm. Sean Pybus, head of the Naval Special Warfare Command, pointed to the SEAL trident on his uniform and then explained how he could foresee a future when a woman would earn one of her own.

“I have no doubt that women will be provided the opportunity to attempt to qualify for this operational device. And I suspect there will be some who meet the challenge,” Pybus said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict Symposium on Wednesday. “But first it’s about providing the opportunity. Do you meet the qualifications to allow you the opportunity to go through training and then we’ll see where that goes.”

Maj. Gen. Mark Clark, the head of Marine Special Operations Command, agreed with Pybus saying he felt select women would be able to meet some of the standards for the front line jobs currently filled exclusively by male Marines.

Heading into the reviews that will be done by Special Operations Command, he said he couldn’t think of any specific concerns.

“I’m sure there are some women out there who would be able to pass some of the standards that are established there today,” Clark said. “As far as concerns, we don’t have any at this point.”

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos began opening combat-training opportunities to women with his decision last year to admit females on an experimental basis to the service’s Infantry Officer Course, a mentally and physically challenging program that Marines must complete to become rifle platoon leaders.

And Amos said his branch also wants to gauge how much interest there is among women to join the infantry units and whether enough can qualify for those units. If there is little interest or few can pass the infantry officers school, then certain positions may be closed to women.

But he emphasized that military leaders want to ensure the military continues to be an effective war-fighting force. And if the data and analysis support closing some positions, he believes the defense secretary will support that.

"I have every expectation that the secretary of defense will honor that," Amos said. "It's a commonsense approach to this thing."

The Marine Corps opened its tough infantry course at Quantico, Va., to female volunteers last fall. Two tried unsuccessfully in the first session. In the second session, none signed up. Amos said two female lieutenants have signed up for the third session that will start in March.

Amos said he met with them Monday.

"They're stalwart," he said. "It looks like they're in great shape and they're excited about it."

Army Ranger School is another punishing course that many young infantry leaders, both officers and sergeants, are encouraged to complete. The 61-day course pushes students to their mental and physical limits.

Ranger students are expected to perform on limited rations and about 3.5 hours of sleep a day. They typically wear and carry 65 to 90 pounds of weapons, equipment, and training ammunition while patrolling more than 200 miles throughout the course.

The graduation rate for Ranger School is just over 50 percent. And about 60 percent of all course failures occur in the first few days which students must complete a Ranger physical fitness test:

-- A minimum of 49 pushups in two minutes.

-- A minimum of 59 sit-ups in two minutes.

-- A 5 mile run in 40 minutes or less conducted in platoon-sized formation.

During the first week, students must also complete a 16-mile hike within 5 hours and 20 minutes, carrying a 65-pound pack and a combat water survival test which includes a 15-meter swim with load-bearing equipment and a rifle.

“It’s not that they aren’t physically fit; when you do a PT test in Ranger School, you get evaluated to a specific standard,” Helmick said. “When you are doing pushups, you have to do a good pushup. It’s not like when you are in your unit sometimes and people don’t make you do your best. You either meet the standard or you don’t meet the standard.”

Army Lt. Gen. Robert Cone, commander of Training and Doctrine Command, has made it clear that women who want to serve in direct-action combat units will have to pass the same standards as men.

One of the biggest challenges for Army leaders will be to ensure that cultural biases in the training institutions don’t create unfair conditions for women attempting to gain entry into combat-arms schools and units, Helmick said.

“Some of the instructors that are there in these schools will probably say ‘Hey, I am not going to be the first guy to have a female successfully complete that school,” he said. “We expect all of our instructors to be professional – well, there is a lot of stuff that goes on in the middle of the night that nobody knows about unless commanders are out there checking.”

At the same time, Helmick said that females that don’t meet the standard must not be allowed to pass.

“I think it is going to be an issue if a female fails the standard and is kind of accepted into the organization. I think that would be a huge mistake,” he said.

“Let’s face it, the female that desires to be in that organization is not going to be a person who is not mentally tough. It is not going to be a person who is not physically tough and morally and spiritually tough because that is what it takes to get through just the assessment phase of some of these organizations.”

Helmick, who spent 37 years in the Army before retiring in 2012, served in the 75th Ranger Regiment as well as the 82nd Airborne Division, Southern European Task Force (Airborne) and the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).

“Having spent a lot of time in the military, what I have seen is a success story with women,” he said. “We have come a hell of a long way since Grenada in 1983 when I was down there, and we had a female MP come down, and she was the only female MP on that island in a combat role.  Women are a huge part of the success of the United States Army. They are one of the reasons we are so damned good.”

-- Michael Hoffman and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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