The Marine Corps will open a stateside combat unit to women to collect data for the military's overall effort to integrate them into combat roles by 2016.
Females will make up a quarter of the 460-Marine unit and be placed in infantry squads, artillery gun sections, and tank crews, officials said. A male Marine will serve as the commander and a female Marine will be placed as the task force sergeant major.
The unit will be called the Ground Combat Element Experimental Task Force. Its purpose will be to "evaluate the physical performance of individual Marine volunteers in the execution of individual and collective tasks in an operational environment," according to a release from the Corps.
Capt. Maureen Krebs, a spokeswoman for the service, said all Marines will be receiving informational material and volunteers will be requested later this spring. The unit was expected to be formed in the fall at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Krebs said.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced in 2013 the Pentagon's plan to open combat roles to women by 2016. Since then, the Marine Corps has taken a lead in collecting research and testing women in jobs previously limited to men.
In November 2013, the three female Marines became the first women to graduate from the Marine's enlisted infantry training course. So far, 40 female Marines have completed it. The Marine Infantry Officer Course was also opened to women, though of the 14 women to try, none have yet graduated.
A year earlier, the Corps assigned active-duty female company officers, gunnery sergeants and staff sergeants in non-combat military occupation specialties to 20 previously all-male battalion-sized units.
This time, women will be serving in combat roles to test if they can withstand the physical rigors of the jobs. After the Task Force takes effect, leaders will assess the female Marines' performance through the summer of 2015.
Men and women will have to meet the same physical standard within the Task Force. The exact specifications of that standard have yet to be decided.
Much of the debate over women entering combat roles has revolved around physical standards.
This week, the Army tested 89 male soldiers and 58 female soldiers at Fort Stewart, Ga., in a variety of typical combat tasks to figure out what the standards should be. The soldiers carried ammunition cans, dragged wounded comrades, and loaded 65-pound anti-tank missiles among other combat activities.
Military brass has made a point to emphasize that physical standards will not be lowered to accommodate women and those requirements remain a challenge for both genders.
The Marines will need the cooperation of the Army in setting up the Task Force, Krebs said.
Women volunteers who lack training in the military occupational specialty for which they apply will have to go to the training school for the MOS before joining the Task Force. In the case of artillery and tanks, that would mean an Army school.
"We're working extremely closely with the Army on this," Krebs said. "We're building this from the ground up."