News Column

Women in Combat? Oo-rah, Say Marines

March 22, 2013

Dianna Cahn, The Virginian-Pilot

Even before the secretary of defense announced that the military would rescind the ban on women in combat roles, the Marine Corps was already devising a set of standards to determine who is capable of doing those jobs.

This summer, the Corps will begin testing male and female Marines and correlating the results to determine the best measure of who is physically eligible to serve in combat units.

The Pentagon's decision in January was hailed by many who believe that women who can meet military standards for combat jobs should be allowed to serve.

Marine Corps Col. Susan Seaman offered another view Thursday in a speech to women involved in the defense industry.

Inside the Corps, Seaman said, Marines of all ranks are voicing concerns about whether integrating women into infantry, tank, amphibious assault and other units could end up compromising combat effectiveness.

Seaman leads the headquarters and service battalion at Marine Corps Forces Command in Norfolk. She spoke Thursday to about 50 members of Women in Defense Greater Hampton Roads.

Marines' abiding concern is "ensuring we don't lower our standards thereby lowering our combat effectiveness," said Seaman, who described herself as one of just 16 women colonels in the Corps. "How are we going to balance that? How are we going to balance this need to fully integrate women while maintaining our standards?"

Seaman, who served three combat deployments to Iraq and Kuwait in the first and second Gulf wars, said there are enormous physical demands on combat troops.

A soldier or Marine in a combat zone will carry about 85 pounds of gear even to stand guard, she said. He is loaded down with body armor and a helmet, with battlefield items hooked onto his uniform, in addition to his rifle.

On patrol, a soldier will also carry a rucksack with food, water and job-related equipment.

He needs to move fast despite that weight and might need to put a fallen comrade on his back to haul out of harm's way.

"I've been there and was often unable to move with speed and agility," Seaman said.

So, she asked, what formalized physical standards should a Marine meet to qualify for the infantry?

"For example, does an infantry Marine need to pick up a 120-pound man and go 50 yards with him on his back with all his gear on, or is it a 160-pound man or a 200-pound man?" Seaman said.

Even if women do pass the qualifying tests, they aren't likely to exceed the standard under such tough physical conditions,and might have trouble earning the trust of their peers and subordinates.

"Women in the Marine Corps recognize their physical differences from men, especially after a decade of war and seeing what's expected from the infantry on the battlefield," she said. "And we have real concerns about what women and how many women would really be able to shoulder that load -- and I mean, literally, shoulder the load."

Seaman also noted concerns about sexual dynamics in units traditionally manned by men 21 and younger -- and how these dynamics could affect morale and unit cohesion.

The Marine Corps is already putting women into some combat positions in small numbers to "test the water and see what comes up," she said. The integration should be implemented by 2016.

"My hope is that emotion and good intentions do not affect our ability to prevail in the face of our future enemies," she said.

Source: (c)2013 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

Story Tools Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters