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A Visit To A Marine Base As Marines Test Whether Women Can Serve In Ground Combat

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The Marines are trying to learn whether women can serve in ground combat - that means infantry, armor and artillery. But this test is a little different. It's not just about whether women can march 15 miles or carry a hundred pounds on their back. The Marines are also testing whether their standards are the right ones. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is just back from the Marine training base at Twentynine Palms in the Mojave Desert. And Tom, can you tell us what this training unit is like?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, you have to think of this like a deployed Marine unit. So it's about 300 men, 100 women. They started training up for this mock deployment at Camp Lejeune, N.C., last fall. And you have infantry, artillery and armor. And we saw all three out in the Mojave Desert. Now, one of the women in the armor unit was Lance Corporal Paula Pineda.

PAULA PINEDA: Oh, I've heard about it all. You can't do it. You're not able to do it. You guys - females don't belong in infantry. But it's a matter of just proving them wrong. It's motivation. It's that negative energy that we have to feed off of and prove them that we actually can.

BOWMAN: What were you doing in the Marine Corps before you came here?

PINEDA: I was motor transport back in Okinawa. So it's a little bit similar but just with bigger guns, and we get to shoot a lot more. Being able to pull the trigger and knowing that you killed the target, it's a good feeling. It's an awesome feeling.

MCEVERS: Wow, so, I mean, it sounds like she thinks she can handle this. How are most of the women doing so far?

BOWMAN: Well, she definitely thinks she can handle it. You can hear it in her voice. But as we were watching the women, it clearly took them longer to, let's say, lift a 220-pound dummy. So there's a strength issue here, Kelly. And in ground combat, you need upper body strength.

MCEVERS: Right. Well, I mean, are the men struggling, too?

BOWMAN: Well, some of them are. We didn't get numbers for how many men have dropped out, but we were told that in one company -Alpha Company, the infantry company - we were told initially about half of the roughly two dozen women already have dropped out. One of the women still in Alpha Company is Sergeant Kelly Brown. She talked about the challenges the women are facing.

KELLY BROWN: I weigh about 130 pounds. So I'm carrying pretty close to my body weight, but, you know, you get stronger. It still hurts every time, but it gets easier every time. You know, women are built different than men. And the weight sits, you know, heavy on your hips. And some of the females were great - were doing a great job. And it's just, you know, the hips - you know, stress fractures and things like that in the hips. There's not a whole lot.

BOWMAN: So she's sitting on one of the big differences between men and women. Women may be able to shoot as well or better than a male Marine. But in all these jobs, endurance, upper body strength is key.

MCEVERS: OK. But does it have to be the key? I mean, isn't part of this exercise designed to figure out if the Marines are testing for the right things? I mean, does it matter if you can do six pull-ups, say, instead of 10?

BOWMAN: Well, upper body strength is necessary. You know, that artillery shell weighs 110 pounds. Now, women are building up their strength. They're hitting the gym, and in some cases, they're coming up with different techniques. So Lance Corporal Pineda, who we just heard from, you know, she had to change a 170-pound tire. Now, rather than use her arms like the guys would, she flopped on her back and used her legs to actually push this tire into place - so different techniques.

But as you said, this is an experiment that also is going to evaluate the standards for everybody - for men and women. So what does it take? What kind of exercises, events or testing are necessary to see if a Marine is ready for this kind of job?

MCEVERS: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.