Ever since the Pentagon ordered that women can't be barred from combat positions, there has been a lot of talk about what role women might now play in the armed forces, and whether or not they are up for the task. At Georgia's Fort Stewart, 60 female soldiers have been taking part in a study that seeks to answer these questions. Participants have been getting a taste of what it's like to serve in combat, and military officials are testing out a new standard for how to determine a soldier's combat readiness.
The testing at Fort Stewart is a step away from the traditional military focus on physical fitness as a benchmark for readiness. It instead gauges how well soldiers perform actual combat tasks, such as loading 65-pound missiles while wearing 70 pounds of body armor. It sounds grueling, but it's about as fair a standard as there can be for whether of not a soldier is combat ready, which is vastly preferable to flunking female marines over pull-ups.
A recent survey of military personnel revealed that only about eight percent of female soldiers actually want to transfer into combat positions, but those that do are very serious about it. The survey also showed that both men and women are nervous about how placing women in combat positions might affect the armed forces. Men worry they might lose jobs to women. Women worry they might be seen as promoted because of their gender instead of their ability. Nearly all respondents of both genders, however, were adamant that standards should not be lowered to accommodate female soldiers.
Officers agree, which seems to be why they are changing standards rather than lowering them. Given recent stories about how certain physical fitness requirements, such as pull-ups, may be biased against women without being directly relevant to combat ability, testing soldiers on actual combat tasks is a clearly sensible move, and one that, so far, everyone seems to agree on.
The trials at Fort Stewart conclude next month and, in the words of Maj. Gen. Mike Murray, the fort's commanding general, they're probably going to "get studied to death" as the army attempts to prove once and for all that women can handle combat. So far, women have been keeping up. Though initially they lagged well behind their male counterparts at many tasks, both groups have improved and are now roughly equal it seems.
Iraq and Afghanistan veteran Staff Sgt. Terry Kemp, one of the officers helping train the volunteers at Fort Stewart, told the AP, "Those who still insist women can’t perform as well as men in combat “can beat their chests about it all day. But eventually it’s going to happen.” Amen to that!