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Marines reignite debate on women in combat

Marines reignite debate on women in combat
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Lawmakers are treading cautiously after news that a majority of female Marine recruits are failing the tests to get into newly open combat jobs.

The high failure rate could indicate a tough road ahead to integrate women into combat jobs and is renewing the contentious debate.

But many lawmakers insist it’s still too early to know how integration is going and are taking a wait-and-see approach. And supporters are holding firm, insisting more time is needed.

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“It’s too early to say, but we’re paying very close attention to implementation,” a minority spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee said Friday. “We’ll be following up in the future on these statistics and others.”

The Associated Press reported this week that six out of seven women who have taken the new physical fitness tests have failed.

Passing the tests means doing six pull-ups; a three-mile run in at most 24:51 minutes; 60 lifts of a 30-pound ammunition can; a half-mile run in combat boots in at most 3:26 minutes; and combat maneuvers such as belly crawling, evacuating a casualty and throwing a grenade in at most 3:12 minutes.

Six out of seven represents an 85.7 percent failure rate, much higher than the men’s rate of 2.7 percent. Forty male recruits failed out of about 1,500.

Aside from giving fodder to opponents of opening the combat jobs to women, the high failure rate could present other challenges. Among them, having only one woman in a unit of men who are not used to working with the other gender.

Studies done while considering whether to open the jobs to women showed male Marines had deep-seated opposition to the prospect.

Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller acknowledged that it will be an adjustment for men to have a woman in the unit.

“I think a lot of the talk is more just maybe they're nervous about the unknown," he told the AP. "But there are some things we're going to have to work through."

The tests were designed after Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced in December that all combat jobs would be open to women without exception.

The Marines were the only service to request some exemptions, citing a study it conducted that found mixed-gender combat units did not perform as well as male-only units.

When Carter announced his decision, some lawmakers supported it with the caveat that physical standards not be lowered.

Military officials have repeatedly vowed not to lower standards, but the lawmakers feared there would be political pressure to do so if women fail to meet them.

One such lawmaker has been Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), the Senate’s first female combat veteran.

Asked this week about the failure rate among female recruits, Ernst said her position has not changed.

“I continue to fully support women serving in any military capacity, as long as standards are not lowered and our combat effectiveness is maintained,” Ernst said in a written statement.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLive coverage: McSally clashes with Sinema in Arizona Senate debate Is there difference between good and bad online election targeting? Murkowski not worried about a Palin challenge MORE (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, declined to comment through a spokesman, who indicated that more would be known about how implementation is going once more data is gathered.

But Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), one of Congress’ staunchest opponents of opening combat jobs to women, said the fitness test results are unsurprising.

“This is what happens when you have a military decision made for political ends,” he said. “Men and women are physically different.”

It’s just a matter of time, he added, before the results are used to lower standards and impose a quota on how many women must be in combat roles.

“They’re going to want to be able to say every two out of however many combat jobs are women,” he said. “It’s purely political. They’re going to have to [lower standards] if women can’t do it. If not, then they’ll say it’s not fair. That’s going to be the argument.”

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who has been a strong supporter of opening combat jobs to women, said seven people is too small a sample size to make any judgment.

“It’s pretty disingenuous to discount an entire gender based on a sample size of seven women,” Speier, ranking member on the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said in a written statement. “Using that logic, more men than women failed the test – should we question whether men have the right to serve in combat?”

Women have already proven themselves, Speier added, such as the three who have graduated from Army Ranger School, one of whom is now the Army’s first female infantry officer.

“These are significant strides that must not be ignored or discounted,” Speier said. “It’s important to make sure both men and women meet certain physical requirements before sending them into combat, but it’s equally important that women be given the opportunity to pursue combat service careers.”