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The Marine Corps school that produces infantry combat officers will enroll its first-ever female students this year, Marine Corps Times has learned.
As part of the service's extensive research campaign to determine what additional jobs could be opened to women, an undetermined number of volunteers will attend the Infantry Officers Course in Quantico, Va., said Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Corps' assistant commandant. There, Marine officers are groomed to serve in direct combat roles and lead troops into battle.
"We are in the process right now of soliciting volunteers," Dunford said on Wednesday.
It's a monumental — if controversial — move for the Marine Corps, which until now barred female Marines from the program and required instead that they attend other courses aimed at preparing them for assignments in support roles such as logistics, personnel administration and aircraft maintenance, among others.
Soon, enlisted women also will have an opportunity to attend infantry training, Dunford said. Marine officials are developing plans to assign female Marines to the Corps' Infantry Training Battalions, which fall under the Schools of the Infantry.
Officials don't yet know how many women — officer or enlisted — will be put into the academic pipeline for the Corps' "03" infantry occupational code, Dunford said. All will be volunteers — and it remains to be seen how many will answer the call, he said.
It's not immediately clear either what the next steps will be for those women who successfully complete the Corps' infantry training programs. Marine officials at Quantico, who have led the service's effort to explore lifting restrictions on women in combat, said these details are finalized, but declined to discuss them pending an official unveiling in the coming days.
The Marine Corps' top general, Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, traveled Wednesday to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where among other business he was expected to meet with Marines and explain the service's plans for expanding women's career opportunities, Dunford said. Amos was joined by his senior enlisted adviser, Sgt. Maj. Mike Barrett.
"I think the important thing for us is to articulate the commandant's intent, and to explain what he is doing and why he is doing it," Dunford said. "The best way to do that is face-to-face, and he, with the sergeant major … is doing that right now."
The Corps has been studying this issue for more than a year. In February, officials announced that company-grade officers and staff noncommissioned officers would be assigned for the first time to select jobs previously open only to men, though not in the infantry or any billets for which ground combat is a primary mission. Starting in May, women will be considered for about 400 positions within six types of battalions:
• Amphibious assault
• Combat assault
• Combat engineer
• Low-altitude air defense
Additionally, new functional fitness tests are being developed to help Marine Corps leaders determine how women and men perform in, and cope with, various combat tasks. The goal is to establish "gender-neutral" physical fitness standards. Details are scant, but the Marine Corps' Training and Education Command is looking to purchase a variety of new equipment specifically for these tests, suggesting the tasks associated with them will closely mimic combat-essential duties such as operating and moving heavy weaponry, and carrying casualties from the battlefield.
The Marine Corps defines gender-neutral physical standards as being identical for men and women, rather than weighted — or "gender-normed" — like those applied in the service's annual Physical Fitness Test. During the PFT, women can earn a minimum or maximum score with fewer repetitions and a slower run times than their male counterparts.
This suggests that women wanting to serve in ground combat units will be given the shot to do so only if they can keep pace with their male counterparts. Standards would likely evaluate Marines not as women and men, but simply as infantrymen, tank crewmen or artillerymen, for example.
"There is a plan to … evaluate males and females against those standards and, potentially, a downstream plan to put women through other training that actually will be informed by our experience" with infantry training, Dunford said. "I think you will hear more from the commandant on that coming up."
The data gleaned from all these efforts, Dunford said, will be used to inform a recommendation from the Marine Corps to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. That's expected to be done by mid-November.
This past winter, the Defense Department published a report saying that nonlinear combat against a shadowy enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan has negated the notion of a frontline behind which women can be kept safe. Working in support roles, 144 women have been killed in action and 865 injured since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Defense Department data. As such, old prohibitions have become irrelevant, according to the report.