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Army crafting gender-neutral standards for combat jobs

Dec. 15, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Lt. Audrey Griffith and Spc. Heidi Gerke take part in a force protection drill in Afghanistan. Women in the Army are performing professionally 'on par with men,' says the leader of Training and Doctrine Command.
Lt. Audrey Griffith and Spc. Heidi Gerke take part in a force protection drill in Afghanistan. Women in the Army are performing professionally 'on par with men,' says the leader of Training and Doctrine Command. (Army)
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The Army has established gender-neutral physical standards for combat specialties. Scientists are validating the data and will use it to develop physical tests that will determine whether soldiers, male or female, can get the job done.

That means the first combat fields — combat engineers and artillery — will open to women next year. But don’t expect women to enter every company or brigade. Since the number of women wanting to join combat arms will be limited, officials will assemble them in yet-unidentified units.

This latest step in establishing physical standards also means service leaders are one step closer to developing a new fitness test that will have a common core for all soldiers. It also is a primary way the Army plans to hone accessions. Recruiting stations eventually will use these tests to determine whether an individual qualifies for the mental and physical rigors of combat-arms service. When physical tests are teamed with cognitive analysis in the works, the Army will better match candidates to jobs best suited for them based on aptitude and ability.

These efforts are the heart of Soldier 2020, the program that will open all Army jobs to women.

The program met with a distraction in recent weeks. A leaked email that addressed the use of “pretty” soldiers created quite a stir and led to Col. Lynette Arnhart stepping aside from her role as director of the integration study of women and Col. Christian Kubik being suspended from his job as Training and Doctrine Command’s public affairs officer.

Frustration was evident when TRADOC chief Gen. Robert Cone addressed the issue with Army Times. Cone and his command have invested years of work, only to see this latest milestone shadowed by a public relations controversy. Now, the four-star is working to get the focus back on the program, which he called a “critically important effort for the Army.”

His message is clear: This is not about looks. It’s about standards.

“This effort is all about not judging people on race, color, gender and appearance. It’s all about what you can do as a person,” Cone said. “So to have this major diversion we’ve had in recent weeks is unfortunate in the overall effort.”

Cone has no doubt women will bring “significant opportunities to our Army in terms of knowledge, skills and attributes.” He said he is confident most soldiers would agree that women have earned a place if they meet the standards.

“Women are performing in every way, on par with men,” Cone said. “That’s not the critical path. The critical path is the physical skills that are required.”

The challenge is to establish realistic standards for everyone. Many current standards are outdated even for men, Cone said. He pointed to Expert Infantryman Badge.

“Nobody carries a 35-pound pack without body armor. So that standard wasn’t relevant,” he said. The Army has added 48 to 65 pounds of body armor.

Cone turned to school commandants, usually sergeants major, to refine the standards. They provided 31 core tasks within the seven combat specialties: 11B infantryman, 11C mortarman, 12B combat engineer, 13B cannon crewmember, 13F fire support specialist, 19D cavalry scout and 19K armor crewman.

Put to the test

Approximately 500 random soldiers put the tasks to the test. They came from eight brigades: two armored, one cavalry, two fires, one maneuver enhancement, one engineer and one airborne. Their tasks included such things as loading tank shells and tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided missiles; pulling casualties out of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle; moving a heavy bridge; and throwing a grenade 15 meters, dragging a casualty to safety and moving under direct fire in full body armor.

About 90 percent of soldiers in an infantry unit coming off of the battlefield in Afghanistan would be able to perform many of the tasks, Cone said. The standards are not too easy, he said.

“The people who have done this have said this is about right, and it’s really hard,” he said.

For example, soldiers had to lift a 52-pound multipurpose anti-tank, or MPAT, round. It’s the heaviest plastic explosive. The soldier had seven seconds to pull it out, turn it around, then lean forward and slam it into the tube. Only half of men could do it.

But “how many of our tankers have ever seen an MPAT round?” Cone asked. “Not very many. So … was that a strength issue? Was it a training issue?”

The U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine is independently providing those answers through scientific evaluation and validation of all data. Predictive tests that simulate the most demanding and physical tasks are being designed. These will assess what muscles were used, the duration and resistance. Corresponding physical activities will be identified, and measures to test that physical capacity will be drawn up. Skill will be minimized so the physically demanding aspects of strength, speed and aerobic capacity are tested.

TRADOC also is surveying military sociologists, combat military occupational specialties and other nations to determine how best to introduce women into the ranks.

The first MOSs

Combat engineers will be the first to see women in the ranks next year. The field needs little integration as it has a large population of female officers and noncommissioned officers. All MOSs from 12C through 12W are open to women, and many have similar tasks and capabilities as combat engineers. Combat engineers already conduct integrated training with female engineers.

The Army will also tackle field artillery, which has women but fewer than among engineers. Field artillery has a cadre to help minimize the cultural impact when women become cannon crewmembers.

From there, the Army will set standards for armor and infantry, which should open by the end of 2015 or early 2016.

“So as we move to probably the harder cultures to change ... we will have had the benefit of experience in the first several,” Cone said.

Setting conditions for success is a major lesson TRADOC commanders have learned. A soldier should not be the only woman in a unit, and female soldiers will need strong female NCOs in the ranks.

“Why make that private be the first infantry person?” Cone said. “Take a sergeant who is proficient as a leader in another occupational specialty and give them the skills necessary to be a successful infantryman as a sergeant. Then start to bring in your recruits from the bottom.”

One challenge is willingness to serve, he said. How many women are going to be interested in doing this? Not many, just as many men opt out. Fewer than 1,000 combat support and combat service support male soldiers asked to go into combat arms last year.

So don’t expect quotas, which go against the standards-based approach, Cone said. He instead looks to the Israeli army, which has a certain number of brigades that women serve in.

“Give us time. We will get this right, and it will be an enabler for our Army,” Cone said. “But if this is rushed, or if quotas are imposed, then this will not be successful.”

The tests

The tests that will measure capacity to meet physical standards will also provide the backbone of a new physical training test.

A parallel effort at Fort Jackson, S.C., is developing a test composed of “three or four” common tasks that will be used across the Army. Soldiers in combat specialties will have to do the MOS-specific tasks to certify them for inclusion in that field.

A version of that test will be used at recruiting stations to let candidates know if they have what it takes to be in combat arms. Cognitive tests will eventually be added to pre-qualify recruits.

“What you don’t want is a bad mismatch,” Cone said. “You don’t want somebody who is going to be a fire direction officer that really has no understanding of math.”

These tests will differentiate the soldier who will break under information overload from one who needs an abundance of information to make a decision. They can identify soldiers who are hard-wired to interact with other cultures, learn a foreign language, or likely to remain calm in stressful environments. They can identify those predisposed to post-traumatic stress, and who have the aptitude required for tasks inherent to medics, explosive ordnance disposal or Special Forces.

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