Why physical standards still dog the fight about women in combat units
FORT BENNING, Ga. — Retired Army Col. Ralph Puckett watched thoughtfully as a few dozen soldiers prepared for an outdoor breakfast of eggs, home fries and waffles after a 6-mile road march.
A legendary Army Ranger, he earned two Distinguished Service Crosses, two Silver Stars and five Purple Hearts while serving in Korea and Vietnam, but he was reflecting on the military's future before dawn on a damp morning in April.
Puckett, 88, is revered enough to have a street named after him on this massive facility in western Georgia. He's the sort of old-school soldier who is celebrated for his heroism and welcome virtually anywhere on base.
He also appears relatively open-minded when it comes to the polarizing idea of women serving in the infantry and other combat units.
"It's OK with me if they maintain standards," Puckett said in an interview last month. "I think there are some who can meet the standards, and I want to see it."
Puckett's views are common among combat veterans as the military examines how to integrate women into more combat units. A decades-long ban on women serving in direct ground combat assignments was lifted in January 2013, but top Pentagon officials gave the services until later this year to research whether they should submit requests to keep some jobs closed.
The question of physical standards continues to dog the debate about admitting women to all combat roles, and there are distinct constituencies. Among them are those who are adamantly opposed to any change; those, such as Puckett, who are open to it, but only if existing requirements are maintained; and those who think the military is unfair while evaluating women and should start from scratch with a new set of standards.
The issue came up repeatedly last week in Washington at a forum titled "Women in Combat: Where We Stand." Sponsored by groups that call for all jobs in the military to be opened to women, it featured a recurring undercurrent of skepticism that the services are evaluating women fairly.
"It's really important that the standards are there, but it's really important that we're using the right standards, and not just something that's based on research done 40 years ago," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Meghan Malloy, who served alongside Special Forces in Afghanistan as a member of an all-female cultural support team. "I feel like those opportunities need to be there for those of us that want to go out and get them."
The military's ongoing research has included female officers going through the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course in Quantico, Va., and women attending the Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, among other efforts.
In the case of Marine IOC and Ranger School, women were told up front that if they graduated, they would be considered pioneers but would not be allowed to join all-male units such as the Marine Corps infantry or the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Both courses include a grueling series of requirements that include pull-ups, obstacle courses and swimming. The Ranger School, for example, begins with the four-day Ranger Assessment Phase, commonly known as RAP Week. Rangers see it as a tried-and-true way of finding out who can handle the rigors of elite combat units, but critics question whether the standards set are arbitrary. As of April 23, eight of 19 women attending had moved on to later stages of the courses.
The Marine Corps is grappling with the physical standards it has set through a unit called the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force. Since last fall, it has evaluated skills needed to serve in each ground combat job.
About 100 female Marines will go through physical rigors at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Twentynine Palms, Calif., and a mountain warfare course in Bridgeport, Calif., between now and July, with the service planning to validate physical requirements for each job by the fall, said Capt. Maureen Krebs, a Marine Corps spokeswoman.
"We really want to look at what are the specific tasks needed to do the job," she said. "It's going to take time, but we're trying to do this the right way."
Regardless, the findings will be controversial. Any change to physical standards is likely to be perceived by some as a lessening in requirements for the sake of integrating women.
"People need to remember that we have an Army to defend our country," Puckett said. "We need to remember that."
If the services resist change, meanwhile, they'll be accused of dragging their feet to halt gender integration. It's a culture war that still has a long way to go.