Fort Stewart spent weeks training volunteers — 89 men and 58 women — in performing tasks the Army considers essential for troops on front lines, from dragging a wounded comrade to safety to loading 65 pound anti-tank missiles. Scientists from the Army’s Research Institute for Environmental Medicine had volunteer soldiers don oxygen masks and heart-rate monitors to record their exertion.
On Tuesday, the troops were timed as they toted heavy cans of ammunition and scrambled with rifles through an obstacle course laid out with orange cones.
The Pentagon plans to start opening up combat jobs to women as early as 2016. Commanders want to break from longtime gauges of physical fitness — push-ups, sit-ups and 2-mile runs — and devise a test that more accurately mimics the most strenuous tasks that infantrymen, tank crews and other combat troops perform.
Drills such as scaling a 6-foot wall in 70 pounds of gear and removing the heavy barrel of a 25 mm gun on an armored vehicles are nothing new for male soldiers already in combat units. But they’re completely unfamiliar to Army women.
So Fort Stewart gave its soldier-volunteers a month to train.
“When we started, it was very challenging because we’d never experienced any of these tasks before,” said Capt. Nartrish Lance, 40, who after 21 years in the Army is getting her first taste of what it takes to serve in a combat unit. “But, once you get to rehearse ... it becomes easy.”
Seeking fitness standards based on real-word job requirements, the Army follows many U.S. fire departments that in recent years made entrance tests fairer to women than old standards heavy on push-ups and other upper-body exercises that favor men.
Maj. Gen. Mike Murray, commander of Fort Stewart’s 3rd Infantry Division, said allowing women into combat units will do more than break one of the military’s last gender barriers. He noted a very small Army “population” will qualify, adding “this overall effort is really about matching skill sets and attributes to the right job.”
Whatever fitness test emerges for combat service should be a challenge for both men and women to show that standards aren’t being lowered to accommodate female soldiers, said Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain who studies how military policies affect women for the Women’s Research and Education Institute.
“The idea for the military isn’t that any women coming through can pass their test,” Manning said. “It’s that anybody male or female who can pass the test should be able to serve in that occupation. If it’s one woman out of a thousand, so be it.”