There may be some anxiety from male Marines as female officers work their way into infantry and other combat jobs that historically have been open only to men, Gen. James F. Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, said Tuesday.
Amos said early steps to begin moving women into artillery, tank air defense and combat engineer units have been successful, but the more difficult tests lie ahead.
"Change doesn't come easy to the United States Marine Corps," Amos told an audience at the National Press Club. "But when it does, when it's rooted, it lasts forever. So I think we'll work our way through it."
A key challenge will take place next month as female Marine officers attend the grueling infantry officer school at the Marine Corps' Quantico, Va., base as part of an experiment to gauge whether women can handle the course's extreme physical and mental challenges. So far, two women have volunteered to go through the 13-week course, which historically sees attrition rates of 20 percent to 25 percent when only men are participating.
"I need to get past hyperbole and get past intuition and instincts, and I need to get facts," Amos said, adding that the Marines intend to maintain the same standards for men and women. "If you're going to be infantry officer, you will spend 13 weeks at Quantico going through some very, very difficult training. So that's the standard, the measure of an infantry officer in the Marine Corps."
Officials, he said, will evaluate the test, collect the data and then he will give his recommendation to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
The Pentagon in February announced that the military was formally opening up thousands of jobs to women in units closer to the front lines to better reflect the realities of modern warfare. Women already are fight on the front lines in Afghanistan, and they did the same in Iraq. The new rules will allow women to perform many of the jobs they already have been doing, but in smaller units that are closer to the fighting and were once considered too dangerous.
To say women are a minority in the Marine Corps is an understatement; of the roughly 200,000 Marines, 13,700 are female. So the integration will be slow and in small numbers.
By mid-October, 45 women Marine officers and staff non-commissioned officers will join various artillery, tank and combat engineer battalions across the country. And Amos said he met with the top leaders of the 19 battalions that could get female Marines and told them that they need to do this the right way and establish the proper command climate to give the women the opportunity to succeed.
He added that the Marine Corps also has sent out a survey to service members to collect their views on allowing women in the infantry. And officials are also setting up a series of physical tests to compare the strength of male and female officers and enlisted Marines.
A 1994 Pentagon policy prohibits women from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level. A brigade is roughly 3,500 troops split into several battalions of about 800 soldiers each. Historically, brigades were based farther from the front lines, and they often include top command and support staff, while battalions usually are in closer contact with the enemy.
Historically, women could not be formally assigned to those battalion-level jobs. But in the past decade the necessities of war propelled women into jobs such as medics, military police and intelligence officers, and they were sometimes attached — but not formally assigned — to battalions.
So while a woman couldn't be assigned as an infantryman in a battalion going out on patrol, she could fly the helicopter supporting the unit or move in to provide medical aid if troops were injured. The new rules will formally allow women to work in those jobs at the battalion level.
The new rules don't open up the Navy SEALs or the Army Delta Force to women, but some defense officials have said the military may eventually consider that.
In other comments, Amos defended the administrative punishments doled out to three Marines on Monday for their participation in a video that showed them urinating on the corpses of Taliban insurgents.
While there were no criminal charges, he said the discipline "was not a slap on the wrist." And he said additional Marines will also "be held accountable" for the incident, which triggered outrage among Afghans when it was revealed on YouTube earlier this year.
The actual administrative punishments have not been made public, but could include demotions, extra duty, forfeiture of pay or a letter in their file. The punishments also could stall any future advancement and end their military careers.