On The California Shore, Sizing Up Female Marines' Combat Readiness

On The California Shore, Sizing Up Female Marines' Combat Readiness

9:00am May 29, 2015
Troops at sea do a towing exercise, where one vehicle is "in distress" and the other has to tow it using ropes.
Troops at sea do a towing exercise, where one vehicle is "in distress" and the other has to tow it using ropes.
Arezou Rezvani / NPR
  • Troops at sea do a towing exercise, where one vehicle is "in distress" and the other has to tow it using ropes.

    Troops at sea do a towing exercise, where one vehicle is "in distress" and the other has to tow it using ropes.

    Arezou Rezvani / NPR

  • Amphibious assault vehicles, or AAVs, are lined up on the beach as they're prepared to be sent into the ocean for a training exercise.

    Amphibious assault vehicles, or AAVs, are lined up on the beach as they're prepared to be sent into the ocean for a training exercise.

    Arezou Rezvani / NPR

  • Sgt. Cassie McDole and another crew member have completed a casualty evacuation drill, pulling a 220-pound life-size dummy through the narrow hatch of the amphibious assault vehicle.

    Sgt. Cassie McDole and another crew member have completed a casualty evacuation drill, pulling a 220-pound life-size dummy through the narrow hatch of the amphibious assault vehicle.

    Arezou Rezvani / NPR

  • Cpl. Kathryn Bynum (center) works with a fellow Marine on an exercise focused on securing the AAVs.

    Cpl. Kathryn Bynum (center) works with a fellow Marine on an exercise focused on securing the AAVs.

    Arezou Rezvani / NPR

  • At left, Cpl. Kathryn Bynum prepares to roll into the ocean in an amphibious assault vehicle. At right, Sgt. Cassie McDole sits in an AAV.

    At left, Cpl. Kathryn Bynum prepares to roll into the ocean in an amphibious assault vehicle. At right, Sgt. Cassie McDole sits in an AAV.

    Arezou Rezvani / NPR

  • Sgt. Cassie McDole sits in an AAV.

    Sgt. Cassie McDole sits in an AAV.

    Arezou Rezvani / NPR

  • Cpl. Kathryn Bynum.

    Cpl. Kathryn Bynum.

    Arezou Rezvani / NPR

  • Sgt. Zarina Flemming.

    Sgt. Zarina Flemming.

    Arezou Rezvani / NPR

On the shores of California one recent morning, female Marines were heaving heavy chains to secure amphibious assault vehicles that soon would roll into the waves.

The exercise was one part of a yearlong experiment aimed at settling the question of whether women can handle the punishing world of ground combat.

Told by the Pentagon that it must open combat roles for women by 2016 — unless it can show a good reason not to — the Marine Corps has partnered with the University of Pittsburgh to scientifically measure skills, strength and endurance.

A total of 400 Marines — 100 of them women — volunteered for the experiment. Among their tasks: scaling cliffs, trekking across rugged terrain with 100-pound packs and crawling over obstacles, across the desert and in the mountains.

At Camp Pendleton this particular morning, the focus is on operating amphibious vehicles that amount to armed, floating tanks.

Until she volunteered for this training last summer, Cpl. Kathryn Bynum had never needed to, say, pull herself up and out of one of these amphibious tanks.

"As soon as I got here, I just started working out, and gained 10 pounds just from lifting every day," she says.

"Whenever I was able to do the exact same things that males were able to, it was awesome," the 21-year-old says. "There was a great feeling, from opening the cargo hatch to picking up the ammo cans — and seeing those things get easier as I got stronger — it was really rewarding."

Overseeing all of this is Capt. Alex Puraty — a combat veteran who commands a company that includes this amphibious vehicle platoon.

"What we're trying to establish out here is gender-neutral standards. So we've never had a standard before," he says.

In the past, Puraty says, the Marine Corps has relied on a physical fitness test — a timed run, pullups, crunches. But it turned out that hasn't been an accurate indicator of success at the kind of jobs Marines do.

So now the Corps has taken a step back, and it is looking at the hardest jobs and testing different body types to see which are most successful.

That new standard — of what body type it takes to do a job effectively — affects both men and women: One gunnery sergeant told us he wanted to be a Navy pilot, but 5 feet 3 inches was too short.

Bynum is also small, which would be a positive for anyone trying to fit into the cramped space inside these heavily armed amphibious vehicles.

As it happens, Bynum volunteered for this specialty — even though she isn't all that keen on opening up combat duty to women.

"I didn't think it was a good idea — I didn't see the need. Why fix something that's not broke?" she says. "But I wanted to know for myself, is it really that hard? What are the real challenges that I'm going to face if I go out and do this?"

Out on the water, data collectors stand on top of all the amphibious vehicles floating, closely observing and taking notes on these Marines — both women and men.

The Marine volunteers also wear heart monitors, adding to the mix of data that will be analyzed this summer by the University of Pittsburgh researchers.

In one exercise, Marines throw ropes from one amphibious vehicle to another that's in distress and needs to be towed.

The head of the research monitor team, Maj. Jane Blair, watches one team struggle to pull a life-size dummy — a stand-in for a wounded comrade — up through a narrow hatch.

The dummy is designed to simulate the average Marine. It weighs 175 pounds, but with standard equipment like flak jacket and Kevlar helmet, it weighs about 220 pounds.

"The idea is that if women can perform the job, they should be able to perform the task as any other Marine," Blair says. "One of the biggest concerns was that if there was a casualty, how women would perform. So it's actually a pretty critical task. Everyone wants to know, if they were a casualty, they could be extracted."

We spot Bynum — one of the smallest women — preparing for this exercise.

"She's amazing," says Blair. "She's like 110 pounds, and ... I've had Marines tell me they'd take her in a heartbeat to be one of their Marines, because she's got that spunk and energy that just enables her to do the job really well."

When the exercises end, these hulking amphibious assault vehicles roll back on land.

That's where we find Zarina Flemming, 27. She is a sergeant who was deployed in 2011 to a big, bustling Marine base in southern Afghanistan. She had a desk job there — but that didn't necessarily shield her from the war around her.

Marines created female engagement teams, for example, to reach out to Afghan women in the villages in what amounted to combat situations, though they were not technically on the front lines.

"As a Marine you're always prepared," Flemming says. "We're trained as riflemen first, just in case stuff does happen. You have to go out and take care of it. I know many, many females who have Purple Hearts and combat action ribbons, have sustained injuries. It just depends on how you portray 'front lines.' "

That women in uniform can hold their own when thrust into combat has been proved during these long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The question Flemming and her female comrades are helping to answer is what roles women are best- or least-suited for in front-line jobs that involve looking for the fight.

In this controlled and close environment, where everyone is constantly being monitored, Flemming says she has been treated as a Marine first and foremost.

"The guys have been great. It's just that respect for each other," she says.

In situations that could be uncomfortable — the women need to change, for example — she says they are "cool." They just step away for a second.

"Sometimes we just take our shirts off. We have sport bras on; it's not a big deal," she says. "We have that brother-sister mentality and mindset."

When it comes to her real family, Flemming says, acceptance hasn't come easy. She was 17 when her mother emigrated with her children from Zambia to Smyrna, Ga.

"My mom was totally against it. ... She said, 'Hey what are you doing? You're crazy,' " Flemming recalls. "But my husband is an active-duty Marine. I think he was really nervous that I would get hurt or injured, but he's been totally supportive."

That's pretty much the story of medic Beatriz Byers, a 35-year-old known as Doc. She also emigrated as teenager, from Colombia.

As a Navy corpsman, she also could be eligible for combat duty alongside the Marines, which doesn't have its own medics. When asked whether she would volunteer, she doesn't hesitate: "In a heartbeat."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A yearlong experiment aimed at settling whether women can handle the punishing world of ground combat has also been looking to the sea. On the shores of southern California one recent morning, female Marines were heaving heavy chains to secure amphibious assault vehicles that would soon roll into the waves. Told by the Pentagon it must open all combat roles to women by 2016 - unless it can show a good reason not to - the Marine Corps has partnered with the University of Pittsburgh to scientifically measure skills, strength and endurance.

NPR's been following those Marines from the beginning, when 400 volunteered - a hundred of whom were women. Female Marines have scaled cliffs, crawled over obstacles, trekked across rugged terrain with packs almost as heavy as they are, in the desert and the mountains. Here at Camp Pendleton, we're on a beach.

CORPORAL KATHRYN BYNUM: As soon as I got out here, I started working out. I gained ten pounds just from lifting every day.

MONTAGNE: Until she volunteered for this last summer, Corporal Kathryn Bynum had never needed to, say, pull herself up and out of an amphibious assault vehicle.

BYNUM: And whenever I was able to do the exact same things that males were able to, it was awesome, it was a great feeling. You know, from opening the cargo hatch to picking up the ammo cans - and seeing those things get easier as I got stronger was - it was really rewarding.

MONTAGNE: Overseeing all of this is Captain Alex Puraty, a combat veteran who commands a company that includes this platoon.

CAPTAIN ALEX PURATY: So what we're trying to establish out here is gender-neutral standards. We've never had a standard before. It's always been the physical fitness test - so a timed run, some pull-ups and crunches. But that hasn't really been an accurate predictor of success. So the Marine Corps as a whole, we took a step back. They put a lot of time and effort into figuring out, hey, what are the hardest jobs out here? Let's take a look at these and let's run all kinds of body types through it and let's see what's successful.

MONTAGNE: It's not like men haven't had to worry about body types. One gunnery sergeant told us he wanted to be a Navy pilot, but at 5'3", was too short. Corporal Bynum is also small, which would be a positive for anyone trying to fit into the cramped space inside what amounts to a floating tank. As it happens, Bynum volunteered to test for this specialty without being all that keen on opening up combat duty to women.

BYNUM: I didn't think it was a good idea. I didn't see the need. Why fix something that's not broke? But I wanted to know for myself. I wanted to experience it and see like, is it really that hard? What are the real challenges that I'm going to face if I go out and do this?

MONTAGNE: Out on the water, we get a vivid demonstration of how closely these Marines - women and men - are being monitored. Data collectors stand on the roofs of the amphibious vehicles floating around us, observing, taking notes. The Marine volunteers also wear heart monitors, all part of the mix of data that will be analyzed this summer by researchers.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Little bit back, little bit, yeah.

MONTAGNE: One exercise has Marines throwing ropes from one amphibious assault vehicle aiming to tow another that's in distress. On our boat, the head of the research monitor team, Major Jane Blair, watches a team struggle to pull up through a narrow hatch a life-size dummy standing in for a wounded comrade in need of a rescue.

MAJOR JANE BLAIR: OK, the dummy is designed to simulate the average Marine, so he weighs about 175 pounds himself, but then with his equipment on, he ends up weighing about 225 pounds. So that would be standard with the flak and the Kevlar. The idea is that if women can perform the job, they should be able to perform all the tasks the same as any other Marine. And one of the biggest concerns was if there's a casualty, how women would perform, so it is actually a pretty critical task. I mean, everyone wants to know that if they were a casualty, they'd be able to be extracted.

MONTAGNE: Right then we spot Corporal Bynum preparing to do this very exercise.

BLAIR: Corporal Bynum, she's amazing. She's like one of the smallest females and she...

MONTAGNE: She actually said she was the smallest.

BLAIR: Yeah, no doubt. She's like 110 pounds. And she - I've had Marines tell me that they'd take her in a heartbeat to be one of their Marines 'cause she's just - she's got that spunk and energy that, you know, just enables her to do the job really well.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXERCISE)

MONTAGNE: When the exercises are over, these hulking amphibious assault vehicles roll back on land. That's where we find Zarina Flemming. She's a sergeant deployed in 2011 to the then, big, bustling Marine base in southern Afghanistan. She had a desk job, which didn't necessarily shield her from the war around her.

SERGEANT ZARINA FLEMMING: Just because I'm an administrator, there could have been a time where, you know, something were to happen. So as a Marine, you're always prepared. Like we're trained as rifleman first just in case, you know, stuff does happen. And I know many, many females that, you know, do have Purple Hearts. So they have, you know, been involved in some conflict, they have been blown up, they've sustained injuries. So it really depends on how you portray the front lines.

MONTAGNE: That women in uniform can hold their own when suddenly thrust into combat has been proven over and over during these long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The question Sergeant Flemming and her female comrades are helping to answer is, what are women best or least suited for in front line jobs that involve looking for the fight? In this controlled and close environment where everyone is constantly being monitored, Zarina Flemming says she's been treated as a Marine first and foremost.

FLEMMING: I mean, the guys have been great, it's just that respect for each other. Hey, I need to change, do you mind stepping that way real quick? Ok, cool. If it's time-consuming, hey, sometimes we just take our shirts off. We have sports bras on. It's not a big deal. You know, we have that brother-sister mentality and mindset.

MONTAGNE: Though when it comes to her real family, Sergeant Flemming says acceptance hasn't come easy. Her mother doesn't approve. It's a story echoed by Navy medic, Beatriz Byers, known as Doc.

MONTAGNE: What does your family think?

BEATRIZ BYERS: (Laughter). Yeah, my mother, yeah, she didn't want me to do this. From beginning was like, do you really have to do this?

MONTAGNE: At 35, Beatriz Byers has become something of a den mother for these young volunteers. Traditionally for Navy corpsman, being attached as medics to Marines in battle was reserved for men. But now, Doc Byers could also be eligible for combat duty.

MONTAGNE: Would you raise your hand?

BYERS: Of course, yes. Oh, yes. I would love to. Yes ma'am, in a heartbeat. Even though it's tough duties, we have to set the grounds. We have to start somehow, right? If I don't do it, you know, who else is going to do it?

MONTAGNE: As Doc Byers and the female Marines see it, they are women making military history. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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