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Women in combat: Three female Marines march into history by completing infantry training

Marines with Delta Company, Infantry Training Battalion, ruck into the sunrise during a 20-kilometer hike at Camp Geiger, N.C., Oct. 28, 2013.
Marines with Delta Company, Infantry Training Battalion, ruck into the sunrise during a 20-kilometer hike at Camp Geiger, N.C., Oct. 28, 2013.Pfc. Eric Keenan / U.S. Marines

The first three women ever to endure and pass the Marine Corps’ combat training course — nine grinding weeks that include “live fire events” and a furious, 20-kilometer, full-pack hike — graduate Thursday from infantry school in North Carolina.

They made history, say some observers, by equaling the performance of 221 males, and all will graduate from the same company, Delta.

But to the Marine Corps, the women are something a tad more abstract: test subjects in a pilot program, small parts of Pentagon-wide study exploring how to integrate women into combat roles by 2016.

"They are just a couple of data points in the overall research process,” said Capt. Maureen Krebs, a Marine Corps spokeswoman.

“All of this is being done as part of this deliberate, measured and responsible approach we’re trying to take so we can set the males and the females up for success. Obviously, we don't want to just throw a Marine into a unit and not have them prepared,” Krebs said.

The graduates are Pfc. Julia Carroll, Pfc. Christina Fuentes Montenegro and Pfc. Katie Gorz. For now, each is bound for a non-combat job. But an Instagram photo of the trio (plus a fourth woman who didn’t pass the course, reportedly due to injury), has gone viral, a testament to the social excitement stirred by the threesome’s ability to stick with the men at one of the military’s grittiest proving grounds.

“Congrats. Amazing. I’m not surprised,” said Laura Cannon, a 2001 West Point graduate who went to Iraq in 2003 with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, spending seven months there. 

“What took the military so long to give women this chance? One of my female classmates at West Point was the first woman to graduate from Sapper School (for combat engineers). And many women outperformed men on numerous physical tests while I was at West Point,” Cannon said. “I’m so happy for these amazing women. I just wish the military allowed us this chance much sooner.”

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The training course, held at Camp Geiger, N.C., began with 15 female volunteers and 266 male volunteers. The graduation disparity rates show the gender challenges those three women met and matched: 33.3 percent of the females completed the course compared to 83 percent of the men. 

Arguably, the most torturous stretch of the entire regimen is a 20-kilometer hike, lasting no more than five hours, on which each participant is timed and graded. The trail begins at a barracks on base then meanders to pavement and ultimately to a long, gravel path flanked by tree cover. 

The trainees must carry a rifle and lug a pack containing 82 to 90 pounds of gear (including water, a “sleeping system” and extra clothing). During the first hour of the group jaunt, accompanied by company commanders and platoon instructors, participants have to maintain a speed of 3 mph, which is essentially a light jog. Every subsequent hour, they must stay between 2.5 and 3 mph, said Capt. Geraldine Carey, a Marine Corps spokeswoman. The pace is measured by GPS devices.

“If they fall out of formation, if they fall back, the instructors are there to try to encourage them to get back up with their respective platoons,” Carey said. “When they fall out to where they’re a certain distance (back), about 100 yards from the last man in the company, they take off their gear and put it in a vehicle and then they’ll run back up to their respective platoons and finish the hike.”

Completing the journey without gear strapped to the back constitutes a failure of that portion of the nine-week examination. But those participants can regroup and re-try the full-pack hike, later in the course, Carey said.

Seven women from Delta Company began that dawn hike on Oct. 28. In all, three women could not go the distance, and a fourth sustained an injury later in the course and will not graduate. In all, 26 men failed to finish.