Marine pioneering effort to move women into combat
Defense department slowly opening jobs for female fighters
SAN DIEGO — Marine 1st Lt. Brandy Soublet is about as far from the war front as possible at her desk in the California desert, but she's on the front lines of an experiment that could one day put women as close to combat as their male peers.
The Penfield, N.Y. woman is one of 45 female Marines assigned this summer to 19 all-male combat battalions. The Defense Department in the past year has opened thousands of combat positions to women to slowly integrate them and gauge the impact such a social change would have on the military's ability to fight wars.
No branch is likely to feel that change more than the Marine Corps.
The small, tight-knit force is the most male of the armed services and prides itself on having the toughest and most aggressive warriors. The Corps historically has higher casualty rates because it is considered to be the "tip of the spear," or the first to respond to conflicts. It also was among the last military branches to open its doors to women, forming the first female Corps in 1943, according to the Women's Memorial in Washington.
But changing times are challenging the traditions of the force, long likened to a brotherhood.
Modern warfare has put women in combat like never before over the past decade, even though a 1994 policy bars them from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level, which were considered too dangerous since they are often smaller and closer to combat for longer periods.
Already under pressure to provide the same opportunities for women, the Defense Department was hit Tuesday with a second lawsuit by female service members — including two Marines — charging that the gender barriers unfairly block them from promotions open to men in combat.
The lawsuits are intended to accelerate the military's slow march toward lifting the ban that plaintiffs allege has barred women from 238,000 positions.
Defense officials say they recently opened 14,500 jobs to women, and they need to move cautiously to ensure the change will not disrupt wartime operations. Soublet and the other 44 women are part of the quiet, slow transformation. Women make up about 7 percent of the Marine Corps compared to about 14 percent overall among the military's 1.4 million active military personnel.
She said some Marines initially eyed her pioneering presence in the all-male battalion with skepticism.
"The way that I would describe it to friends and family was it was kind of like I showed up to work in a costume," the 25-year-old logistics officer said in a phone interview from Twenty-Nine Palms, a remote desert base east of San Diego. "They stared a little bit but after a while it wasn't like that anymore."
That experience may play out on bases and boats worldwide as the Pentagon levels the battlefield.
The Corps earlier this year opened its grueling infantry officer training school to female Marines and surveyed 53,000 of its troops with an anonymous online questionnaire about the impact of erasing gender barriers. Survey results are expected to be released soon after review by the defense secretary.
Only two female Marines volunteered for the 13-week infantry training course at Quantico, Va., and both failed to complete it this fall. No women have volunteered so far for the next course offered in January, officials said.
Soublet said she was nervous she would feel unwelcome in the combat engineer battalion.
Six months into her historic assignment, she said she has been treated equally.
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