However, the survey also showed that only about 8 percent of Army women said they wanted combat jobs. Brinkley said such limited interest also is in line with what other countries, such as Norway, have seen as they integrated women into combat roles.
Maj. Gen. Mike Murray, commanding general at Fort Stewart, watched Tuesday as coed groups of soldiers set up heavy 120 mm mortars on a practice field. An officer with 32 years of infantry experience, Murray said it's time to open combat jobs to women and "this is going to get studied to death" in order for the Army to prove to naysayers that women soldiers are physically capable. The volunteer group at Fort Stewart includes a mix of combat veterans and newcomers, but it didn't take long for the group to gel after some initial awkwardness.
"It was almost like a high school dance where you had the guys over here and the girls over there," Murray said. "A week later, it was amazing how fast teams form."
Giving soldiers a month to prepare meant women who have never been trained to scale a 6-foot wall or pull a casualty from a tank have had time to learn the proper techniques before they are tested for real next month.
Staff Sgt. Terry Kemp, a cavalry scout who's helping train the Fort Stewart volunteers, said female soldiers started to catch up with their male counterparts after two weeks of training. Missile toting drills that initially took the men seven minutes were taking women 12 minutes to complete, he said. But by week three, men and women had trimmed their times to about four minutes.
Those who still insist women can't perform as well as men in combat "can beat their chests about it all day," said Kemp, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. "But eventually it's going to happen."
Exactly what sort of fitness tests or standards will come out of the Army's study remains to be seen. There are no current fitness requirements for serving in combat positions beyond the Army's standard physical fitness test for all soldiers — which includes pushups, situps and a 2-mile run and grades men and women on different scales.
Brinkley said the Army took a lesson from fire departments by not focusing on soldier's ability to perform pushups or pullups, which favor men because they test upper body strength. He said officials realize women do physical tasks differently, using more core strength and legs. By focusing on tasks rather than exercises, Army officials hope to eliminate gender bias from their study.
The International Association of Fire Fighters says it successfully developed a new entrance level fitness test for fire departments in 2002 after women who had been denied jobs sued, arguing the testing favored men. Pullups and other exercises were replaced with drills such as climbing steps while wearing a 100-pound vest and dragging a 150-pound dummy after crawling through a maze. The revamped test is now used by roughly 2,000 fire departments nationwide.
"You can get some really big firefighters who are strong as an ox and they don't have the aerobic capacity to pass it, and then get a really small woman who can pass," said Patrick Morrison, the association's top health and safety officer. "It really has leveled the playing field. Men don't feel like you lowered the bar because they know it's a tough test."
Taking a break from toting anti-tank missiles at Fort Stewart, Arvizu said she found the heavy lifting to be humbling. And though she felt encouraged by her male colleagues, she had no desire to give up driving a truck and join a combat unit.
"It's not that I came, I saw and conquered," she said. "But I came, I saw and I did my best."
Baldor reported from Fort Eustis, Va.
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