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Women Make History At Camp Pendleton, Train For Combat Roles

Photo caption:

Photo by Susan Murphy

Marine Sgt. Zarina Flemming sits on top of an amphibious assault vehicle at a Camp Pendleton beach following a training exercise, May 14, 2015.

The yearlong experiment to determine whether women can serve in ground combat is wrapping up. "I think for the males they kind of expected us to be ... the moms, the sisters — kind of take care of us. But now they’re like, ‘OK, we’re a Marine, you’re a Marine. Let’s just get the job done,’" said Marine Sgt. Zarina Flemming.

The yearlong experiment to determine whether women can serve in ground combat is wrapping up. "I think for the males they kind of expected us to be ... the moms, the sisters — kind of take care of us. But now they’re like, ‘OK, we’re a Marine, you’re a Marine. Let’s just get the job done,’" said Marine Sgt. Zarina Flemming.

On a recent morning at a Camp Pendleton beach, Marine Sgt. Zarina Flemming hoisted a 200-pound tow bar with a fellow Marine.

She normally serves in an administrative role, but the 27-year-old wife and mother of a toddler is part of a yearlong experiment to determine whether women have what it takes to serve in ground combat roles.

She has spent the past 12 months with massive armored amphibious vehicles, driving them through the ocean and across the desert, changing out vehicle parts that outweigh her, and lifting heavy ammunition and machine guns. The mock combat drills push human strength to its limits.

Flemming, who was born in Zambia, Africa, and moved with her family to the U.S. when she was 16, is working to prove female Marines can do these jobs that are currently exclusive to all-male units.

"I think for the males they kind of expected us to be, you know, the moms, the sisters — kind of take care of us," Flemming said. "But now they’re like, ‘OK, we’re a Marine, you’re a Marine. Let’s just get the job done.’"

Flemming is one of nearly 100 women and 300 men volunteering for the experiment.

"Everything on the vehicle is pretty heavy," Flemming said. "Our hatches are pretty heavy, so it takes two people to be able to lift them up and open them up, or just grabbing gear and just being on the move."

Her amphibious assault vehicle platoon started at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, then moved to California: first to Twentynine Palms, then Camp Pendleton.

Capt. Joel Detrick designed the tasks for the experimental unit to find out if introducing women into combat roles affects war-fighting capabilities.

"Each task is linked to what we’ve identified as an operational requirement," Detrick said. "So it’s an operationally significant event or a task that a crew would actually do in the fleet Marine force."

The Marines were recently timed as they secured amphibious vehicles to a platform with heavy chains. Then, out in the water, they towed a stranded amphibious vehicle and pulled a 220-pound, life-size dummy to safety.

The study was designed in response to a Pentagon order that the military open all ground combat jobs to women by January 2016 or request exemptions for particular tasks.

Detrick said the women are getting the job done.

"It seems to me that the platoon is doing very well," he said. "The Marines execute the tasks very well together, so I’ve been surprised I think at the camaraderie and in how well the platoon has melded."

Women are currently barred from more than 230,000 military positions, including Flemming’s amphibious assault platoon, also called AMTRAKS. She’s among the first women to operate the vehicles.

"I thought why not be a part of it," Flemming said. "I could speak and say I was part of the movement to let females in the AMTRAK community, if that does in fact happen."

Paul Johnson, a civilian scientist with the Marine Corps Operational Test and Evaluation Activity, is the experiment's lead investigator.

"There are physiological differences between men and women," Johnson said. "Generally speaking, men are larger than women and so those differences are known. The question is: Does it matter?"

For tasks like carrying a wounded comrade off a battlefield, or loading heavy weapons in the heat of war, it could. The average male Marine is 5 foot 9 inches tall and weighs 180 pounds, while the average female Marine is 5 foot 3 inches tall and weighs 135 pounds.

But Johnson said the corps also has its share of tall and muscular women and short and slender men.

"So we're out here establishing whether or not that actually makes a difference," he said.

As part of the test, the Marines — men and women — are strapped with heart rate monitors and GPS devices that measure their daily physical performance. A dozen researchers observe the assessments and record how groups perform together and individually.

Photo by Susan Murphy

Female Marines who are part of an experimental task force to test the ability of women to fight in ground combat pose for a photo at Camp Pendleton, May 15, 2015.

"I think overall, as far as the females here, we all have strengths and weaknesses," Flemming said. "Same thing with the guys. There’s some things we’re stronger at than others."

Flemming said she can maneuver through the vehicle faster because she's slender.

"But standing up in the vehicle, I have a hard time because I’m taller," she said.

Her biggest challenge is the repetitive heavy lifting while wearing a 25-pound flak jacket.

"We have a 40 mm machine gun and a 50-caliber, so just picking those up, that takes a lot of strength," Flemming said. "So I had to start lifting weights, which I’m not a fan of."

She’s gained muscle mass and lost about 8 pounds.

Through it all, she’s never considered giving up — nor have the nine other female Marines who remain in her group.

"You know, the Marine Corps toughens you up a little bit," Flemming said. "It grows you up a lot, and you just have to keep up — keep up or get out."

The Marines would not say how many men and women have dropped out since the experiment started.

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The idea of letting women into combat roles gained momentum during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly 300,000 women deployed to those wars. In all, 150 were killed and more than 800 were injured.

Female pilots flew through combat zones, female medics treated the wounded on the front lines and all-female teams known as “lionesses” accompanied troops in house-to-house searches.

Flemming, who is married to a Marine, served for a year in Afghanistan in an administrative role before volunteering for the combat experiment. She hopes her efforts during the past year will open opportunities for women.

"I hold myself to a high standard in the Marine Corps, and I hope if my data has an influence on that then there’s going to be a standard for the females to follow," she said.

The results of the study, which could represent a major milestone in the military, are expected by the end of summer.

This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.


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