Army Spc. Karen Arvizu typically drives Humvees or transport trucks at Fort Stewart in Georgia, but for the past three weeks, she and 59 other women soldiers have been putting on 70 pounds of body armor, lifting 65-pound missiles and shooting .50-caliber machine guns. They’re making history as part of an Army study that will determine how all soldiers—including women—will be deemed fit to join the front lines.
With roughly one in five Army positions considered combat-related, commanders are turning to science to find a unisex standard to judge which soldiers have the right stuff physically to fight wars. Last year, the Pentagon ordered the military to give women the same opportunities to serve in combat jobs as men, and thousands of positions are slated to open to both genders in 2016. But an Army survey found only a small fraction of women—fewer than 8 percent—say they want to move into combat jobs, and soldiers from both genders are nervous about the change.
Exactly what sort of fitness tests or standards will come out of the Army’s study remains to be seen. The Army has no current fitness requirements for serving in combat positions beyond the standard physical fitness test for all soldiers, which includes pushups, sit-ups, and a 2-mile run. The test grades men and women on different scales.
But the U.S. Marine Corps has had for several years both a Physical Fitness Test (PFT) and a Combat Fitness Test (CFT). The Marine’s new PFT, which took effect in January, requires women to do a minimum of three pull-ups. Officials put implementation of the new test on hold after 55 percent of female boot camp trainees, compared to 1 percent of males, couldn’t do three pull-ups.
The CFT grades Marines on three events directly related to potential combat tasks: movement to contact, ammunition lift, and maneuver under fire. The minimum requirement for women in the maneuver under fire event, a combat obstacle course, is two minutes slower than that for men.
In a June 2013 report to congress, the Marine Corps described the CFT as “gender neutral,” although officials admitted the test is “gender-normed, similar to the PFT, in order to account for physiological differences between the genders.”
“The Marines are doing with female trainees what the NFL would never do,” said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness and a former member of the 1992 Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces. “If Pentagon officials keep pretending that women can take the places of men in the infantry, female trainees will suffer more injuries and resentment they don’t deserve, and men will emerge from training less prepared for the burdens and violence of direct ground combat.”