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All-Male Combat Units Performed Better Than Mixed Units, Study Concludes


We have arrived at the truly tricky moment for deploying women in formal combat roles. It's a moment when the military has some facts to work with and the question is what to make of them. The Marine Corps conducted a study of some of the first women to be put in training scenarios for combat roles. And that study says all-male units outperformed mixed-gender units across the board. This is awkward, to say the least. And in a moment, we will question the secretary of the Navy who oversees the U.S. Marines. We're going to begin with NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, who's been covering this story for years.

Hi, Tom.


INSKEEP: So what were the Marines studying exactly?

BOWMAN: Well, what the Marines did was they put together this unit of men and women - a hundred women, 300 men. And they put them through realistic combat scenarios in the Mojave Desert and then up in the mountains of California along the seacoast and outside of Camp Pendleton. And they broke them down into small units, so they had an all-male unit and then a unit with one woman and then a unit with two women. And they found that the all-male units, compared to the mixed-gender units, did much better across the board.

INSKEEP: And this is just, like, various tasks that - be performed -how quickly can you march somewhere, can you outmaneuver the other guys, things like that.

BOWMAN: Exactly. Setting up, you know, shooting at targets, digging in, moving with a pack under load. And across the board, all-male units did much better. They shot better and faster. They kind climbed over barriers much faster. So it was pretty stark.

INSKEEP: Isn't this a terribly awkward time to have this finding because it's - when? - the beginning of 2016 that they're supposed to be allowing women into formal combat roles?

BOWMAN: That's right. By January 2016, women are allowed in the infantry, armor and artillery unless the service has asked for a waiver say, listen, some of these jobs should remain closed. The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Joseph Dunford, has not made a recommendation yet about whether any of these jobs should remain closed. So that's where we are now.

INSKEEP: Is this the kind of study that could provide the basis, though, for one service or more than one service asking for a waiver, partially or entirely, on women in formal combat roles?

BOWMAN: Absolutely. This is the most detailed report the military's done so far.

INSKEEP: Although this is a situation, as I'm sure people are screaming at their radios right now, in which there have been women in combat. They have performed in combat. Some have performed quite heroically in combat. There's going to be a lot of questions about the idea of a study finding that they just can't do the job.

BOWMAN: Right. What the - some of the Marines will tell you is that this is different than women being in combat, women going along with infantry units or being medics or, you know, being military police. Infantry combat is the hardest. You have to carry a big pack day after day, shooting at the enemy, digging in, climbing over barriers. This is much tougher, infantry Marines will say, than women being in a combat zone.

INSKEEP: OK, Tom, stay with us. We're going to talk about this some more now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
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