Some 400 Marines, including about 100 women, signed up to be test subjects in the Marine Corps’ Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force experiment:
Cpl. Janee’ Sheffield knew she was done when she kept rolling the same ankle on daily hikes, leaving her in constant pain. She dropped on request from the provisional rifle platoon — made up of Marines who had not attended ITB — six days before the unit completed its round of assessments at Twentynine Palms and traveled to nearby Bridgeport for mountain warfare exercises.
Like the other rifle platoons, the provisional platoon was on a repetitive cycle that alternated between two assessment days: a movement-to-contact exercise in which Marines would charge 1,000 yards up a hill with weapons and 30-pound packs, scramble over an 8-foot shipping container and maneuver together toward simulated enemy fire while shooting at pop-up targets; and a hike day involving a roughly 4.5-mile march followed by two arduous hours digging fighting holes.
Before opting out of the task force, Sheffield, 23, had decided the infantry wasn’t for her.
“It sucked; it really sucked,” she said. “I wouldn’t do this experiment again.”
While videos and photographs released by the Marine Corps show women excelling at combat tasks, Bradshaw said they omitted the moments of failure. He watched a four-woman team struggling for more than seven minutes to move a 200-pound dummy, without success, he said. Another time, he said, female Marines failed to clamber over the top of the shipping container during movement-to-contact assessments.
One lance corporal who entered the experiment “believing that women should get a shot at service in the infantry as long as they could meet existing standards” changed his mind after he saw what happened in the light armored vehicle platoon — where the physical demands weren’t extreme:
Over time, he said, discipline broke down because some noncommissioned officers were hesitant to hurt the feelings of more junior female Marines with orders or correction. Romantic relationships and friendships between male and female unit members also became a distraction, he said.
“The female variable in this social experiment has wrought a fundamental change in the way male NCOs think, act and lead,” Augello wrote in the 13-page paper he presented to Marine leaders, which he shared with Marine Corps Times. “A change that is sadly for the worse, not the better.”
Physically, both the men and women in Augello’s platoon fared well. No one was dropped due to injury over the course of the experiment, unit members said. But the lance corporal said he became frustrated during group assessments, such as an exercise in which platoon members had to work together to haul a dummy weighing nearly 200 pounds out of the vehicle turret and to a designated recovery spot dozens of yards away. When partnered with the platoon’s female Marines, he said he frequently had to compensate for their smaller frames and lack of upper body strength by hauling more of the load.
“I told myself, ‘I don’t know how much longer my back will have after doing this,’” he recalled.
During one assessment, Augello said he found himself paired with the smallest male Marine in the platoon — one who was physically shorter and slighter than a number of the unit’s female Marines. But the Marine’s build and musculature made a significant difference, he said.
“I didn’t feel a lot of stress on my back because he was able to actually help me,” he said. “His upper body strength made the difference at the end of the day.”
The Marine Corps’ data findings included the following:
- All-male squads and teams outperformed those that included women on 69 percent of the 134 ground combat tasks evaluated.
- All-male teams were outperformed by mixed-gender teams on two tasks: accuracy in firing the 50-caliber machine gun in traditional rifleman units and the same skill in provisional units. Researchers did not know why gender-mixed teams did better on these skills, but said the advantage did not persist when the teams continued on to movement-under-load exercises.
- All-male squads in every infantry job were faster than mixed-gender squads in each tactical movement evaluated. The differences between the teams were most pronounced in crew-served weapons teams. Those teams had to carry weapons and ammunition in addition to their individual combat loads.
- Male-only rifleman squads were more accurate than gender-integrated counterparts on each individual weapons system, including the M4 carbine, the M27 infantry automatic rifle and the M203 grenade launcher.
- Male Marines with no formal infantry training outperformed infantry-trained women on each weapons system, at levels ranging from 11 to 16 percentage points.
Female Marines often struggled with routine tasks:
In scaling an 8-foot wall obstacle, researchers wrote, male Marines would throw their packs to the top of the wall, while female Marines “required regular assistance” to do the same. During simulated casualty evacuations involving a 200-pound dummy, mixed-gender groups were notably slower at the task, except in cases when a single Marine would move the dummy using a fireman’s carry. And in those cases, “it was most often a male Marine who ‘evacuated’ the casualty,” according to the findings analysis.
Some of the biological data surprised me:
- The average male Marine volunteer was 178 pounds with 20 percent body fat; the average female volunteer weighed 142 pounds with 24 percent body fat.
- In anaerobic power and capacity, female Marines averaged 15 percent lower levels than their male counterparts. In anaerobic power performance, the top 25 percent of female performers and the bottom 25 percent of male performers overlapped.
- In aerobic capacity, female Marines demonstrated levels 10 percent lower on average than male Marines.
- Over the course of the assessment, musculoskeletal injury rates totaled 40.5 percent for women, more than double the 18.8 percent rate for men.
- In all, female Marines sustained 21 “time-loss” injuries which took them away from task force duties for a day or more. Nineteen of the women’s injuries were lower extremity injuries and 16 percent took place during a task that required movement while carrying a load. Officials said they could not immediately provide the comparable injury rates for men but said lower extremity injuries were the most common among male Marines as well.
I wouldn’t expect young male Marines to carry 20 percent body-fat.
The real problem is injury rates:
High injury rates among women were also a problem at the Infantry Training Battalion, the Marines’ basic infantry training school for enlisted troops that temporarily opened to women between 2013 and 2015. Researchers found that female ITB participants were injured at more than six times the rate of male participants, and nearly one-third of their injuries occurred during movement-under-load tasks, while just 13 percent of male injuries did.
Overall, women graduated ITB with a 36 percent success rate during the evaluation period. Male Marines had a 99 percent graduation rate during that same window.