More than 200 Marines have been training since late September in the pine forests of North Carolina. They've been hiking for miles carrying 87-pound packs and assault rifles, sleeping in the field, attacking mock enemy positions.
And for the first time, women took part in the training. Three of them made it to end — and graduated Thursday morning.
They were there at Camp Geiger to answer the question of whether women have what it takes to become combat infantry Marines.
On a recent day during the grueling training, the Marines from D Company were lining up just off a winding dirt road. Pfc. Katie Gorz was in charge — getting them ready for a simulated attack on an enemy force, dug in a mile away in the woods.
Lt. Col. David Wallis ran the training and said the women Marines met the challenge. And Gorz earned a leadership role.
"We've assigned her to serve as a squad leader for a patrol," Wallis said. "She's performed very well relative to her male counterparts in that position."
Gorz, 19, is from Minnesota. Sturdy and about 6-feet tall, she is one of 15 women — all volunteers — who started the training, but 12 dropped out for a variety of reasons.
A fourth woman, Pfc. Harlee Bradford, finished nearly all the requirements. But a stress fracture prevented her from the completing the final physical tests. Bradford will take those when she heals, said a Marine Corps spokeswoman.
"There are certain physical difficulties associated with our curriculum. Looking at upper body strength is a significant factor," Wallis said. "For those who have done that work, I think there is a potential they would pass."
Earlier this year, the Pentagon lifted the rule barring women from ground combat. They'll be allowed to serve in those jobs beginning in early 2016. The Marines say they won't lower their training standards. If the Marines argue that women can't make it, they'll have to persuade both the defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
'As Marines, We Know About Change'
The Marines move down the dirt road. One of them is Pfc. Christina Fuentes Montenegro.
It's hard to pick her out. The Marines all look the same. But if you look closely, you can just see a tight bun of hair poking out from the bottom of her helmet.
The 25-year-old is from Florida. Her brother and brother-in-law are Marines. She wasn't allowed to talk to reporters during the training.
The Marines have added some female instructors at Camp Geiger to serve as advisers. One of them is Staff Sgt. Juanita Towns. She served in Afghanistan, as part of a female engagement team, reaching out to Afghan women in the villages — and sometimes coming under fire from the Taliban.
Towns says there's no doubt that the women training now can serve in combat.
"If there [are] no challenges here at the school, [there] shouldn't be any later on down the line," she said. "As Marines, we know about change, because everything changes 5 minutes, maybe 10 minutes, down the road. So we're kind of used to change."
When asked whether adding women to a company or platoon would change the dynamic, Towns' opinion is clear.
"No. We were actually part of the team. We went on patrols, we carried our weight, and they didn't treat us any different at all," she said.
Some Marine officials conducting the research study say it's an open question whether women can make it in the infantry. Few women are showing interest so far. Of those who do, some have trouble carrying the heavy packs or knocking out the required three pull ups. That's not a problem for Towns. Currently, she can do 13. And she's not stopping there.
Training Is Only The First Test
During the training, an attack began with simulated mortars and machine guns.
The Marines from Company D slipped out of the trees. Christina Fuentes Montenegro and the male Marines dashed across a field, dropping every few yards to fire.
She got up with her weapon, ran some more, and flopped down again on her stomach and continued to fire.
Staff Sgt. Billy Shinault, who has served three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, was their instructor — and sharply criticizes their attack.
"I know we all want to kill somebody, I understand that," he said. "But in real life, if we get out there, and we go out of our lane, people we're killing [are] our own fellow Marines."
Shinault says just because women pass this training doesn't mean they can make it in combat.
"We came into this knowing there would be select individuals that would pass it," he said. "But as you see with male Marines in the past, just because a Marine passes the school and gets to tougher training in the fleet, it gets tougher from that point, and that's another bridge we'll have to cross when we get to it."
Shinault doubts many women will even want this kind of life: sleeping in the dirt for weeks, patrolling, fighting.
"I've talked to Staff Sgt. Towns, and a couple others, and they're content where they're at in their job field," he said. "I've yet to meet one [woman who] ... wanted to be in the infantry."
Towns was standing nearby. She shot him a look that says "he doesn't speak for me."
Whether any unit will allow women into the ranks is a decision that's several years away. The three women who passed the course won't go to the infantry now. The Marines want a good-sized research pool first: as many as 300 women hiking with heavy packs and attacking with their assault rifles in these pine woods.