Starting Jan. 1, every woman in the Marines Corps was supposed to meet a new physical standard by performing three pullups. But that has been put off.
Lance Cpl. Ally Beiswanger explained that the pullup test had been put off until sometime next year to gather more data and "ensure all female Marines are given the best opportunity to succeed."
So far, female Marines are not succeeding. About 55 percent of female recruits tested at the end of boot camp were doing fewer than three pullups; only 1 percent of male recruits failed the test.
The three pullups is already the minimum required for all male Marines. Now the Marine Corps has postponed the plan, and that's raising questions about whether women have the physical strength to handle ground combat, which they'll be allowed to do beginning in 2016.
Marine officers would not talk to NPR on tape. They said they delayed the pullup requirement to avoid losing not only recruits but also current female Marines who can't pass the test.
The Marine Corps has been using it to test upper body strength for men for more than 40 years. And that upper body strength, they say, is necessary to serve in ground combat: to pull yourself out of a canal in Afghanistan, to climb over a mud wall, to carry an ammunition box.
Setting a tougher standard
For years, female Marines have had to meet a different standard — an exercise called the "flexed arm hang" (holding one's chin above the pullup bar for at least 15 seconds).
But beginning in 2016, women in the Marine Corps and Army will be allowed to serve in infantry, armor and artillery units. And they'll need to be strong enough to climb those mud walls and carry ammunition.
Robert Maginnis, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, says the delay shows that women just can't meet the same standards.
"Young women, in spite of all the training and all the best intentions, are not going to be the equal of young men in terms of upper body strength," Maginnis says. "You've got to have a lot of upper body strength to lift the stuff. Been there, done that."
Maginnis just wrote a book called "Deadly Consequences: How Cowards are Pushing Women into Combat." He says the issue has more to do with politics than protecting the nation.
A former Marine says it's possible
But Greg Jacob, a former Marine, says women can build the strength they need for pullups, and he has seen it done.
He served as a Marine infantry officer in the Balkans and Africa, and now he works for the Service Women's Action Network, a group that advocates for military women. When he was a Marine trainer in North Carolina, he required his female instructors to knock out pullups just like the guys.
"At first, a lot of women weren't able to do it," Jacob says. "They were able to do one, some were able to do two, but what happened was by having that standard and enforcing that standard, it made my Marines, it made the troops go to the gym and train to that standard."
Within six months, all of the women in his company were doing eight to 12 pullups, he says.
Jacob says the Marine Corps must do a better job of training women to reach the same standard as men. A small number of female Marines already have made it: So far, 13 women have passed advanced combat training. One of the requirements is three pullups.
"It's a squad-sized unit that's ready to go, and they're not sending them to their infantry unit simply because they're women," Jacob says.
Some Marine officers privately say only a handful of Marine women will show interest in combat or be able to pass the course.
Meantime, Corps Report TV anchor Lance Cpl. Ally Beiswanger wants to see if she can get over the first physical hurdle and do those pullups.
She admitted to her audience that she could only do one pullup last year.
"Now I'm up to eight, so I'm taking advantage of the extra time to complete my goal of 12 pullups," she said on the show.
And what about the larger goal of women in ground combat? That's still two years away.
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