WASHINGTON — The first three women to complete Marine infantry training will graduate Thursday, national symbols of the growing push to integrate women into front-line combat units — and potent reminders of the barriers that remain.
The three Marine recruits — Pfc. Julia Carroll, Pfc. Christina Fuentes Montenegro and Pfc. Katie Gorz — completed the 59-day course at Camp Geiger, N.C., that includes a grueling five-hour, 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) hike while carrying 85 pounds of gear.
But unlike their male counterparts who graduate Thursday, the women will not be assigned to infantry units. They will be placed in staff and support jobs while the Pentagon continues to study how many of the thousands of combat-related jobs now reserved for men should be opened to both sexes.
That process could last two more years or longer in some branches of the armed forces, despite an announcement by the Pentagon in January that it was lifting the ban.
The military has long resisted putting women in combat roles, arguing that they lacked the strength and agility to fight and survive in the harshest conditions, a sentiment that remains strong among some male soldiers, who privately oppose letting women into their ranks.
The Pentagon's slow pace in implementing the directive is a source of growing frustration for women soldiers, many of them veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. They warn that the military risks losing some of its most-qualified and committed female soldiers if combat opportunities do not open soon.
"There's 10 years of evidence of women performing in a combat role," said Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt, who was wounded during a 2007 Iraq tour and is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the restrictions. "To say it needs more study, I think, is pushing off the inevitable."
Top Army and Marine generals have voiced support in principle for allowing women into ground combat jobs, including those in infantry, artillery and armored units. But the services are in the midst of lengthy studies and trials aimed at identifying whether certain jobs or units, such as Marine rifle platoons or special operations detachments, should remain off-limits for women.
The January directive gives each service until Jan. 1, 2016, to complete the changes and to recommend which jobs should remain closed, a decision that will be made by Defense Secretary
"We're trying to do this the right way," said Capt. Maureen Krebs, a Marine spokeswoman, explaining the lengthy evaluation process. "We have until 2016 to complete our plan."
Despite the ban, thousands of women have seen combat in recent wars, and hundreds have been wounded and killed, a testament to their growing numbers and to the shifting front lines and guerrilla tactics used by insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many female soldiers in civil affairs intelligence and other specialized noncombat jobs have been attached to ground units, but they remain excluded from joining the front-line units that train in directly engaging the enemy.
Since combat experience is crucial to career advancement, many women who served in Afghanistan and Iraq say they face difficult decisions about whether to stay in the military if they are not allowed to compete for such assignments.
The three enlisted Marines who completed the training were among the first 15 enlisted women who volunteered to go through the infantry course after boot camp at Parris Island, a Marine base in South Carolina. They had to pass the same physical screening test as men, which includes doing three pull-ups, 50 crunches in two minutes and running 3 miles in 28 minutes.
Their numbers gradually dwindled as the eight-week course proceeded, both from voluntary withdrawals and failure to complete tasks. Only seven remained for the 20-kilometer march on Oct. 28, and only four completed it. One of the finishers was Pfc. Harlee "Rambo" Bradford, who posted a picture Nov. 9 on Instagram, a photo-sharing application, with three other female Marines. It bore the caption, "And then there was four."
Bradford told the Marine Corps Times, an independent publication that covers the military: "I finished all of the … requirements with a stress fracture." But her injury prevented her from graduating from the course, Krebs said.
The three women who did finish also had to pass the Combat Fitness Test, which requires running 800 meters, about half a mile, in combat boots in less than 4 minutes, 13 seconds, lifting 35-pound ammo boxes at least 33 times and completing an obstacle course in 3 minutes, 58 seconds.
The combat training course for Marine officers is considerably tougher than the one for enlisted Marines, and so far no women have completed it. Nine of the 10 women who entered did not finish the first day of the 13-week course, which begins with a punishing combat endurance test. The remaining woman dropped out because of an injury after one week.
Hunt, the Army staff sergeant, is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union that is seeking to have the existing restriction against women serving in combat units overturned immediately. The case is pending in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
A civil affairs specialist, Hunt deployed in 2007 to Iraq, where she was wounded with shrapnel to the face when a hidden bomb exploded under her vehicle. In a previous yearlong deployment to Afghanistan, she said she went out on numerous "door-kicking missions" with infantry units in which she was the only woman on the team, sometimes dropping into mountain villages by helicopter.
Now attending an advanced leadership course at Ft. Knox in Kentucky, Hunt said she would have to decide next year whether to reenlist. One factor, she said, will be whether she is allowed to compete for a spot in Ranger School, the Army's intense, 61-day combat leadership course.
Women are barred both from the course and from joining the Rangers, the elite special-forces unit that has conducted some of the most demanding missions during the last 12 years of war.
Some advocates in Congress of a greater role for women, including Rep.
Hunt agrees, saying all she wants is a chance: "If I can't meet the physical standards they set out, I'll be the first to say I don't belong."