Women in Combat: How Should it be Done?

The two female officers who washed out of an elite Marine Corps school represent a larger issue in the military.

Female soldiers train on a firing range while wearing new body armor on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012, in Fort Campbell, Ky.

Female soldiers train on a firing range while wearing new body armor in September in Fort Campbell, Ky.

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The first two women to begin one of the Marine Corps toughest combat courses washed out within a week this fall. The Corps had temporarily lifted the restriction on women attending its Infantry Officer Course—one of the toughest schools in the U.S. military—in a nod toward greater equality through its ranks.

After both failed to make it beyond one week, what's next for female Leathernecks, or women in other services,who want to work in combat units?

The National Defense Authorization Act of 2011 included a provision instructing the military services to study the professional restrictions on female soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. The Army and Marine Corps do not allow women to serve in combat units—infantry, artillery or armor—and special ops units in all the services are largely restricted to men.

[Related: U.S. Military Women Exposed to More Combat Than Ever Before]

In an effort to see if those restrictions are outdated, the Corps established a planning team in Jan. 2011 to review its policies toward women. Among the scrutinized topics was the idea of opening up the brutal, nearly three-month Infantry Officers Course to women.

This latest experiment began this fall with two young female second lieutenants, whose identities and military occupational specialties, or MOSs, were not released to protect their privacy, the Pentagon says. They volunteered to enter fall IOC class, beginning Sept. 24.

About a quarter of the men who begin this sought-after course wash out before graduating.

Unlike other schools the Marine Corps offers for both male and female candidates, the first women to enter IOC were held to the same physical standards as their male counterparts.

One of the women dropped out on the first day (along with about 30 men) in the initial strength evaluation. The other passed the initial combat endurance test, but left after a week due to an injury.

The Corps produced a research plan obtained by U.S. News that shows its analysis so far.

While most services ban women from serving in direct combat positions, the line becomes muddied in a war without front lines—where those serving in non-combat roles can be thrust into fighting.

Laurie Emmer, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, experienced this firsthand. After joining the Army as a medic in 1982, Emmer completed three tours with the Army's elite 82nd Airborne, a quick reaction force that often finds itself at or behind enemy lines.

She was among the first women to graduate from the Army's Pathfinder School, learning advanced airborne techniques for entering enemy territory to guide in other aerial assets.

After two decades in the Army, Emmer deployed to Afghanistan in 2003 as the platoon sergeant for a medical unit.

"In my career, I have struggled trying to stay up with the men, in my best physical shape," she says. "I understand how demanding it is."

"I basically had to show that this is what I can do."

Emmer, who retired as a Sgt. 1st Class in 2005, encountered a lot of raised eyebrows from male soldiers who questioned having a woman in a combat environment. Her experience proving herself with 82nd Airborne troops, and the Pathfinder badge on her uniform, helped change their minds, she says.

"A lot of people said, 'Well, she passed that school. She must have earned it,' " she says.

But she acknowledges that her training is different than IOC and maintains that women should not have any preferential treatment.

"I know women have gotten mad at me for this, but they weren't women who have had to go out and do some of these things with me," she says.

"One of the things I saw in any of the times I had to work around infantry [soldiers] is, it's a demanding job," she says. "Any time I've had to be around them and I've had to carry anything on my back, I couldn't expect them to carry my weight and carry their own weight."

"What if this were combat, and I was slowing them down?"

The military's approach toward women in combat changed significantly during Emmer's tenure. Her initial training ingrained a doctrine in her of "here are the front lines, you aren't supposed to be near it."