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Marine photo / Lance Cpl. Joshua B. Young

Female Marines learn to use the M-240 machine gun in California before heading to Afghanistan

The Marine Corps is planning to let women enroll in its school that trains infantry combat officers. It’s not the same as letting women serve in front-line combat units, but it’s definitely a step in that direction.

A top Marine officer says an undetermined number of female volunteers will be allowed to attend the Infantry Officers Course at Quantico, Va., as part of an effort to find additional billets that can be opened to women.

“We are in the process right now of soliciting volunteers,” General Joseph Dunford, the corps assistant commandant, told the independent Marine Corps Times newspaper Wednesday. After that, enlisted Marines will also get the chance to attend infantry training, Dunford told the Times.

It’s not clear yet just where these expanded opportunities for women will lead, although Marine leaders are expected to offer details in the coming weeks. They’re also likely to ask Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for permission to expand roles for women by the end of the year.

Laws barring women from serving in combat units were lifted nearly 20 years ago, although Pentagon regulations have had much the same effect since then.

Notes a just-issued Congressional Research Service report on women serving in Afghanistan and Iraq:

…although women totaled over 10% of those deployed, they accounted for 1.82% of those wounded and 2.26% of those who died. The majority of deaths (78.70%) were categorized as “hostile.” Observers have stated that moving women into the combat arms will very likely increase the proportion of women who are wounded and/or die during hostilities.

Women advocates have long complained that barring women from front-line units hurts their chances for promotion, given that most senior military ranks are filled with combat veterans. Opponents cite female troops’ lesser strength and sexual distractions their addition would bring to combat units as reasons for limiting them to support roles such as communications, mechanics and medicine.

“Direct ground combat missions, with physical demands beyond the capability of almost all women, have not changed,” Elaine Donnelly, head of the non-profit Center for Military Readiness, said in February when the Pentagon eased its restrictions on women serving in support roles in front-line units. “If a soldier is wounded in battle–what we saw many times in Baghdad in 2003 or Fallujah in November 2004–a co-located support soldier may be the only person in a position to evacuate the wounded soldier on his own back. In this environment, women do not have an equal opportunity to survive, or to help fellow soldiers survive.”

The Marines’ Training and Education Command is developing a new series of gender-neutral physical fitness tests that won’t have different standards for men and women, the Times says. Such two-track testing has been cited by opponents of opening up combat jobs to women as a key reason to keep them out; if the tests are the same for both men and women, the thinking goes, the argument of physical ability should go away.

The Marines, long viewed as traditionalists, have stepped up and done, by all accounts, a good job letting openly gay men and women serve in the corps after their initial opposition. It now appears that they may be forward-leaning when it comes to having women, eventually, serve alongside men on the front lines as well.

(PHOTOSBeen There, Done That: Pentagon Formally Opens Combat to Women)

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