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Gender Equality and Physical Fitness

Photo Credit: The Daily Beast
Photo Credit: The Daily Beast

Gender Equality and Physical Fitness

Picture a squad on patrol. Each soldier has a full load of equipment, weighing between 25 and 40 pounds, depending on military specialty and weapon. The squad leader weighs 225, is in charge of directing the soldiers, completing the mission, communicating to higher. The medic, weighing 135, is responsible for the care of soldiers if wounded and their successful evac. Both achieve a perfect score on their physical fitness test (PFT). It is easily argued that both soldiers are vital to the mission and have no reason not to be out on patrol. It could also be argued, however, that both soldiers are a liability. If the squad leader is wounded and the medic can not singlehandedly evac that soldier to safety, it puts the entire squad in a difficult position and causes other soldiers to move from their primary role of warfighter to their secondary role of combat lifesaver. Who doesn’t belong on the mission? What if the medic is a woman, does that matter? Should it?

The answer to these questions are what key military officials are facing as they move forward to a future that includes non linear warfare and a combined gender combat arms. While each branch has height/weight and physical fitness standards, those standards are equal for each military specialty. According to the current physical fitness evaluation system, an infantryman and a dental hygienist are both supposed to be able to perform to the same minimum standards in order to be seen as physically fit.

Even more controversial is that women have a different standard in regards to both physical fitness as well as allowable body fat percentage. This difference in standard is a key argument for those who wish to keep the combat arms military specialties open only for men. At the beginning of 2014, the Marines made the first step towards equalizing the PFT by announcing that it will end the option for female Marines to choose a flex armed hang instead of performing three pull ups. On July 3rd, after a report that only 55% of current female Marines would be able to pass the new requirement, the Marines have decided to delay the deadline. (Marine Standards)

According to a Military.com article, It’s unclear if the Marine Corps will decide to require males and females to perform the same PFT standards, but officials said that the service has no plans to lower the physical requirements of Marine infantry training. (Military.com article)

Tammy Lanning, a two time veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, questions the focus on pull ups at all. “…if only half of the females in the Marine Corps could meet the requirement, is it even worth the time and resources that are being put in to try to restructure the combat arms for only a handful of females to succeed? Should this be a priority for the military in a time of significant financial restrictions and personnel draw downs?”

Women’s advocates, however, are pushing for what they are calling proxy tests aligned with the specialty that one is entering, as opposed to a standard formula for both genders. These proxy tests, such as the ability to load a tank round or field artillery round into a gun, have their own problems. Greg Jacob, a former Marine and policy director of the Service Women’s Action Network says of the current testing “We don’t know…It’s a plan but you’re not really sure what it’s explaining or what it’s doing…The problem that women are encountering is…they’re not even able to get into the school to confront these quasi-neutral standards…” (One year later, military criticized over rate of progress for women in combat, Lin)

A recently enlisted female soldier who wishes to remain anonymous agrees that the gender gap can be frustrating. “I love my job, but it does get a little old being constantly reminded that I’m a girl each time I look at what new schools or classes I can take to advance my career…While in Basic Training, one of the tasks we had to complete was running an obstacle course…what I noticed as I was completing each task was that the body type and the exposure to the task determined how well the soldier did on the task…What became obvious to me with each phase of training was that if a solder was exposed to such skills as was expected to learn and use them, he or she would do so.”

Teddi Ferguson, a currently serving NCO puts things in simple perspective, “…regardless of gender, if a soldier cannot meet the minimum requirements to perform the task in the field (or in garrison) then they should not be allowed to be in that MOS.”

While the focus is on equalizing the standard between women and men, the Army has been quietly revamping the PFT with intentions of rolling out a new test as early October. This new test, which includes running, rowing, push ups and a pass/fail shuttle run and standing long jump, still does not take into consideration a soldier’s occupation, instead pushes for a better overall assessment of physical strength and cardiovascular condition. Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler even questions the need for the standing long jump stating “(it is a) great measurement of leg strength but not necessarily what we want to measure.” (Army Times Article)

There is a long road ahead for military officials who are trying to make sense of a new type of war and a more integrated military force. While they debate and decide, soldiers in the field will do what they do best, adapt and overcome.

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