First women could start Navy SEAL training in August
The first female Navy SEAL candidates could arrive at pre-training as early as mid-May, and the Marines will start sending women ground combat candidates to boot camp as soon as April, according to time lines released Thursday by the Defense Department.
That would mean the first women could start the infamously tough SEAL training course in Coronado in late August — potentially being assigned to SEAL teams as early as October 2017, if they make the cut.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's office said he has approved implementation plans by each of America's armed services to allow women in nearly 220,000 previously closed combat jobs.
It's a move building since 2013, when then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that he would lift the ban on women in combat. Many observers see it as an acknowledgment that women have proven themselves in the line of fire during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
"Having reviewed their exceptionally thorough work, I am pleased all of the services developed plans that will effectively carry out this change and make us even better in the future," Carter said in a statement.
A Marine Corps spokesman said recruiters are poised to offer ground combat contracts to potential female recruits as soon as they get the signal from Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller.
"They are ready," said Capt. Philip Kulczewski, a Marine Corps headquarters spokesman.
Women who want to seek ground combat jobs will have to pass the same rigorous initial strength test taken by men, including three pull-ups, among other things. Females who don't want to become infantry Marines aren't required to do pull-ups at present.
Pull-ups, a classic test of upper-body strength, have been considered a stumbling block for women. Critics of the current system have said the military has done women a disservice by setting a lower bar for them.
Lt. Col. Kate Germano is one of those.
Germano is former commander of the 4th Recruit Training Battalion at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., the sole training unit for women recruits in the Marine Corps. She was removed for being "hostile," but her supporters said she was targeted for pushing tough reforms to hold women recruits to higher standards.
"I think the biggest takeaway that I have for the plan is that it doesn't address the overall quality issues we have with female recruits right out the gate," Germano said.
It would make more sense to hold all recruits, men and women, to the more rigorous standards regardless of their assignment, she said. The plan "only increases the standards for women who self-identify for ground combat."
On the other hand, former Marine Capt. Jacquie Atkinson said she sees the single standard for men and women headed to combat arms positions as an important step forward.
"It's important for leaders to not give the impression that anyone gets a free ride," she said.
When she led a combat engineering unit, she was one of the few women around, and in some instances, the only woman some of her colleagues ever served with, let alone reported to.
"I had a very good experience there and I upheld the standards. I was stronger in some cases and I ran faster than some men," said Atkinson, who is now running for Congress as a Republican in San Diego's 52nd District.
As women start entering Marine infantry units, the goal will be to assign two or more junior enlisted females to the same unit. If that's not possible because of low numbers, a single woman will still be assigned, because at least two female leaders are expected to be present in a unit before her arrival.
On the Marine officer side, women who want to lead infantry units will have to pass the Infantry Officer Course. In the three years the Marine Corps spent evaluating women in infantry roles, female hopefuls struggled to succeed in the grueling 10-week curriculum, which includes long hikes and an obstacle course.
An official comment released on Thursday said, "As a result of our research, the Marine Corps instituted clearly defined gender neutral, operationally relevant, individual performance standards across the spectrum of Marine training."
The U.S. Army has a significant chunk of the jobs that will now open to women.
The Army's plan shows it initiating gender-neutral training this month and starting to assign women to operational units next February.
The first applications from female Navy officers who want to join the nation's 2,750 elite SEALs were due March 4. Officials at Coronado's Naval Special Warfare Command said Thursday they won't comment on the gender of applicants.
A SEAL spokesman said the dates mentioned in the plan simply reflect the first opportunities open to female candidates.
"It would be premature to speculate as to when the first women would be available for SEAL or SWCC (special warfare combatant-craft crewmen) training, or when the first female SEALs would receive their Trident pins," Cmdr. Jason Salata said.
"Any expansion of the force will be a deliberate process; it will not take hours, days or weeks, but months and potentially years."
In the broad public debate surrounding females entering the last bastions of all-male combat, common questions include how units will accommodate women in what is generally a no-privacy, cheek-to-jowl atmosphere in the field.
The Naval Special Warfare Command plan includes details on how to handle that.
During initial training, SEAL officials plan to house female SEAL candidates on a separate floor or wing most of the time and add extra security cameras. The Navy will also build separate bathrooms at San Clemente Island, where special warfare sailors do advanced maneuvers. Total cost: $275,000.
A memo from Rear Adm. Brian Losey, the top SEAL commander, said that history has shown that quotas don't work and won't be attempted and that physical standards will remain neutral as to gender.
The current average physical screening test score for enlisted SEAL applicants is 18 pull-ups, 82 sit-ups and 87 push-ups, each in two minutes.
An estimated 65 percent of male officer candidates survive the 21-week SEAL training course known as Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL, or BUD/S, and go on to graduate.
A much lower percentage of male enlisted candidates — 28 percent — make the cut.
The full SEAL training pipeline — from pre-BUD/S preparation classes to post-BUD/S advanced courses — is 63 weeks.
Staff writer Joshua Stewart contributed to this report.
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