The study tracked about 300 male Marines and 100 female Marines through nine months of rigorous combat activities at Twentynine Palm, Calif., and Camp Lejeune, N.C., including long marches carrying heavy loads and live-fire exercises with a variety of weapons. Women were inserted into some squads of Marines for 24 to 36 hours, with the units all compared.
Mabus, who oversees both the Navy and the Marine Corps, seemed to take issue with the study’s focus on the average female Marine, rather than high performers who may be able to stand up to the rigors of life in the infantry or another combat unit. That point also has been made by others advocating full integration of the military.
“Part of the study said that women tend not to be able to carry as heavy of a load for as long,” Mabus told NPR. “But, there are women who went through this study that could. And part of the study said that we’re afraid that because women get injured more frequently, that over time women will break down more. That you will begin to lose your combat effectiveness over time. That was not shown in this study. That was an extrapolation based on injury rates, and I’m not sure that’s right.”
The Marine Corps’ research was conducted as the services face a deadline this fall to submit recommendations to Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter on whether any jobs should be kept closed to women. Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta threw the doors to women serving in all positions in January 2013, but gave the services until this fall to research how they wanted to better integrate women and if any jobs should be kept closed.
Officials who conducted the research said Thursday that they did not focus on the performance of individual Marines because they wanted to see how inserting women into combat units would affect the performance of the overall units. The research also did not track the performance of individual women in an effort to avoid “confirmation bias,” in which personal opinions gleaned by watching some women in action tainted the research, said Paul Johnson, the principle investigator involved.
“There isn’t enough power in the research — at least not the way this research was designed — to go back and say, ‘There you go. That’s her. You want ones that look like that,'” Johnson said. “We tried, and that’s one of the limitations in my report.”
Mabus told NPR that analysis from the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded think tank for the Navy and Marine Corps, has found that women can be integrated into previously all-male combat units “with mitigation” without compromising lethality and or combat effectiveness.
“It started out with a fairly large component of the men thinking this is not a good idea and women will never able to do this,” Mabus said of the Marine Corps’ research. “When you start out with that mindset, you almost presuppose the outcome.”
Mabus said before the release of the research that he was in favor of full integration, causing some Marines to question why he didn’t stop them from carrying out the research, which cost $36 million, in the first place.
Mabus told NPR that “the one thing this study did” was show what the standards need to be to make it in a combat unit.
“There are these standards now,” he said. “In the past, we sent men into the infantry that couldn’t meet the standards. They were assumed to be able to meet them. They weren’t any standards. They were just assumed, since they’ve been through basic training they must be able to meet them.”
Marine officials have said for months that they did not want to lower the standards already in place, but would adhere to Panetta’s 2013 directive, which called for developing new gender-neutral standards for each job. A spokesman for the secretary, Navy Capt. Patrick McNally, said Friday that “in many cases there were no standards, or they were arbitrarily set.”
Mabus “appreciates that the study has provided a basis for occupational standards within those career fields covered by the report,” McNally said.
An official at Marine Corps headquarters said the service isn’t “going to “get into a debate with SECNAV.” The purpose of the service’s research was to “show scientific method and rigor that would help inform our military leaders and others about some of the possible considerations of gender integration into combat arms” jobs,” the official said. He spoke anonymously in order to candidly address Mabus’s remarks.
“It’s for leaders to weigh and consider,” the official said of the research. “The debate will continue in the near term, but in the end, we will effectively implement any policy the department decides.”