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Ted Cruz’s off-base claim that having women in combat leads to increased casualties

(Photo by Ricky Carioti/ The Washington Post)

“You know, the Marines recently did studies on this, looking [at] that. Putting women in that position [in combat] ended up increasing casualties both among the women and among the men, that it decreases military effectiveness.”

–Sen. Ted Cruz, FOX News forum, Feb. 24, 2016

Combat integration is a controversial topic that has come up regularly on the campaign trail. During a recent forum, Cruz cited a United States Marine Corps study examining the issue.

But did this study find that putting women in previously-closed combat positions would increase casualties among men and women and decrease military effectiveness, as Cruz claimed? No, he’s stretching the data. Let’s take a look at what the study really said.

The Facts

All combat positions in all military branches have been open to women since Jan. 1, 2016. The Army and Marine Corps has had more gender-restricted positions than other military branches.

The Marine Corps ran a nine-month experiment to find out how the Corps would look with integrated combat units, which included previously-closed positions (infantry, artillery and mechanized units). The units in the study were integrated into ratios that would be expected.

There were two phases of the study: a four-month training period and a five-month “deployment” period to the Mojave Desert in Twentynine Palms, Calif. They simulated a training and warfare cycle that was common over the past 15 years. The result was a nearly 1,000-page report.

Researchers looked at critical components of ground combat: speed, cohesion, lethality (ability to hit the target), survivability (ability to withstand or avoid enemy gunfire) and readiness (whether you are well enough to do your job when called on to do it).

All-male teams performed better on 69 percent of the tasks compared to integrated units, which finished their tasks at a slower rate and with fewer hits on target (except with the .50 caliber machine gun). But integrated teams had higher unit cohesion.

Women didn’t do as well as men removing wounded bodies from the battlefield. This was done using a 220-pound dummy body, which represents the weight of an average Marine (174 pounds) carrying full combat gear. The average weight of a female volunteer in the study was 142 pounds.

There was no finding that supported Cruz’s claim that having an integrated team would increase “casualties” (when a person can no longer can fight because of injury or death). Cruz seems to be referring to the study’s findings that relate to injuries and combat readiness. His campaign did not respond to our inquiry.

Women got injured more frequently on the job, while men were more likely to have non-occupational injuries or illnesses. That means integrated units had reduced combat readiness, according to the report, which is a part of combat effectiveness (the broader capability of a unit to perform its mission).

But gender wasn’t the only factor that led to more injuries; units tasked with performing certain skills were prone to occupational injuries. Units that operated vehicles were less likely to have occupational injuries than units that marched or operated artillery. And once an injury occurred, males and females recovered at the same pace.

Female Marines “demonstrated that they are capable of performing the physically demanding tasks, but not necessarily at the same level as their male counterparts in terms of performance, fatigue, workload, or cohesion,” according to the report.

“We want to select the right human beings for the jobs so they don’t get injured as often and can do the job, so the long-term goal is to find out what that [standard] is,” said Paul Johnson, lead researcher of the study and scientific adviser for the Marine Corps Operational Test and Evaluation Activity.

Critics of the study say you can’t measure the combat effectiveness of an integrated unit without having occupation-related, gender-neutral standards and training.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has been critical of the study, saying that the conclusions were based on the average performance of female Marines rather than individual abilities of the female volunteers: “There were — and are — capable women who can meet the arduous standards the Marine Corps set for ground combat arms units,” he said in a February 2016 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Mabus and others have noted that media coverage has focused on women’s performance in this specific study, without noting other research. For example, a 2015 behavioral health assessment showed integrated units had higher morale than all-male units. While physical preparedness was important, so were resourcefulness and creative problem-solving, the report said. Female Marines found creative solutions to compensate for their reduced height and/or strength, the report said.

The Pinocchio Test

Cruz misrepresents the Marines study’s findings when saying that putting women in previously-closed combat roles ended up increasing casualties among men and women — and thereby decreasing military effectiveness. The study said nothing about the presence of women in units and the impact on casualties (which, in military terms, include both injuries and deaths) within the unit.

The relation to combat effectiveness was a more nuanced one: that women were prone to more injuries on the job, which reduced their combat readiness (and ultimately, effectiveness). But the type of task the unit was responsible for also led to more injuries among the Marines. Moreover, this argument overlooks findings in other Marines studies, such as women’s ability to overcome their reduced height and weight by using creative problem-solving.

Cruz’s mischaracterization of the Marines research earns him Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

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