On a warm spring day at Ft. Stewart, a handful of soldiers dressed in combat garb are loading fake ammunition into a tank gun. It’s a simulation, but the long, dark cylinders they’re hoisting into white plastic tubes, one after another, are just as heavy as the real thing.
Maj. Brad Warr times the soldiers to see how quickly they can complete the task. He says this 55-pound ammunition is among the toughest to load in a confined space like the interior of a tank.
"They have to drop - you know, lower their knees down, flip the round, and then elevate back up as they push in," he says.
Warr is a physician’s assistant with the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Massachusetts. He’s part of a team looking at the physical demands of combat at a handful of bases around the country. As the military works toward integrating women into combat by 2016, officials want to know what physical capabilities are needed to succeed.
Soldiers like Corine Monaghan are asked to perform some of the most physically demanding tasks in the Army, and evaluated for strength, agility, coordination, and endurance.
Taking a break between exercises, Monaghan says many of the jobs - like marching 12 miles with a 90-pound ruck sack - have tested her limits.
"Even with the rest stops, it was hard on your knees, your hips," she says. "It was challenging – mentally and physically."
But she says the women she works with are up to the challenge. Monaghan is as a military police officer, and she says she’s happy with that job, but volunteered for the study because she wants to help other women have the opportunity to take on combat roles.
"I’ve met a lot of females here who’ve had just as much strength as our male counterparts and they were able to complete the tasks we were asked to do just as quickly if not faster sometimes," Monaghan says. "As long as you can keep up and meet the standard, why not?"
But as the standards shift, some male soldiers may not be able to keep up.
David Brinkley is with the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Eustis, Va. He says the results will also be used to screen out soldiers who aren’t qualified for a particular combat specialty, or MOS.
"Right now we have men that come into these specialties that frankly aren’t strong enough to do them\," Brinkley says. "And right now the only requirement for them to join one of these high physical demand MOS is to have the right chromosome and get through training at a minimal level."
Participating in the Army’s study is also giving male soldiers a preview of what it might be like to work with women in the handful of jobs still closed to them.
Pfc. Guillermo Gutierrez is a tanker used to working with an all-male crew. He says working alongside women was a new experience.
"At first...you’re not used to it so you’re kinda of iffy about it and (you want to) see if they can handle it," he says. "But most of them have proven themselves good at this kind of job."
Gutierrez says some the tasks – like loading buckets with sand, and that long march – were challenging for the men, too.
"The majority of the males weren’t looking forward to the 12-mile ruck, but we all took it head-on and we all made it," he says.
The study is expected to wrap up by 2016, when the Army hopes to use the data to decide which men and women are best suited to combat jobs.