Assessment Of Female Marines Kept Secret As Critics Blast Methods

Oct 30, 2015
Originally published on November 14, 2015 6:36 pm
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Defense Secretary Ash Carter faces a big decision. It's whether to bar women from many ground combat jobs in the Marines. Marine General Joseph Dunford recommended that shortly before becoming the nation's top military officer. He based his view on a report that found female Marines to be slower and weaker and less lethal than their male counterparts - at least that's what we've heard. The Pentagon is keeping the full text of that report secret. NPR's Tom Bowman reports on what is known.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The study was completed in the summer at a cost of $36 million. At the heart of it is a detailed assessment of 400 male and female Marines who spent nearly a year in combat exercises. Each of the nearly 1,000 pages is marked, quote, "pre-decisional, not releasable under the Freedom of Information Act." Secretary Carter was asked recently whether he'd release the report to either the public or Congress. He wouldn't answer, saying only this.


ASH CARTER: You say it's stamped pre-decisional, that I can tell you it is because the decision in question is mine and it's pre-that, that's for sure.

BOWMAN: Top administration officials and women's advocates already have blasted the report, portions of which have been released by the Marines or leaked to the press. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus on NPR's MORNING EDITION brushed aside the study, charging that male Marines were biased against women.


RAY MABUS: When you start out with that mindset, you're almost presupposing the outcome.

ELLE HARING: It was a flawed design from the get-go.

BOWMAN: That's retired Army Colonel Ellen Haring who has leaked several hundred pages of the report and wrote an analysis.

HARING: It wasn't looking to establish minimum qualification standards and then see who could meet them. Instead it was a competition.

BOWMAN: Haring complained that the study showed that some women performed on par or better than men, but that was not mentioned in the Marine report.

HARING: But you've got some really super outlier women in there that consistently performed at the top level of the top men.

BOWMAN: So the bottom line is there are some rock star women in this study that should be able to serve in Marine ground combat.

HARING: Absolutely.

BOWMAN: The Marines are privately frustrated they can't release their own report or even answer critics. A memo from Secretary Carter says none of the military services can talk about their findings on women in combat, even though only the Marines are seeking to bar women from infantry units. The Marines say they did not spotlight any high-achieving women because they work as teams, not as individuals. And women may do well on physical tests, the Marines say, but the study found they tired more easily than men, took longer to complete a combat exercise and had far more injuries. Secretary Carter told reporters he would focus on all the details the Marines lay out.


CARTER: I'm going to make this decision on the basis of the facts of the analysis, and if there's good analysis in the report to which you refer, that'll be important to me.

BOWMAN: Sources say General Dunford, now Joint Chiefs chairman, is not just concerned that combat effectiveness will be degraded with women in the infantry ranks. He also worries that injuries might force someone women out of the Corps. So Dunford's recommendation, based on the study, says all infantry jobs, as well as combat engineers and forward artillery observers, should remain closed to women - roughly one-third of the jobs in the entire Marine Corps. Not everyone sees the Marines' study on gender integration as flawed.

ANDREW LOERCH: I think I would give them an A for effort. It's probably a solid B-plus in execution.

BOWMAN: Andrew Loerch is a professor in the department of systems engineering and operations research at George Mason University. He peer-reviewed the study for the Marine Corps, watching several dozen training events.

LOERCH: I thought that this was as objective an exercise as it could be.

BOWMAN: Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a Marine combat veteran, liked what he heard about the study. He was among the lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee who were briefed by Marine leaders last month on the report's methodology.

SETH MOULTON: I was impressed by the approach that they have taken, but we really need to see the results of the study so we can examine this in the most transparent way possible.

BOWMAN: There may be some movement in that direction. Pentagon sources say some lawmakers have threatened Secretary Carter with a subpoena unless he turns over that Marine report. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.