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Women heading to US Navy Riverine combat jobs

November 7, 2013

CAMP LEJEUNE, North Carolina (AP) — Women are about to break another barrier in U.S. military services. By year’s end, a half dozen women are expected to become the first assigned to a battlefront Navy job that is just now opening up to women.

U.S. military services are struggling to figure out how to move women into battlefront jobs, including infantry, armor and elite commando positions. They have until Jan. 1, 2016, to open as many jobs as possible to women, and to explain why if they decide to keep some closed.

The three Riverine Delta Company units are used for combat operations, often called on to move quickly into shallow waters where they can insert forces for raids or conduct rescue missions.

The Delta Company jobs are some of the first combat positions in the military to formally accept women, and breaking through the barriers hasn’t been easy. The pressure is mounting on the six women expected to be formally assigned to a Riverine combat company by year’s end.

Anna Schnatzmeyer, one of the women, knows all too well that the world is watching.

Her face is taut with concentration as she slowly maneuvers the Riverine assault boat away from the dock, using the complex controls to try and inch the 34-foot (10-meter) craft straight back without sliding sideways.

Her instructor, standing next to her, orders her forward again, and despite the slow, careful creep, the Navy boat knocks into the pier.

It’s the first time she’s ever piloted a boat. She’s in full battle gear and the sun is beating off Mile Hammock Bay on the edge of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. A stiff wind is tossing waves against the nearby shore.

Schnatzmeyer has already passed the combat skills course, allowing her to be part of a Delta Company crew, as an intelligence analyst or maybe a gunner who controls one of the machine guns mounted on the boat, jobs that weren’t open to women before. But this Riverine crewman course would allow her to be a boat captain or coxswain — crew leaders who drive the boat or direct the fight.

“Ever since I was little, this is what I wanted to do,” said Schnatzmeyer, who was in grade school when terrorists attacked on 9/11. “My dad would take me to air shows and I would tell my family I wanted to be a soldier.”

She was drawn to the combat, to the guns.

“Growing up you want to join the branch and you want to do what you can to help, and then you realize, ‘I can’t go into combat,’” Schnatzmeyer said. “You think, what’s the purpose of me being in the military? To sit at a desk?”

By lifting the ban on women in battlefront combat jobs, she said the Pentagon is now giving her and other women a chance. Riverine combat units, for example, went to war in Iraq. They were not used in Afghanistan, where river combat operations weren’t really needed.

At 23, the El Paso, Texas, native has been in the Navy just one year and is a master at arms 3. Neither she nor her boat buddy, Danielle Hinchliff, had any boating experience before they climbed aboard for the seven-week crewman course, which includes late night drills that require night-vision goggles and radar to pilot the craft across the dark and murky waters.

The difficulty was evident in the final result: All three women, including Schnatzmeyer and Hinchliff, and six of the men failed to pass the seven-week crewman course that would allow them to command the boats and the crews — more than a third of the 26-member class.

The military services are devising updated physical and mental standards — equal for men and women — for thousands of combat jobs.

The common requirements for men and women for each post would be based on specific tasks. Military officials say standards will not be lowered in order to bring women into any combat posts.

The Navy — which has nearly 69,000 women on active duty — is about to open up about 270 jobs in the Coastal Riverine Force to women. The service plans to let women serve in all but a “very limited number” of Navy positions.

Over the spring and summer, in highly public fashion, women in successive attempts washed out of the Marine’s grueling infantry officer course. The fact that dozens of men also failed gets little notice.

The military men watching the transition offer public support, but often add subtle caveats that belie an underlying uncertainty. Most are young and are willing to see women competing for the combat jobs, but they want to be sure that those who get in are worthy.

Instructor Jerry Gray is a former Marine and has been teaching the Riverine course for seven years. As far as he’s concerned he has 26 students who either make the grade or don’t.

Would he want a woman in combat next to him?

“I’m not going to lie, I would accept it, but I know myself, I would be much more protective, it’s just my nature. Chivalry is not dead,” Gray said. But, he added, “I haven’t seen it in this class. They seem to accept them as a peer, with the same expectations of them as they do of any of the guys.”

Altogether, 15 women have passed the Riverine combat skills course since they were first allowed to participate about a year ago. Six of those women — including Schnatzmeyer — have been assigned to Delta Company in Coastal Riverine Squadron 2, based in Portsmouth, Virginia. They have begun training with the unit with the expectation that they will be formally admitted later this year.


Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this story.

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