Male and female Marine officers stood side by side on the firing line Friday in a military first - men and women getting basic training together.
The 19 women and 230 men are the first mixed-sex military company in 20 years. And this time, they are training together.The Marines and other services tried a similar arrangement in the 1970s but abandoned the practice because of morale and logistical problems.
The Marines are using a new approach that differs from the earlier experiments that didn't expose women to the full array of combat exercises such as tank training and amphibious landings. This time, women and men will get the same lessons, down to hand-to-hand combat and a simulated beach assault.
"I don't think much about it. It's just natural, the way it should be," Lt. Kristin McKinley, 23, said as she stood ankle-deep in mud on the M-16 rifle range.
The Marines and the other services still bar women from combat assignments. But the six months of war training required for all Marines will prepare the women for anything, said Col. Robert Fawcett, who heads the training school in Quantico, 45 miles south of Washington, D.C.
"It just seemed to make sense to do it this way," Fawcett said. "They need to be able to handle themselves in a fluid battlefield."
Until now, the Marines trained female and male recruits separately and, in joint exercises, gave them different tasks.
Other services maintain segregated training, though classroom instruction and other activities often are mixed.
The women in the integrated Marine company will be the first taught to crawl through woods alongside men in simulated battles with live ammunition. And they will hammer each other with wooden pikes that simulate bayonets.
Also a part of the change, the Marines named a woman - Capt. Kyle Walton, 28 - to lead an integrated platoon. Previously, women only led women's units.
"We do not treat them as special," Walton said. "We are Marines just like everybody else."
While their training will be identical, men and women will still have different tests for physical fitness. But company commander Maj. Jeffrey Dorn said he encourages the women to try meeting the men's standard.
"They have all attempted it, and they are doing real well," he said. "Some of them are doing it better than I did."
"Being short doesn't help, but I'm working very hard," said Lt. Racquel Lyles, 22, who was loaded down with heavy cotton battle gear and more than 50 pounds of equipment.
On Friday, the women were indistinguishable from the men when they threw themselves into the mud with their M-16s, helmets and gas masks. Later, they all ran up a slippery hillside carrying live grenades.
A commission is to release findings this fall on whether women should serve in battle.