Army 1st Lt. Ashley Miller, 24, is enrolled in the legendary school for combat engineers.
(Photo: Jack Gruber, USA TODAY)
(USA Today)-- LAKE OF THE OZARKS, Mo. - The air temperature was barely above freezing and snow clung to the banks of the lake when Army 1st Lt. Ashley Miller plunged into the inky waters.
Dragging packs weighing about 40 pounds each, Miller and other students from the Army's legendary Sapper Leader Course for combat engineers began swimming for the opposite shore. Instructors on jet skis buzzed around the swimmers, stirring up the placid waters to simulate the rough seas they might encounter in a combat mission.
Miller, 24, a slightly built West Point graduate, didn't stand out despite being the only woman among several dozen men struggling through one of the military's most physically demanding courses. For more than a decade, the Army has quietly allowed women to take this course, putting them through the same training as the men.
For the nation, the issue of allowing women into ground combat jobs, such as infantry, is a highly charged and emotional issue that riles politicians and revives well-worn arguments for and against a change. Not so here, far from the podiums and cable news shows, where small numbers of women have been proving themselves physically capable for years.
"Do you have what it takes? If you can prove that, regardless of gender, then it doesn't really matter," Miller said later as dusk descended and storm clouds gathered over the lake.
Through much of U.S. history, women have been exposed to combat - even more so in the last generation of warfare, in the likes of Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, the American casualty list is laced with the names of these fallen.
Until this year, they have been banned from ground combat jobs that require physical strength and endurance that test even the most robust combatant. In a historic shift that could open up hundreds of thousands of jobs to women, the Pentagon in January overturned its ban on women in ground combat jobs.
Since that order, the services have scrambled to develop physical standards that would apply to both genders. The Pentagon's action has brought scrutiny to this school for clues it may provide about integrating women into ground combat jobs.
For those skeptical of integration and how it might affect unit cohesion and effectiveness, the results might be surprising. The integration of women here caused barely a ripple, officers say.
"The answer ... is nothing happened with the course," said Army Brig. Gen. Peter DeLuca, commandant of the Army Engineer School.
"The fact that we didn't change the training standard is what has made it frankly so successful," he said. "It's accepted by everybody."
Burly instructors who have made no concessions to female students are among the biggest believers in equal opportunity, DeLuca said. They have learned to ignore gender as they watched women prove themselves under the toughest conditions.
"As long as there is not favoritism given to gender, it will work," said Master Sgt. Jerimiah Gan, the chief instructor.
"That's a sapper," Gan said, jabbing a finger toward Miller, who was leaning over her rucksack as she attempted to waterproof it in the required 10 minutes. "I don't see her as a female."
"Sapper," a military term with a centuries-old pedigree, is loosely described as small teams of combat engineers who can move through the toughest terrain to blow up obstacles or clear mines.
Though the sapper school's training of women has become a sort of social experiment, it wasn't designed to be. It was opened to women in 1999 because these soldiers were already allowed into the engineering field, and the Army simply concluded that all junior leaders - men and women - should be given an opportunity to attend the elite course.
In the ensuing 14 years, 55 women have graduated from the course out of 147 who have attended. Marine Capt. Katie Neff, 28, graduated No. 1 among all students in a class last summer.
Only a small number of women have volunteered for the school. Though their graduation rate started out lower, it's now roughly the same as men's: about 50%.
The small number of women who come here suggests women might not be clamoring to join combat arms fields. Miller said that though she's not interested in the infantry, she did seek out sapper school to become a better engineer platoon leader.
The class combines the physical challenges with course work on minefield clearing and demolition techniques. The idea is to create engineering teams able to keep up with front-line infantry units. Even so, it's viewed as a good test of what women can do.
"Any woman who tabs in sapper school can tab in Ranger School," Gan said, referring to graduation.