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2 Female Marines At Camp Pendleton Strive To Join Combat Units

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We're going now to hear from two groundbreaking women in the military. They're female Marines. And they're among the first to sign-up for frontline ground combat roles now that the Pentagon has changed its rules to formally allow women in war. Reporter Susan Murphy from member station KPBS takes us now to meet them at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

ANGELIQUE PRESTON: This is going to come as a surprise. But I was a cheerleader for five years. Yeah, I was kind of the black sheep, though of, the squad.

SUSAN MURPHY, BYLINE: That's 22-year-old Corporal Angelique Preston from the San Francisco Bay Area. She became a Marine straight out of high school.

PRESTON: I joined the Marine Corps because I wanted to do Marine things, like go to combat.

MURPHY: Preston's inspiration - Her dad, an army artillery officer who taught her to love howitzers and do battlefield crawls.

PRESTON: Growing up and wanting to be in the Marine Corps and wanting to do artillery and feeling like, well, you shouldn't do that because you're a female, you're a woman - Why? I want to go.

MURPHY: Now the Marine corporal can. The Pentagon has cleared the way for women who qualify to join ground fighting forces. Preston has submitted her application for field artillery. It's one of the most demanding and dangerous jobs in a war zone.

PRESTON: I'm good at it. And I can do it better than some of the men can. And a lot of times, they get kind of - Kind of butt hurt.

MURPHY: Preston proved herself last year.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Fire.

MURPHY: Alongside men, she carried 100-pound loads for distances of 200 meters in the California desert, then loaded and fired howitzers. The avid weightlifter was part of a historic experiment to see if women could handle the rigorous requirements of combat. Shortly after the experiment ended, the defense secretary in December ordered all grounds combat units opened to women.

PRESTON: Coming into these kind of jobs, you have to be emotionally and physically strong. You can't just be one or the other.

It should bring your barrel up a little bit higher.

MURPHY: She works now as a marksmanship coach. If her application is accepted, she's prepared to prove to her male counterparts she's worthy to serve beside them.

PRESTON: If a guy gets shot and a female picks him up and drags him off to safety, he's not going to care anymore that she's a female.

MURPHY: Preston's determination comes from people who have tried to discourage her.

PRESTON: Like, even my dad when I was younger and I said, I want to do that, he said, not in my lifetime. And so, like, I think part of my drive comes from me just being defiant.

MURPHY: Besides Preston, a couple hundred other women are eligible for the newly opened jobs. They've completed infantry or other ground combat schools. But few have applied. Before women like Preston are integrated into combat forces, more female leaders need to be put in roles where they can lead by example and serve as mentors. One of them is Capt. Brittney Boucher.

BRITTNEY BOUCHER: When it came out in December, I immediately went to my commanding officer and said I want the opportunity to be a tracker.

MURPHY: The Naval Academy graduate and triathlete from San Antonio, Texas wants to be an amphibious assault vehicle officer - commanding personnel carriers that swim out of Navy ships and onto invasion beaches.

BOUCHER: So they're going in. And they're clearing the enemy left, right, forward, behind - dropping the infantry off in a safe position and then setting up security.

MURPHY: She's eager to lead a ground combat platoon and enforce physical standards for men and women.

BOUCHER: If I were to be one of the first combat arms females, I mean, it's my standard and my internal challenge to be the most effective officer that I can be.

MURPHY: The 26-year-old's blazed a similar trail in 2013.

BOUCHER: Where I had a platoon of roughly 50 Marines. And they were all male.

MURPHY: Her year-long role as motor vehicle platoon commander was part of an initial trial to bring women leadership into combat units.

BOUCHER: Never had one issue while I was there, not one. I took them out for a run. I went out, PT'd with them. It's the communication piece of getting down and really knowing your Marines.

MURPHY: Boucher says if her application is accepted, she could begin an extensive 10-week training as early as June, followed by a deployment soon after.

BOUCHER: There will be challenges. And I think everybody knows that.

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RAY MABUS: Standards will not be lowered for any group.

MURPHY: That's why Navy Secretary Ray Mabus says the process will be gradual. He recently talked to 1,200 entry-level Marines at Camp Pendleton School of Infantry about his plan for screening and training Marines for the battlefield jobs. His message, a more diverse force is a stronger force.

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MABUS: We don't want everybody to come from the same background. We don't want everybody to have the same experiences. That makes us weaker. What makes us stronger is more diversity of thought, more diversity of experience.

MURPHY: In coming months, as more women apply and qualify like Preston and Boucher, they'll begin training alongside men and then be assigned to the artillery, infantry and armor positions. For NPR News, I'm Susan Murphy in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.