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July 24, 2014

Women in combat? Pitt studies Marines’ physical requirements

The U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines have until Jan. 1, 2016, to offer recommendations to the Department of Defense for integrating women into all military jobs, including combat units previously closed to women. Pitt researchers from the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS) are at the center of the Marines Corps’ decision, conducting a study begun this month to determine the physical criteria needed for each combat task — whichever gender does it — and who is more prone to training-related injuries.

Four SHRS faculty have their own research facility at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, through the study’s end next summer, including Katelyn Allison of Pitt’s Neuromuscular Research Lab, part of the Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition.

Says Allison: “We’re hoping our research will help determine if there are gender-neutral standards that need to be met to accomplish certain tactical demands. With all of our experience … we are probably one of the few institutions outside of the Department of Defense that is able to provide a thorough scientific approach to testing and analysis of tactical requirements and physical profiles.”

Scott M. Lephart, head of the lab and department and primary investigator of the study, notes that his researchers have been doing such work for a decade, with seven studies currently underway as part of their DOD-sponsored Warrior Human Performance Research Center work looking at injury prevention and performance optimization.

“We’ve been studying these very questions as it relates to men in Special Operations all these years,” he says; Pitt’s research has involved Navy SEALs and the other branches’ Special Ops groups.

The Marines are taking “a very proactive approach,” he says, to studying how well women likely will perform what are “very heavily physically taxing new roles and jobs.”

The research will establish physical criteria — aerobic capacity, upper body strength and other physiological factors — that the Marines Corps could use to screen men and women applicants for each combat activity.


The central questions — Can females actually perform in these combat arms? And should we open them up? says Allison — will be gauged by testing male and female Marines who volunteered for the study. SHRS faculty will employ measurements that have been used on elite athletes by sports medicine clinicians for decades.

The Marines are being tested now for baseline physical capabilities, when they have finished basic training and entered various Marines Corps specialty schools. They will be tested several times more as they graduate to in-unit training and complete it.

“There are inherent physiological differences between males and females,” Allison notes. Males, for instance, have better aerobic capacity and greater lean muscle strength. But variations within each gender are large. “There’s definitely the potential that there’s going to be some gender-neutral overlaps,” she says, that will show both genders are up to handling Marines combat arms.

The Pitt study participants are part of a larger study conducted by the Marines of psychological and social aspects of integrating combat forces. “It’s something the Marines have never been able to go through before,” Allison notes.

Other SHRS faculty working on the study at Camp Lejeune are John Abt, Tim Sell and Kim Beals.

Allison expects Pitt’s association with the Marines here will aid not just the decision to include women in combat but women’s transitions to these new Marines Corps roles.

—Marty Levine