The path to combat roles for women leads through a maze of physical requirements that may be fine-tuned for specific jobs.
How many pull-ups does it take to make a female Marine?
The answer, starting next January: a minimum of three, the same number required of male Marines.
If anyone thought the military's decision to allow women into combat units would lead to exceptions for women when it came to fitness and physical strength, this is one service's "gender neutral" answer -- or at least part of the answer.
Like the men, women will have to perform the exercises on the Marine Corps' annual physical fitness test as "dead hang" pull-ups, without the benefit of the momentum from a lower-body swing. Like the men, women can do the pull-ups underhanded or overhanded, as long as their chins break the plane of the bar.
"The physical requirements of female Marines, commensurate with their roles, have increased greatly since 1975," said Col. Sean Gibson, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Combat Development Command in Quantico, Va. "The pull-up is a better test of muscular strength."
But the new Marine regulations are just part of a sweeping re-examination of fitness standards in the U.S. military that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's announcement last week ending the ban on women in combat only accelerated.
As it stands now, service members face a gantlet of overlapping fitness tests throughout the vast sprawl of the U.S. military, from initial ones that recruits have to pass to annual fitness (and weight) tests. The Pentagon says it will not lower standards for women but is nonetheless reviewing the requirements for hundreds of what are called military occupational specialties to see if they actually match up with the demands of each job.
Some combat jobs that might open to women may require them to meet only specific requirements rather than a wide range of fitness standards.
"We're going to ensure that our tank crewmen are fully capable of removing 50-pound projectiles from the ammunition rack and loading them into the main gun in a sustained manner in a combat situation," said George Wright, an Army spokesman.
But for now, the Army has no immediate plans to change its gender-adjusted recruitment and annual fitness tests, even though the Marine Corps has started to toughen up its standards for women.
But even for the pull-ups, the Marines are still making some exceptions. To get a perfect grade, women will have to do only eight, compared with the 20 required for men. "I don't think it's a very high bar," said Capt. Ann Fox, a Marine Reserve officer who worked with the Iraqi army in 2005 and thinks women could do better if it were required of them. "I think the test should be 20 pull-ups. People train to what they're tested on."