06/07/2012 06:30 pm ET

Marines Survey Attitudes On Women In Combat

WASHINGTON -- Would it ruin unit cohesion? Lead to sexual harassment? Cause an exodus from the ranks?

The questions sound like they're from the Defense Department survey that presaged the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy barring gays from serving openly in the U.S. military. But these are actually part of a new survey, asking Marines their views on allowing women to serve in combat units.

The anonymous survey, which was obtained by The Huffington Post, went online for Marine-only access June 1. All 200,000 members of the Marine Corps have until August to answer its 122 questions, which Marine spokesman Maj. Shawn Haney said are meant to "provide insight into their past experiences and the potential challenges of opening additional closed units [to women]."

So far, after initial heavy site traffic caused delays, according to Haney, nearly 18,000 Marines have filled out the survey, which is divided into six sections. Officials say it takes about 20 minutes to complete. Senior leaders are expected to be briefed on the results this fall.

With its motto, "Every Marine a rifleman," and by the numbers, the Marine Corps is the most male of the military services. Just 7 percent of Marines are women, the lowest percentage of any branch in a military force where roughly 15 percent of the total troops are women, according to the Department of Defense.

The Marines are the only service that segregates women from men during boot camp, although the training is the same. Anecdotal evidence indicates opinions in the ranks are split. Yet Marine Corps leaders don't need survey results to know change is coming -- several top-ranking military officials have expressed support for opening up more positions to women, which they say is a first step.

In February, the Pentagon announced plans to open more jobs to women, even as it keeps infantry, armor and special operations forces off limits. Last month, two female Army reservists filed a lawsuit to lift the combat exclusion policy.

In between, Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, ordered the infantry officers course in Quantico, Va., and ground combat battalions opened to women for the first time. He also announced a survey of his troops to gauge their concerns.

"I'm not one bit afraid of the results of this," he told the The New York Times. "I'm very bullish on women."

The general's remarks are a stark contrast to his go-slow approach to lifting the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. He later backtracked, but his initial reaction was in line with his combat troops. While the DADT survey helped clear the way for gays and lesbians to serve openly, it revealed that many combat troops were against repeal, with the most opposed, 58 percent, in the Marines.

The new survey on women in combat comes at a time when female Marines have already been "attached" with combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan. One such job was to search and interact with civilian women and children, working side-by-side with male Marines -- event if they were not officially "assigned" with them.

The survey questions ask whether the experience of such "female engagement teams" and other front-line programs are "good indicators" of women's "future suitability" for combat. There are also sections that seek to measure attitudes about serving with women, their ability to physically do the job and possible fallout from their integration into combat units.

Other questions clearly aimed at female Marines ask what would happen if they could be assigned to combat. Would they have more career opportunities? Be treated more equally?

In a section on "additional concerns," women Marines are asked if they worry about the pace of deployment, support from family and friends and the amount of physical strength required, as well as "pressure to suppress my femininity" and "personal sanitary/hygiene concerns."

"The wording of these questions is unfortunate. It is a page directly out of the DADT playbook," Kristen Kavanaugh, a Naval Academy graduate and former Marine Corps captain who co-founded the Military Acceptance Project said in an email. "Questions such as these plant the seeds of doubt in the minds of impressionable Marines and perpetuate the myth that women are distractions from the mission and unfit to join combat units."

She added that, as with the repeal of DADT, "individual unit leadership will be responsible for setting a tone of acceptance within their unit once women take their rightful position among their peers in combat."

The DADT and women in combat surveys are just the latest to poll troops about a matter of equal opportunity in the armed services. White enlisted men were asked during World War II what they thought about sharing barracks with blacks. An overwhelming majority favored "separate but equal" accommodations. A few years later, in 1948, President Harry S. Truman desegregated the armed forces.

Read the women in combat survey questions here.