As a journalist covering Marines in desert combat training some time ago, I was tapped by the company commander to substitute as the main gun loader on an M1A2 Abrams tank. His loader had come down sick. I protested; he insisted, and he won. I reluctantly climbed into the tank, got a few seconds of instruction, and we lurched off into an intense, hours-long battle that required me to feed 55-pound 120 mm shells into the main gun whenever the tank commander hollered -- about every 60 seconds.
More recently, I launched on a combat mission with Marines in Afghanistan, a midnight helicopter raid into a Taliban stronghold. Instead of a weapon, I was packing my laptop and satellite transceiver. But along with each of the other Marines, I was wearing 30 pounds of body armor and helmet. And in my rucksack, I carried rations and a crushingly heavy two-day supply of water.
I thought of these experiences -- the fear, exhaustion and exhilaration -- as I was listening Thursday to Pentagon officials talking about opening up combat jobs to women. Tank loader and Marine rifleman are two of those jobs currently closed to women. Judging by my experience, at least, I see no reason why women couldn't do either.
But it ain't easy.
As a tank loader, you sit squeezed into the bottom of the tank on a tiny lip of metal used as a step by other crew members. At your right shoulder is a rack of 120 mm shells. Just barely above your left knee is the breech end of the massive main gun that can send that heavy shell three miles downrange. On the command of "LOAD HEAT!" (high explosive anti-tank round), the loader hits the knee switch that slides back the blast-proof door on the shell rack, pulls out a shell, twists around and lifts the shell to jam it up into the breech, yanks the locking lever and yells "UP!"
At the gunner's command, the gun erupts, the breech end jerking backwards in a thunderous explosion of smoke and flame that would slice off the loader's knee had he (or she!) not remembered to twist out of the way in time. The loader, temporarily deaf and stunned, brushes off burning embers, blinks through the smoke and braces for the next bellowed command: "LOAD HEAT!" And ... WHAM! and "LOAD HEAT!" ... WHAM! and, "LOAD HEAT!" ... WHAM!
See what I mean about terror and exhilaration?
A combat raid with Marine riflemen -- another job currently closed to women -- is more physically demanding, more exciting and more exhausting. Infantrymen are called grunts because of the sound they make when they walk. In the 82nd Airborne, a similar job, paratroopers hit the ground carrying an average of 104 pounds for a 72-hour operation, including their M4 carbine and seven magazines, radio and batteries, grenades, body armor and helmet, six field-stripped rations, five liters of water, and other stuff.
That's about what we carried, and I was feeling plenty sorry for myself until I came across a young PFC who, as a platoon commander's radio operator, was carrying 127 pounds. Okay, but this young Marine was small. He weighed less than 100 pounds himself and was surprised and pleased when I asked to take a picture to record his gumption.
We had exhaustively rehearsed the intricate movements we were to make when our helocopters blasted into the village and we raced out into the darkness. Some Marines would sprint to a far woodline. Some would take immediate cover and set up covering fire. Others would move out to set up a temporary command center. It mostly worked as expected. Fear is a terrific motivator. The strength to sprint fully loaded alongside the Marines came from my intense desire not to be left behind. I did discover that while it's easy to fling yourself down behind a sand ridge for cover, it's not so easy getting up again and running with a ruck full of water on your back.
By dusk that day, Marines had been at it for nearly 25 hours, and were beginning to droop. Some were wrapping duct tape around their bare waists to prevent damp, sandy combat fatigues from chafing. It would be a long night, and another long day, and a long week.
But nothing a woman couldn't handle.