RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The new year brought a major milestone for the military services. All front-line combat jobs in the infantry, special operations units and elsewhere are now open to women. But just because that policy has changed does not mean the makeup of those units is going to change quickly. NPR's Tom Bowman joined us to talk about when the promise of admitting women to combat might actually be fulfilled.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Even though the Pentagon is admitting women to every job across the military - in theory. I mean, they're allowed in, door's open - how many female troops are there in these combat roles so far?
BOWMAN: Well, there are no women in these ground combat jobs right now, Renee. Women, of course, have been flying combat missions in fighter jets, attack helicopters, for more than 20 years, but beginning this week, those ground combat jobs in infantry, artillery and armor will be open to women. Officials don't expect a rush of women interested. The Marines estimate that roughly a hundred or 200 women will be interested in going into these jobs - roughly 2 percent of those jobs. Still, this is historic. It's a biggest cultural change in the military maybe ever, probably bigger than integrating the force back in 1948 when African-Americans were no longer segregated in separate units.
MONTAGNE: Are the military services predicting, putting a number on how long it will be before there are in fact women in actual combat units?
BOWMAN: Well, the services - we're really talking about the Army and Marine Corps here for almost all these ground combat jobs. They want to move in a careful, deliberate manner. I'm told what the services want to do first is have a female sergeants, female junior officers like lieutenants and staff jobs in these combat units before the recruits come in. Now, some of these more experienced women of course have not served in ground combat units 'cause they're just opening them, but Marine and Army women have deployed with infantry units in Iraq and Afghanistan in what's called female engagement teams, going into villages, talking with women and sometimes coming under fire. So look for the services to kind of reach out to these kinds of women, tested women, to serve as mentors.
Now, I'm told the Army is also looking at the next graduating class from West Point. They're going to go out there and say, listen, do any of you women want to serve in ground combat jobs? And at that way, starting in May or June, they can start putting them through infantry training, maybe have some of them to go through ranger training - the premier infantry course in the Army. And, as we know, three women have already made it through ranger training. So that's kind of the way ahead - have some of these female mentors first before the recruits come in.
MONTAGNE: And Tom, you mentioned the Marine Corps. That was the service, in its past commandant opposed integrating women, and their argument was they were not up to it physically. So how are they handling that?
BOWMAN: Well, right now women and men will have to go through the same physical test before they get into these ground combat jobs, and the test will increase over time for again both Marine Corps and the Army just to make sure everyone is physically fit enough to go through these jobs, to get through this training. And the Marines already have started putting women through infantry training. They've done it for the past couple of years. And it's tough. Roughly one-third of women have made it through that infantry training. So you're not going to see a lot of women actually make it through this.
MONTAGNE: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, thanks very much.
BOWMAN: You're welcome Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.