On Facebook, I noticed a couple of my friends attended an event where female infantrywomen from allied nations were talking about their experiences. Outside of Facebook, I saw nothing on it. I asked Jason Lemieux, a friend whose work and writing I admire if he would be interested in writing a guest post on the event for Carrying the Gun, to which he agreed.
UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that CrossFit proper has not replaced running in the Canadian Army.
CAF’s Director of Force Health Protection has issued a Public Health Advisory against the unmodified use of CrossFit and other “Extreme Conditioning Programs” (ECPs). ECPs have been traced to several hospitalizations of CAF personnel in recent years. One case reportedly required dialysis to treat acute renal failure.
The Directorate of Fitness, Personnel Support Programs has created a fitness program that borrows the most useful aspects of ECPs but it does not endorse CrossFit proper. From the Advisory:
ECPs, such as CrossFit®, P90x®, and Insanity®, have increased in popularity over the past few years. These programs are characterized by frequent, repetitious, high intensity exercises with very short rest periods between sets/cycles and little recovery time between workouts. Some ECPs do not encourage participants to progressively increase their workloads in an effort to allow for training adaption. CF personnel who participate may not have the requisite knowledge to properly set the required work to rest ratios to offset injury or illnesses possibly associated with ECPs. A disproportionate number of injuries such as muscle strains, sprains, stress fractures and rhabdomyolysis associated with ECPs have been cited in anecdotal reports and case studies, however, few studies have looked at the relationship between ECPs and injuries to date. (reference B)
ECPs are not endorsed by Personnel Support Programs (PSP), Directorate of Fitness (DFIT) or D FHP for reasons noted in para 4. DFIT has reviewed ECPs and has incorporated some of the recognized benefits into their physical fitness programs. To reduce the risk of injuries, DFIT has also developed a Tactical Athlete User Clinic, which educates and trains CF personnel on how to safely perform complex weight lifting techniques commonly found in ECPs (e.g., clean and squat). In addition, two courses (the Basic Fitness Training Assistant (BFTA) and the Advanced Fitness Training Assistant (AFTA)) are offered to CF personnel who are interested in leading safe and effective unit physical training.
Of course, whether the more reckless aspects of CrossFit have caused injuries among CAF personnel needs to be analyzed separately from whether excessive distance running has also caused injuries.
*B. Bergeron MP, Bradley CN, Deuster PA, Baumgartner N, Kane SF, Kraemer WJ et al. Consortium for health and military performance and American College of Sports Medicine consensus paper on extreme conditioning programs in military personnel. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2011. 10:383-89.
Last week, I had the good fortune to attend a symposium on the experiences of allied nations with integration of women into combat arms units. The symposium was hosted by the Combat Integration Initiative, a joint effort of Women in International Security and SIPRI North America. Service-members of both genders from the US, Canada, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden participated. In my limited allied experience, it was a good personnel practice-sharing exercise between military allies. A few participants noted that they left the symposium with a better perspective on their own service.
For me, the symposium was as novel as it was enlightening. Even as an integration advocate, it was surreal to find myself making small talk with infantrywomen and even women infantry commanders. Much of what was expressed confirmed my pre-existing beliefs, so it’s fair to take my remarks with a grain of salt.
I’ve split this post into two sections. The first section is a far-from-comprehensive reflection on the symposium. The second section is a more detailed look at physical occupational standards, especially those of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Physical occupational standards are the latest source of contention as the US military branches prepare to implement the 24 January 2013 DoD integration policy (PDF).
Debates that are already over: Can women succeed in the combat arms?
Even without considering the experience of US servicemembers, including FET members who participated in ground combat, it is obvious that women can succeed in the combat arms. The Nordic infantry commanders seemed puzzled and maybe even a little bored with the question. “Here I am, a woman who led an infantry platoon in Afghanistan. There’s two days of this?”
I took from the symposium that the hallmarks of successful integration are maturity at all levels of the institution and a commitment to view and lead servicemembers as military professionals without consideration of gender.
A few observations in support of maturity:
- At the individual level, the panelists used a typical military no-nonsense communication style to convey egalitarianism rather than self-importance, reason rather than bravado. They were over themselves.
- The Swedish Marine Corps, which seems to have gone the furthest of the participating allies in creating a gender-blind force, does not distinguish between men and women in berthing assignment. Bathrooms, bedrooms, and showers are shared. People deal with it. This strikes me as the logical endpoint of integrating an expeditionary force.
- The allied representatives had the eminently realistic view that sexual activity is both inevitable and manageable: Develop a set of ground rules and get over it.
That said, the Nordic personnel cautioned the American attendees not to overlook the cultural differences in the societies from which their militaries originated. Even with highly egalitarian values, the Nordic countries only integrated their combat arms in the last decades of the Twentieth Century. The US’ relatively elitist culture makes it all the more imperative that senior leadership accept integration as the new normal and impress upon subordinate commands that the time has come to integrate for the benefit of the military and of the country.
For the participating allies, successful integration required maturity not just at the individual or unit level but at the institutional level as well. When the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) allowed policy to follow the conclusions of valid scientific research in 1991, its physical occupational standards were overhauled. This change was presumably not without its associated cost and discomfort. In 2013, they changed the standards again, both to reflect lessons learned from Afghanistan and to incorporate new equations that reliably predicted occupational competence without respect to gender. The successful integration of women was the immediate-term goal. However, in the big picture, integration served as the impetus to create a test that truly measures occupational competence when lives are on the line. Will the US military branches follow this example?
Throughout the symposium, the duty of military professionals to evaluate fellow servicemembers solely on the basis of their occupational competence was reiterated over and over. Major John Steemann Adamsen, former infantry commander in the Danish Army, put it best: “In Iraq and Afghanistan, I never ‘led women.’ I commanded soldiers.” Women are valuable members of the combat arms team not because they bring special competencies or assets to population-centric missions (which vary by cultural context anyway) but because they perform to the same occupational standards as everyone else.
The US military personnel who spoke on the panels reported that where women were given the opportunity to perform to standard in combat roles in Iraq and Afghanistan, they were treated as valuable members of the team. Bryan Coughlin, a US Marine Corps infantry captain, realized that his poor experience with Female Engagement Teams (FETs) on his first deployment needed to be understood in context: he wasn’t really sure how to lead them, nor did he have the opportunity to properly employ them. On his second deployment, he was attached two FET personnel who became integral components of his infantry platoon. Yes, they went on every patrol in full gear and yes, they returned fire in contact. He is converted.
The connection between physical fitness tests and occupational standards
The relationship between physical fitness tests (PFTs) and occupational standards is especially relevant now because the US military branches are in the process of validating their occupational standards as gender-neutral to comply with DOD policy.
The acme of occupational relevance is to test personnel in the precise movements most often used in the course of their duties. Unfortunately, this becomes a logistical impossibility when applied to the many occupational components of a modern military organization. Instead, the participating allies have developed proxy tests that reliably approximate competence in one’s occupational tasks. I have decided to elaborate on the CAF’s occupational fitness test because it strikes me as an ideal legal and scientific model (and because I was not able to attend panels on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness, and culture; or recruitment and retention).
It took an act of human rights law to ensure equal opportunity in the Canadian Armed Forces. In 1989, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered the CAF to open all positions to women and to ensure that any physical standard is based on a bona fide occupational requirement (BFOR). As such, the CAF PFT minimum standards are scientifically correlated to the essential tasks most likely to be performed in combat. The definitions of “essential” and “most likely” are key to understanding what makes an occupational requirement “bona fide” under human rights law:
Tasks are deemed “essential” according to the consequences that follow from failure to complete them. Essential tasks are those whose failure would result in at least one of the following:
- Injury or death to the Canadian Armed Forces or to the general public
- Compromise the outcome of a mission or operation
- Cause significant damage to Crown (i.e., government) property
Unless the CAF can show that one of these three consequences is reasonably likely to occur as a result of failure to perform a task, then they cannot enforce the task as an occupational standard.
The six “most likely” occupational tasks that inform the current CAF PFT were identified from a thorough review of physically demanding tasks that CAF personnel have been historically required to perform in combat. For instance, after reviewing after action reports from Afghanistan and training exercises, Canada found that using the fireman carry to extract a wounded comrade is a nice fantasy but dragging is overwhelmingly more common (PDF).
Furthermore, in Afghanistan, vehicle extraction was required in 45% of CAF casualty evacuations. Since it is impractical to use vehicles in routine physical fitness tests, Canadian researchers developed a composite test that combined a casualty drag, grip test, and static squat test to strongly predict the ability to extract a casualty through a vehicle hatch. By limiting occupational requirements to essential and most likely tasks, the CAF kept those requirements grounded in the realm of the reasonable and empirical as matters of life and death should be.
The CAF occupational standards are also informed by the legal Duty to Accommodate, which states that Canadian employers must provide employees the leeway to complete occupational tasks with work methods to which they are individually suited. In other words, for the purpose of placing a heavy box on a high shelf, it is not the business of the CAF to dictate that a soldier favors the use of his/her arms or hips or legs. Their only business is whether the box makes it atop the shelf. (There’s a lesson here for the US Army, who recently found that despite a relative lack of upper body strength, women were able to load heavy objects by emphasizing their hips and core in the lifting movement.)
Initial research found that for some occupational tasks, the average servicewoman did not need to be able to complete as many pushups or situps as the average serviceman to complete the task. This is probably a cultural artifact: men enter the military with more experience in pushups and situps but these exercises are not especially relevant to combat. From 1991 to 2013, the CAF PFT reflected this finding, leading to perceptions of gender bias when the test was actually gender-neutral in terms of occupational outcome.
After another round of research in 2013, CAF instituted the FORCE program, which uses four exercises that simulate real-world combat movements closely enough to reliably predict performance in the six most likely occupational tasks without respect to the cultural artifacts of gender. Of the four exercises—sandbag lift, intermittent loaded shuttles, 20-meter rushes, and sandbag drag—women tend to have the most trouble with 20-meter rushes and the drag but over 90% of women are passing these events as of April 16, 2014.*
There are some interesting differences in the Nordic physical fitness standards (PDF which may be outdated in places). The Danish and Swedish PFTs are gender-blind, though perhaps not as predictive of occupational performance as CAF’s FORCE program. Both countries’ minimum PFT standards vary by occupational specialty, which in my opinion is their primary advantage over the FORCE program. According to Captain Nina Sofie Berg, a Norwegian infantry commander, Norway is looking into a similar system. Norway has separate PFT standards for men and women but its combat training standards are gender-blind. Also, in Denmark, platoons pass or fail the PFT as a unit. The intended lesson is that leadership and teamwork are necessary for success.
(More foreign nation military gender research can be found here.)
It was refreshing to see such transparent empiricism. It remains to be seen if the US military branches’ integration efforts will compare favorably. The US Marine Corps plan seems to be to correlate performance in occupational tasks to its existing physical fitness test—pullups, crunches, and a three mile run—and combat fitness test, which includes the historically irrelevant fireman carry, by Fall 2013 to “develop a physical screening test for MOS classification.” It is not clear whether the Marine Corps examined the value of these exercises as strong gender-neutral predictors of occupational performance but so far there is no indication that the Corps plans to modify or replace any of them.
On a related note, the US military community’s concern for women’s pullup strength seems out of proportion to the unique demands of combat. In the participating allied countries, upper body strength is measured with a more diverse set of exercises and in a smaller proportion to the rest of the PFT. Corporal Malin Tilfors, a female Combat Craft Driver in the Swedish Marine Corps, noted that the ability to stay awake without eating for days at a time has played a much larger role than upper body strength in her combat training. Either way, she meets the standard.
In closing, whatever was believed about women’s deficiencies in centuries past, it is now known that they can thrive as members of combat arms and infantry units. We should not be swayed by unfalsifiable assertions to the contrary. In particular, we should unequivocally reject attempts to turn this discussion of civil rights and military professionalism into an amateuristic contest of status that substitutes combat arms experience for scientific and historical literacy.
As a public institution, the US military has an obligation to honor the values of US society. We can do better than discriminating in employment opportunity on the mere basis of the circumstances of one’s birth. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s historic decision to overturn the 1994 combat exclusion policy was the right call, and the military branches should implement this policy intelligently and in good faith.
*Even before the FORCE program, the Canadian army PFT dispensed with irrelevant distance running in favor of a forced march. According to Colonel Jennie Carignan, stress injuries became less common and performance increased when some of the running in army physical training was replaced with CrossFit.
Jason Lemieux served five years in the US Marine Corps infantry and three tours in Iraq. He is currently a Policy Fellow with the Service Women’s Action Network. The views expressed here are his own.
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