FORT BENNING, Ga. (April 11, 2012) -- Officials at the 194th Armored Brigade said they could begin training female Soldiers right now, if necessary. It's just a matter of when the Army decides to send them here.
After a Defense Department review of women's roles in the military, the Army is expanding access to some combat-arms positions on the battlefield traditionally reserved for men. In February, it announced plans to open six military occupational specialties, or MOSs, and more than 13,000 positions to female Soldiers.
At Fort Benning, it means advanced individual training for Bradley and tank mechanics is about to go co-ed. Specifically, it affects the 91A M1 Abrams Tank System Maintainer and 91M Bradley Fighting Vehicle System Maintainer courses under the Armor School on Harmony Church. The other four specialties are in artillery.
"This is another subtle change to our culture, just like the Armor School coming here from Fort Knox," said Lt. Col. William Nuckols, commander of 3rd Battalion, 81st Armor Regiment. "We started working on this a year ago, when we got a hint this might happen, and began doing our prep and planning. But it's going to impact more than just the brigade. It will have an effect on many agencies and units across the Maneuver Center of Excellence."
Armor officials said it's unclear how soon Human Resources Command will start placing women in the two courses, but they plan to be fully prepared with a minor barracks overhaul and other infrastructure modifications by Sept. 1. When they do arrive, it'll be the first class with female Soldiers ever to go through training at Fort Benning for a combat role.
The 1994 DOD policy known as the Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule had prohibited women from serving in combat units below the brigade level. An exception has now been granted allowing them to serve in some positions at the battalion tier.
The six MOSs had been closed to female Soldiers because they were normally collocated with direct combat units.
"There's been outstanding teamwork across the Maneuver Center of Excellence, or MCoE from multiple organizations to come up with a plan and get the necessary steps in place to make sure we're ready to assume this mission," said Lt. Col. Samuel Welch, the 194th Armored Brigade's deputy commander.
A $42,000 project to set up a company operations facility inside the trainee barracks at E Company, 3-81 Armor, begins Monday, said Maj. Henry Delacruz, the brigade operations officer. The blueprint calls for a wall to be built in an existing bay upstairs to divide the male and female living space in half. Plumbing in the adjacent latrine is designed for an easy conversion of three urinals to toilets and partition installation, he said.
To meet the Army's separate and secure standards, the facility must include a video surveillance system in common areas and fire barrier wall with door alarms, the brigade said. Video will be linked to monitors at the charge-of-quarters desk and battalion headquarters.
"It's a preventive measure," Delacruz said. "We think we've gone above and beyond the regulation and what's required to make sure everybody is protected."
Brigade Command Sgt. Maj. James Daniels said the unit won't be able to put a female cadre member on duty at the command post every day. That's where the cameras come into play.
"They will ensure that we protect the Soldiers, cadre and command in case something happens," he said.
Collectively, the AIT courses will have two female instructors, who'll double as squad leaders, and two women assigned as platoon sergeants, the equivalent of a drill sergeant, Nuckols said. The four cadre members are expected on post by late summer. In addition, E Company will bring in a female executive officer.
He said there will be no more than 21 female Soldiers going through the courses at any given time based on the model of three per class and unit's capacity to conduct seven sessions simultaneously.
If women arrived for training sooner than anticipated, the battalion could accommodate them by consolidating Soldiers on the second floor, Delacruz said. Vacant living space is available due to training-load reductions within the 194th. But all the conditions and infrastructure will be arranged by early September.
Depending on how female Soldiers perform in tank and Bradley maintainer training, they'll also become eligible for the Armor School's Heavy Vehicle Recovery Course, Welch said. The top students in AIT get selected.
"Our female trainees won't be treated any differently than the male trainees," he said.