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First women move to US Army artillery platoons as combat jobs open up

FORT BRAGG, North Carolina--Under a canopy of trees on the edge of a large field, soldiers from Bravo Battery are lying in a circle as they pore over targeting charts. Nearby, others are preparing the howitzer cannons as helicopters swoop overhead. At the edge of the circle, the platoon leader watches as the field artillerymen go through their training exercise.

No one seems to notice the small knot of hair at the base of the lieutenant's helmet, or that 1st Lt. Kelly Requa is the only woman on the field at Campbell's Crossroads on the sprawling grounds of Fort Bragg.

By January 2016, the U.S. military must open all combat jobs to women or explain why any must remain closed. The Army in November officially began assigning female officers to lead the cannon platoons and plans to open other jobs, including those of crew members within the field artillery units.

The integration comes as the military struggles with an increase in reports of sexual harassment and assault and as Congress battles with the Pentagon over how those cases are prosecuted.

Some of those concerns were reflected in how senior commanders are preparing the men as women arrive — and what the men say concerns them, from whether women can keep up to whether the men's salty language will be too offensive.

At the base near Fayetteville, Requa is one of at least eight female lieutenants who were brought into the 3rd Battalion of the 321st Field Artillery Regiment beginning late last year to lead the field artillery units. For now, she's the only woman in her platoon. Later this spring, women will begin serving as crew members — soldiers who actually position the 4,000-pound (1,800-kilogram) cannons, zero in on targets and fire the rounds.

For the women, the integration means more pressure and scrutiny. For the men, it means more training in sexual-assault awareness and prevention, and more lectures on respect, team building and moral character.

“From a leadership perspective the biggest concern that we discussed was possible misconduct,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Valeriano, the 3rd Battalion's commander. “Introducing females into an all-male unit, at least for the initial piece of it, could lead to a spike in misconduct.”

Commanders, he said, were worried about sexual harassment and assault incidents as well as inappropriate consensual relationships as they moved women into the small artillery units. He said platoon members on deployment can be on duty for 24 hours straight, crowded together in the cab of a rocket launcher the size of a large truck cab.

So far, he hasn't seen any problems. It's been “pretty impressive to see the women coming in and running circles around the men,” he said. “Most of my female lieutenants outrun my male lieutenants. On overall strength, the males are stronger. But the females — endurance-wise and running — really made these guys take their game up a notch.”

Valeriano and other commanders met with the platoons before the women arrived to talk about team building and good moral character and let the men air any concerns.

“We had to sit them down as a pre-emptive strike to make sure they were prepared for this,” Valeriano said. “They knew it was coming. It was just new to the overall artillery community. Some hadn't had women in their units ... so at the tactical level where these guys are operating and conducting fire missions, they don't see women normally. Now they're being led by a bunch of women.”

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In this photo taken on Feb. 18, 1st Lt. Kelly Requa is interviewed at a fires direction center at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. Requa is breaking new ground at Fort Bragg.

(AP)

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