Jewish World Review Jan. 30, 2004 /7 Shevat, 5764

Drs. Michael A. Glueck & Robert J. Cihak

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Women, the Military and Medical Misconceptions | Some great American philosopher (Will Rogers, if memory serves) once remarked that it's not the stuff that we don't know that gets us into trouble. It's the stuff we know that just ain't so.

Subject currently under consideration: women and muscles. Specifically: military women and military muscles, and what's turning out to be "just not so."

Nearly 40 years ago, the military began the long, arduous, and too often artless and hypocritical process of opening service, including combat service, to women. Resistance has been fierce and unrelenting; opponents have seized upon any reality or appearance of favoritism or double standards to invalidate the inclusion.

And nowhere has the resistance and resentment been greater than in the matter of physical strength. From boot camps to think tanks, opponents have argued that women are inherently weaker, and that their lesser standards of physical fitness decrease combat readiness. But now, we're beginning to find that it ain't necessarily so.

First of all, just as there is a fundamental difference between physical fitness and medical fitness a star athlete can be medically unfit there is a difference between physical fitness and physical readiness for combat.

Physical fitness tests set arbitrary standards for things like pushups and runs, and are conducted in jock gear. This has little to do with the actual demands of service and combat, which require carrying capacity and lots of low-grade endurance under stressful and fatiguing conditions. Pushups no more determine success in combat than they do in football.

The old Marine Physical Readiness Test (PRT) was done with helmet, pack, rifle, and in boots. All the services ought to institute PRTs, with requirements set according to age (not gender) and by unit. An Army infantry battalion should have much higher standards than an Army or Air Force maintenance unit.

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But if Iraq has taught us anything, it's that being labeled "non-combat" doesn't count for much anymore. In the Army and Marines, especially, everybody needs to maintain appropriate levels of physical readiness for combat.

Could women reach unisex standards that rationally relate to the requirements of carrying capacity and endurance? The emerging answer seems to be yes. A simple way to improve the chances of success would be to rethink yet another arbitrary construct: height-weight limitations.

Muscle weighs more than fat. So do dense bones, which are produced by exercise and diet as well as by testosterone. Women who seriously condition themselves often exceed their weight standards.

Notes Erin Solaro, a Washington, D.C.-based writer and former Army reserve officer:

"When I was commissioned at 21, my height was five-five. I normally weighed 130. I was working out 3 times a week with my unit, and that didn't include marching or field problems, my own workouts, and a lot of cycling and running. I didn't do weight training, but if I had been allowed to enter the infantry or armor, I would have done that like most men in those branches. Unfortunately, that would have brought me up against the weight limit. The most I could weigh for my height was 137 pounds. A male my height could weigh 155."

The lesser height-weight standards may produce more "attractive" women. But they have little to do with combat. As Solaro points out:

"Whether one is a small woman or a large man, the distance traveled is the same and the weapons weigh the same. Proper conditioning, including infantry marching, 2.2 miles an hour, carrying a rifle, pack and equipment builds precisely the strength, bone density and muscle mass needed."

But can women not some ideal, but the real women who enter the real services be conditioned as a group to meet these standards? The only honest answer is that the evidence is mounting that they can be.

One reason is changing social beliefs and educational practices. More girls are taking athletics seriously. The old belief that a "real girl" should give it up after puberty is fading. This means that, as a group, young women will be starting from a higher level of fitness.

Further, over the last few decades we've learned an enormous amount about female capabilities and conditioning. In part, this is due to female sports medicine and sports physiology, especially at the higher levels of amateur and professional competition.

The military and the space program have also provided splendid "gender laboratories," especially in flight medicine and the study of performance under extreme stress. So have Afghanistan and Iraq.

It's starting to seem that, whatever the "inherent" female limitations, we're nowhere near approaching them. Some of the new training techniques and equipment may be time-consuming and expensive, but no one objects when the guys derive the benefits of improved practices and technologies for men.

Women now constitute 15 percent of the military. If we're going to send them in harm's way, we owe them the best possible preparation. We also owe it to the men who serve with them, and depend upon them. And we owe it to the nation whose daughters and sons they are.

Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., is a multiple award winning writer who comments on medical-legal issues. Robert J. Cihak, M.D., is a Discovery Institute Senior Fellow and a past president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. Both JWR contributors are Harvard trained diagnostic radiologists. Comment by clicking here.


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