CAMP GEIGER, N.C. - Mist clings to the ground and the sun won't make an appearance for another three hours. The 263 Marines of Delta Company, Infantry Training Battalion, shoulder their bulky packs and set off.
The air is still cool, but 85-pound packs are heavy. Soon the Marines are sweating through their camouflage uniforms and noncommissioned officers are moving between the two files of Marines, shouting encouragement and encouraging stragglers to keep up.
The Marine Corps has been training infantrymen here since 1953. This year is different. Among Delta Company's 263 Marines are 13 women who have volunteered to participate in a closely watched experiment into the feasibility of integrating females into the infantry. The infantry is among a handful of military jobs that remain male-only preserves.
The women, who are shouldering the same packs and wearing the same combat uniforms as the men, are barely distinguishable from the men as they trudge in the darkness.
"We treat everyone the same," said Staff Sgt. Billy Shinault, a Marine instructor who chatted while working a bolt of chewing tobacco after the hike. "We would be doing them a disservice to lower the standards."
Shortly before he left office earlier this year, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered the military to lift the ban on women serving in ground combat specialties, such as the infantry and special operations. He left it up to the services to figure out how to put the order into effect. The services have until January 2016 to do so. Exceptions would require approval of the defense secretary.
Women have been serving in plenty of jobs that have exposed them to combat over the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. But ground combat jobs have remained off-limits. These jobs require physical strength, feats of endurance and spending a long time in primitive field conditions.
The infantry is the leading edge of the ground combat specialties. Its mission is as basic as it is elemental. Infantrymen carry what they need on their backs and kill the enemy at close quarters.
"Every single one of them is an alpha male," said Sgt. Kenneth Hayden, a tactics instructor here.
Fighting the old-fashioned way
For all the talk of technology and a "push-button wars," the combat of the past decade has proven that there remains a need for foot soldiers going to war with little more than rifles and bayonets. A Marine earned a Navy Cross, the second highest award for valor, in Afghanistan after he killed a Taliban with the stock of his own weapon.
At the end of the 10-kilometer hike the men and women line up to run through an obstacle course that requires scrambling over a wall, vaulting logs and climbing a rope.
Shinault explains to the Marines that the march is only a means to an end. After the hike is complete the Marines have to have enough energy to take the fight to the enemy.
The Marine Corps hope to have about 300 women go through enlisted infantry training by the end of a year, providing enough data to assist in making decisions about the way ahead.
Officers say it is too early to draw any conclusions. But a similar experiment conducted at infantry officer training at Quantico, Va., suggests that women struggle with the physical part of the training. The 13-week officer course at Quantico is significantly more demanding. About 25% of men do not complete the course and end up in other jobs.
So far, 10 women have started the officers course under a similar experiment, but none have completed it, according to the Marine Corps.
Here at the enlisted training Shinault acknowledged the women have more trouble with the physical requirements, but said the women match the men evenly in marksmanship, a key part of infantry training.
The two-month enlisted course here at the School of Infantry-East is not as demanding as the officer course and it is more likely at least some women will complete it. The attrition rate for men here has been about 1%.
Even if they do pass this initial group will not get to join the infantry, at least not immediately, since it remains closed to women.
On the 10-kilometer hike two men and two women dropped out. The hikes here at the infantry school get longer, culminating with a 20-kilometer walk. Officers have promised that standards, honed after more than a decade at war, will not be changed to accommodate women.
"There certainly is no pressure to lower those standards," said Col. Jeffrey Conner, commander of the School of Infantry-East.
The Army is also undertaking studies as it works to open ground combat positions to women. Recently they validated the physical requirement of all their specialties in an effort to create tests that will screen applicants for those occupations.
Among the hardest physical task was in the artillery field, where a three-person crew has to load 90 rounds of 155mm howitzer shells, which weigh about 95 pounds each, into an ammunition truck within 45 minutes.
"Our guidance is not to lower the standards," said David Brinkley, an official at the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, which is overseeing the analysis of job requirements.
In order to get into the course here at Camp Geiger women had to pass the same physical test that men take, which includes a requirement to complete three pull-ups. The Marines asked for volunteers from a recent class of 114 females graduating from boot camp at Parris Island. Of that class, 49 met the physical standards to join.
Of the 49, only 19 volunteered initially. Four dropped before training started and another two did not pass initial physical screening. One of them has elected to continue in a later class. Another was recently injured, leaving 12 in the class currently.
Officials would not allow journalists to speak to any of the students in order to avoid interfering with the training.
The Marines have taken pains to ensure that women don't feel alienated by the culture of the infantry, which has been an all-male enclave for years. The Marines, an infantry-oriented service with a gung-ho culture, have the fewest number of women of any service - less than 7% of the total force.
Instructors have been told not to change the standards, but minor adjustments have been made at the training.
Women in the Infantry Training Battalion are housed in separate barracks, but share the same conditions as the men when they go to the field. Male instructors are instructed to announce themselves before entering the female barracks and same for women instructors entering male barracks.
The training battalion has added several women instructors who teach and also serve as mentors.
Staff Sgt. Juanita Towns, an instructor here, said the women have the same concerns as the men: finishing the course.
"We're all going to be Marines at the end of the day," Towns said.
The instructors were also asked to tone down some of their profanity. "Some of the terminology they used in the past may not be as effective with women," Conner said.