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Lance Cpl. Paula Pineda relaxes at a picnic table not far from her barracks in Camp LeJeune, N.C. She's in a crisp uniform and has a ready smile. It's one of the few breaks she's had in months — and she can finally laugh about Carl.

"Carl — our special, heavy, unique dummy," she says.

It was back in March, in the heat of the Mojave Desert in California, that Pineda — sweaty and grimy and just 5-foot-2 — struggled to help pull Carl the dummy out of her armored vehicle, along with another Marine, Julia Carroll. It was part of an exercise to rescue an injured crewman.

Carl weighed 220 pounds.

They also changed tires weighing 170 pounds on the armored vehicles, and hitched up heavy chains and hooks to simulate a towing operation.

The women proved something in their months of tough training, says Pineda, who wore a helmet with the words "Mad Max" taped on the back.

They're ready to serve in ground combat.

"In my opinion, I believe we can do it. The physical part of it, we can all work up for it," says Pineda, who grew up in a tough part of Los Angeles. "As long as we work hard and we're dedicated, we can all get there."

All seven women trained on tanks and armored vehicles, and all made it through to the end. Among them was 19-year-old Lance Cpl. Brittany Dunklee. She's lean with an intense stare. A former high school wrestler, she often took on the boys.

Right now she drives a Marine truck. But she'd rather be a crew member in a light armored vehicle.

"I like shooting the gun, honestly," she says. "It's a big gun and the [M]242 is easy to clean, so that's on the plus side also."

For Dunklee, it all comes down to these simple questions: "I've done it. So why can I not do it? If I can physically do it, why can't I?"

That's what Marine Corps officials are now trying to figure out.

In a yearlong experiment, Marine researchers and researchers from the University of Pittsburgh have collected reams of information on male and female Marines' physical strength, endurance, speed and marksmanship. The data will show whether gender made a difference in the fighting ability of the unit.

Small Marine units attacked with all men, then with one woman, then with two women. The numbers remain low to reflect reality: Women make up just 7 percent of the Marine Corps.

What the data won't address — but what many of the men talk about privately — is whether having women in units changes the chemistry of the group, or "unit cohesion."

Sgt. Kelly Brown, who trained with Alpha Company, the infantry unit, thinks not.

"After a while, you've been training together for so long, you've been living together and working together and sweating, and everybody's suffering together," she says. "I've had some of the guys I was working with say, 'Hey, I wouldn't have a problem if you were serving with me in combat.' "

Sgt. Ryan McCauley did serve in combat, three tours in Afghanistan. For this training, he served along with a half-dozen women.

"I thought the women performed to the best of their abilities," he says.

And what does that mean?

"Exactly what it is, sir. They performed the best they can, and they did it, and my hat's off to them for finishing all out."

In the end, McCauley said he'd be comfortable serving in combat with just one of the women he trained alongside.

First Sgt. John Dober is the top enlisted man in Alpha Company, the infantry unit. He thinks some of the women were up to the physical challenge.

"Some of the females performed better than some of the other females," Dober says. "Some of the females performed better than some of the males."

Dober says that the training will identify some male Marines who clearly don't belong in the infantry. And it will allow the Marine Corps to make sure future training and selection pinpoints the best candidates to serve in the infantry.

More than 30 percent of the women training in Dober's infantry unit washed out, most due to injuries like stress fractures from carrying heavy packs. That rate is far higher than for the men, some officers say, although the Marines are not releasing any details and are still completing their report.

Dober is a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and he's troubled by the high number of physical injuries among the women in a training course that he says is nothing like the real world of infantry combat.

"Close-quarters battle, it's a very ugly thing," Dober says. "It shouldn't be up to opinion or feelings. It should be about who's the best. Could I say [gender] integration will positively and absolutely enhance the combat effectiveness and efficiency of a Marine rifle squad? I doubt it."

Women will begin serving in ground combat jobs starting in January, unless Marine Corps leaders decide otherwise and can get Pentagon leaders to keep some jobs closed.

"Some people look at it as a civil rights issue," says Dober. "I will tell you emphatically and to my grave that it's not a civil rights issue. It's a national security issue."

Actually, it's both.

When the Pentagon decided to open ground combat jobs to women more than two years ago, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said this:

"We've been working for well over a year to examine, how can we expand the opportunities for women in the armed services? Female service members have faced the reality of combat, proven their willingness to fight and, yes, to die to defend their fellow Americans."

Still, he added:

"If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job — and let me be clear, I'm not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job — if they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation. ... We are all committed to implementing this change without compromising readiness or morale or our warfighting capabilities."

Brown, the sergeant who trained with the Alpha Company infantry unit, thinks women can serve in ground combat — but stresses that officers and sergeants must hold everyone to the same standards.

"You know you're working with someone of another gender and you have to have a certain amount of professionalism," she says. "This has not been tested in combat."

One of those who hopes to be tested is Sgt. Danielle Beck. She's been a Marine for six years, working as a comptroller.

Beck completed the combat training, carrying an anti-tank weapon and sometimes a pack weighing 155 pounds. It left her with a stress fracture on her hip. Right now, she's hobbling around on crutches — but remains determined.

"We've never been able to do this before," says Beck. "This is why I joined the Marine Corps — to be able to fight and serve along[side] our brothers in arms."

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