Shock and awe: we’ve been on front line for years, say women, as Royal Marines open up commando course to all

Women have been allowed to apply for close combat roles in the Royal Marines for the first time, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has announced, as veterans say the idea of a ‘front line’ in modern combat is outdated.

After preliminary fitness tests and interviews, up to 20 women are expected to undertake the gruelling 32-week training course at the commando training centre in Lympstone, Devon, next year.

The recruits will train to exactly the same standards as their male colleagues and will sleep in the same dormitories, albeit with separate toilets and showers. The normal military rules of separating the male and female accommodation will be waived in the name of troop cohesion.

Women have previously been allowed to attempt the nine-week commando course designed for military personnel who will be attached to 3 Commando Brigade, but this is the first time women have been offered the chance to serve as regular Royal Marines.

Only three women have passed the nine-week ‘All Arms Commando course’: Major Philippa Tattersall of the army’s Adjutant General’s Corps, Jane Thorley, from the Royal Engineers and a naval officer. All combat roles in the military are to be opened up to women by the end of 2018.

However, women have for years served operationally in direct contact with the enemy; the traditional understanding of the ‘front line’. Female helicopter pilots, intelligence specialists, medics, drivers and linguists operated alongside male infantrymen throughout Britain’s recent campaigns.

“When you think of a soldier, most people have in their minds the image of a man carrying webbing and a radio,” says Vicki Wentworth, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.”But who do you think drives the trucks in a 25-mile Combat Logistic Patrol?” she asks.

“When you get caught in an ambush, it sure feels like the front line, I can tell you.”

The ban on women serving in so-called ‘close combat’ roles was controversially lifted in 2016, after an MoD research paper recommended ways to limit the risk to women of musculoskeletal injury and psychological and reproductive health issues. The paper said Ground Close Combat roles would be opened to women on a deliberate and incremental basis as the appropriate health mitigation strategies became available.

“Women offer another slant to the psychology of the battlefield and can provide reason over aggression when needed.” says Kerri Mitchell, a former Royal Green Jacket soldier prior to her transition in 2011. “The notion of a front line is outdated. The hardest part is getting past the male ego,” she adds.

A Royal Navy spokesperson said: “The Naval Service is pleased to welcome the opportunity that women can serve in ground close combat roles in the Royal Marines General Service. This historic decision will ensure that we have the best people for the job, regardless of gender and based only on ability.”

An Army spokesperson agreed. “We are committed to giving women the same opportunities as men. Lifting this exclusion will allow us to attract and retain talented individuals from across society irrespective of gender.”

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