By Anne Allred
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (KSDK) - The United States Army presented Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel with a classified plan to implement women in ground combat roles Wednesday.
But for years, female soldiers from all over the country have been allowed to train as combat engineers in Missouri at Fort Leonard Wood.
The 28-day Sapper Leader Course puts combat engineers to the test. If at the end of the month they earn a sapper tab, they become combat engineers who support the front-line infantry. Sappers have fought in every war in American history. Tasks typically include bridge-building, laying or clearing minefields, and demolitions.
Since 1999, women have been allowed to take the course and they have always been held to the same training standards as men.
As the Department of Defense navigates new policy allowing women in ground combat roles, the Sapper leader course may be a model of how to integrate females into combat roles.
"They've pretty much kept a single standard," said Secretary of the Army John McHugh.
"That's going to be our approach across the entire Army and I think it's true to say the secretary of Defense and the president feel very strongly about that posture as well," he went on to say.
There are currently 32 students in the Sapper Course. Three of the students are female, including Capt. Jessica Catob.
"You're expected to pull your body weight up the rope and to ascend and descend the exact same way. You get a buddy, you have to do buddy carries and PT [physical training], you run the same distance, you carry the same weight. It's no different," said Capt. Catob.
NewsChannel 5 couldn't find a member of the armed services to speak out against this plan because it is now policy. But last year, a female Marine Corps officer warned females in combat roles was a mistake.
"We are a war fighting institution and combat readiness is going to be effected by this," said USMC Capt. Katie Petronio.
Capt. Petronio approves of women in combat roles but not ground troop infantry roles. She says infantry training and fighting as infantry on the battlefield are not the same. Petronio says women physically can't handle it and she knows from personal experience. She was deployed twice to Afghanistan and Iraq and found herself on the front lines.
"I left a seven month deployment 17 pounds lighter, I had muscle atrophy, I stopped producing estrogen which caused me to have infertility and I was only doing a portion of what my infantry brethren was doing," said Capt. Petronio.
For Sapper student Capt. Catob, she has never been interested in joining the infantry. But, for her fellow female soldiers who wish to join infantry battalions, Capt. Catob believes they deserve the chance.
"Only people who push themselves too far will ever know how far they can go," she said.
Women can't sign up for these ground combat roles just yet. The Department of Defense still has to officially work out the training standards for females and they must do so by January 1, 2016. The goal is to open 237,000 combat positions to women in the military by that date.