Representative Pat Schroeder, who's still irked by Newt Gingrich's recent remarks that women are unfit for combat, just may get the chance to prove him wrong.
But it's coming at a price.
The Army is currently paying forty civilian women $500 each to subject themselves to a six-month regimen of weightlifting and aerobic exercise in an attempt to increase their upper-body strength to 75 percent of the average man's. (Normally, a woman's upper-body strength is between 50 and 60 percent that of a man's.) The Army Research Institute in Natwick, Massachusetts, is using Olympic trainers, professional strength-training coaches and state-of-the-art equipment with the women, who work out an hour and a half a day, five days a week. Before the training started, each woman was tested to determine how long it took her to carry a 75-pound pack for two miles, how much cargo weight she could lift to various heights, how high she could jump and what her percentages of muscle and body fat were. The tests will be repeated after the training is complete.
Not everyone is pleased at the prospect of government-funded hardbodies, however. In fact, the relatively small study has been criticized by everyone from Christian-radio hosts to government watchdog groups to political commentators. And Schroeder, who championed the $40 million Defense Women's Health Research Project that is funding all this exercise, is taking the flak.
Schroeder, who aides say lifts nothing heavier than Snickers bars, sees nothing wrong with the expenditure. "I'm for any study that benefits men or women in the military," she says, "and this one certainly does."
The Defense Women's Health Research Project, established in 1993, is looking into more than upper-body strength. Nearby Fitzsimons Medical Center, for example, will receive more than $900,000 in grants to research everything from exercise-induced urinary problems among female soldiers (about 12 percent drop out of airborne training because of incontinence) to chest pain syndromes in active-duty women.
But it's the $140,000 upper-body-strength study that's come under fire. "The Department of Defense has become a major conduit for pork," says Sean Paige, spokesman for Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit watchdog group that grew out of former president Ronald Reagan's Grace Commission. "It's not a huge amount of money we're talking about here, but at a time when you're bringing military readiness down, isn't it essential that every free military dollar goes for equipping and training our troops? Assuming you can develop 75 percent of a man's upper-body strength in women, does that mean they're necessarily ready for combat?"
Others think the issue is more insidious than mere wastefulness. Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness, a nonprofit organization dedicated to "defending sound personnel policies in the U.S. Armed Forces," claims the study was personally commissioned by Schroeder in order to refute the "definitive" findings of a 1992 presidential commission on women in the military. Among other things, that commission reported: "Women begin losing bone mass at an earlier age than men...leading to the conclusion that women initially selected for the combat arms would not survive to career-end"; and "Using the standard Army Physical Fitness Test, the upper quintile of women at West Point achieved scores on the test equivalent with the bottom quintile of men."
Says Donnelly, "Pat Schroeder wasn't happy with the findings of the commission, so she commissioned this study to refute it."
Schroeder denies having played any role in the selection of the individual study project. It makes sense for the military to study job-related health issues, she says, because it not only increases efficiency on the job but also decreases health expenditures--something the military picks up in full for its "employees."
Chuck Dasey, spokesman for the Defense Department's research arm, agrees. "There's a lot of jobs women do in the military already that require lifting," he says. "The idea is to look to see if this would be a way to do a job better."
Dasey also defends the study's use of civilian women instead of those already in the military. "They have a volunteer research-subject pool at the lab," he says, "but there aren't enough women in it. If we had used them, we would've exhausted the pool for six months." Moving military personnel to Natwick would have cost more than the $500 per person that the study is paying, he adds. So instead, the army advertised in local papers for interested participants--which is how the media picked up the trail.
"Some sort of right-wing people thought [the study] was a back-door approach to getting women in combat, and then they put this spin on it, and then the Washington Times picked it up," Dasey says. "And away it went."
Since February the story's hit major papers from Charlestown to Chicago, and the Boston Globe just recently picked it up. Furor over the program has already caused a six-week delay in its start date, ostensibly because the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command, Brigadier General Russ Zajtchuk, M.D., personally re-examined the upper-body-strength program and all the other studies approved for the project to ensure that they met appropriate scientific standards.
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The scientists who devised the study aren't pleased with the delay--or with what they consider unwarranted criticism. "We've been muzzled," says one lab researcher, who asked that his name not be used. "Everyone else gets to stand up and talk about it, but we aren't allowed to say a thing."
It didn't help that news of the study broke only two weeks after Newt Gingrich uttered these words to one of his history classes: "If combat means being in a ditch, females have biological problems staying in a ditch for thirty days, because they get infections and they don't have upper-body strength...On the other hand, men are basically little piglets, you drop them in the ditch, they roll around in it..."
After that, critics of women in combat were on a roll. But the piglets themselves could be part of the problem.
"The critics keep saying, `Why can't you just get men instead of spending all this money training women?'" the lab researcher continues. "The point they're missing is that the army is having difficulty getting enough people that have the level of education necessary to handle intellectually challenging tasks. It's a lot easier to remediate the physical part than to take someone illiterate and teach him to read in six months.