CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. – Anna Schnatzmeyer's face is taut with concentration as she slowly maneuvers the Riverine assault boat away from the dock, using the complex controls to try and inch the 34-foot craft straight back without sliding sideways.
Her instructor, standing next to her, orders her forward again, and despite the slow, careful creep, the Navy boat knocks into the pier.
It's the first time she's ever piloted a boat. She's in full battle gear and the sun is beating off Mile Hammock Bay on the edge of Camp Lejeune. A stiff wind is tossing waves against the nearby shore. And the pressure is mounting.
By year's end, Schnatzmeyer and five others are expected to become the first women formally assigned to a Riverine combat company, a battlefront Navy job that is just now opening up to women. The three Riverine Delta Company units are used for combat operations, often called on to move quickly into shallow waters where they can insert forces for raids, or conduct rescue missions.
The Delta Company jobs are some of the first combat positions in the military to formally accept women, and breaking through the barriers hasn't been easy. So, here, in this tangle of coastal waterways, Schnatzmeyer and the two other women in the crewman course know all too well that the world is watching.
She's already passed the combat skills course, allowing her to be part of a Delta Company crew, as an intelligence analyst or maybe a gunner who controls one of the machine guns mounted on the boat, jobs that weren't open to women before. But this Riverine crewman course would allow her to be a boat captain or coxswain – crew leaders who drive the boat or direct the fight.
"Ever since I was little, this is what I wanted to do," said Schnatzmeyer, who was in grade school when terrorists attacked on 9/11. "My dad would take me to air shows and I would tell my family I wanted to be a soldier."
She was drawn to the combat, to the guns.
"Growing up you want to join the branch and you want to do what you can to help, and then you realize, 'I can't go into combat,'" Schnatzmeyer said. "You think, what's the purpose of me being in the military? To sit at a desk?"
By lifting the ban on women in battlefront combat jobs, she said the Pentagon is now giving her and other women a chance. Riverine combat units, for example, went to war in Iraq. They were not used in Afghanistan, where river combat operations weren't really needed.
At 23, the El Paso, Texas, native has been in the Navy just one year and is a Petty Officer Third Class. Neither she nor her boat buddy, Danielle Hinchliff, had any boating experience before they climbed aboard for the seven-week crewman course, which includes late night drills that require night-vision goggles and radar to pilot the craft across the dark and murky waters.
"There's a lot of eyes on us, you know. And we do have to ... uphold a lot of standards. We have to make sure that we do everything that we're supposed to," Hinchliff said. "For me, the hard part is driving the boat."
Watching from the dock, Lt. Michael Diehl agreed that learning to pilot the boat is a challenge.
They need to conquer a difficult mix of controls – the steering wheel, the throttle and the two rear buckets that can be angled up and down over the boat's jet drives allowing the captain to stop on a dime or move the craft laterally when needed.
"If you can't drive the boat slow, you definitely can't do the fun stuff and drive it fast," said Diehl, site director for the Riverine training. "This is where they build their mettle – being able to control the boat in a tight confined space, with other boats around, wind, currents and tides."
The difficulty was evident in the final result: All three women, including Schnatzmeyer and Hinchliff, and six of the men failed to pass the seven-week crewman course that would allow them to command the boats and the crews – more than a third of the 26-member class.
The military services are struggling to figure out how to move women into battlefront jobs, including infantry, armor and elite commando positions. They are devising updated physical and mental standards – equal for men and women – for thousands of combat jobs and they have until Jan. 1, 2016, to open as many jobs as possible to women, and to explain why if they decide to keep some closed.
The common requirements for men and women for each post would be based on specific tasks. Military officials say standards will not be lowered in order to bring women into any combat posts.
The Navy – which has nearly 69,000 women on active duty – is about to open up about 270 jobs in the Coastal Riverine Force to women. The service plans to let women serve in all but a "very limited number" of Navy positions. The bulk of the 22,000 Navy jobs closed to women – roughly 19,000 – are on older ships where it would be too costly to build new, separate facilities for women. The remaining 3,000 are in special operations units, which may be more difficult to fill because of the strenuous physical requirements.
Over the spring and summer, in highly public fashion, women in successive attempts washed out of the Marine's grueling infantry officer course. The fact that dozens of men also failed gets little notice.
The military men watching the transition offer public support, but often add subtle caveats that belie an underlying uncertainty. Most are young and are willing to see women competing for the combat jobs, but they want to be sure that those who get in are worthy.
Instructor Jerry Gray is a former Marine and has been teaching the Riverine course for seven years. As far as he's concerned he has 26 students who either make the grade or don't.
"There's a standard for combat, there's a standard for a combat billet. As long as they are required to perform the same standards as a guy, good on them and let them go," said Gray, adding that the men in the class seem to accept the women. "It's going to be up to the individual once they are in a combat situation, how they handle it. But a guy's going to crack just as easily as anybody else."
Would he want a woman in combat next to him?
"I'm not going to lie, I would accept it, but I know myself, I would be much more protective, it's just my nature. Chivalry is not dead," Gray said. But, he added, "I haven't seen it in this class. They seem to accept them as a peer, with the same expectations of them as they do of any of the guys."
Further down the dock, Dalton King, one of 23 men in the course, wraps up his first training session piloting a boat. So far, having women in the course doesn't faze him.
"When they do the same stuff we're doing, same PT [physical training], same grades, when they're proving themselves that they can hang out with the big boys, that's very understandable and that's all we care about," said the E-4 sailor from Fort Worth, Texas. "I feel that if they can do the things it takes to save one of our lives as much as we're going to do the same for them ... I mean, it's all equal opportunity."
Senior Navy leaders acknowledge that the women at Camp Lejeune may have a better chance of moving into the Navy Riverine jobs than other women have in passing the Marine's infantry officer course or achieving some of the Army's armor and infantry jobs.
"I think for us, we have probably an easier ability with the physical standards for service in our environment than you would in ground combat," said Adm. Mark Ferguson, vice chief of naval operations. Women in the other services may have a more difficult time meeting some of the upper body strength demands and other physical requirements for Army and Marine combat jobs, he said.
Altogether, 15 women have passed the Riverine combat skills course since they were first allowed to participate about a year ago. Six of those women – including Schnatzmeyer – have been assigned to Delta Company in Coastal Riverine Squadron 2, based in Portsmouth, Va. They have begun training with the unit with the expectation that they will be formally admitted later this year.
The combat course pushed Schnatzmeyer to her limits. The physical training, with its constant runs, situps, pushups, obstacle course and slogs through night navigation and shooting made her "sore for days straight." It was OK to be last, she said, "but you can't stop, you can't give up."
Navy leaders say they're not concerned about the failure rate on the crewman course because the sailors can eventually be taught to handle the boat. And even though she's already getting a spot in the Delta company, Schnatzmeyer says she's not giving up on that crewman course.
"I would like to go for it again," she said, adding. "For us, the biggest stress is proving to the guys we can hack it. They support you, they push you, it makes it easier."