FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — Under a canopy of trees on the edge of a large field, soldiers from Bravo Battery are lying in a circle as they pore over targeting charts. Nearby, others are preparing the howitzer cannons as helicopters swoop overhead. At the edge of the circle, the platoon leader watches as the field artillerymen go through their training exercise.
No one seems to notice the small knot of hair at the base of the lieutenant's helmet, or that 1st Lt. Kelly Requa is the only woman on the field at Campbell's Crossroads on the sprawling grounds of Fort Bragg.
By January 2016, the U.S. military must open all combat jobs to women or explain why any must remain closed. The Army in November officially began assigning female officers to lead the cannon platoons and plans to open other jobs, including those of crew members within the field artillery units.
The integration comes as the military struggles with an increase in reports of sexual harassment and assault and as Congress battles with the Pentagon over how those cases are prosecuted.
Some of those concerns were reflected in how senior commanders are preparing the men as women arrive — and what the men say concerns them, from whether women can keep up to whether the men's salty language will be too offensive.
At the base near Fayetteville, Requa is one of a at least eight female lieutenants who were brought into the 3rd Battalion of the 321st Field Artillery Regiment beginning late last year to lead the field artillery units. For now, she's the only woman in her platoon. Later this spring, women will begin serving as crew members — soldiers who actually position the 4,000-pound cannons, zero in on targets and fire the rounds.
For the women, the integration means more pressure and scrutiny. For the men, it means more training in sexual-assault awareness and prevention, and more lectures on respect, team building and moral character.
"From a leadership perspective the biggest concern that we discussed was possible misconduct," said Lt. Col. Christopher Valeriano, the 3rd Battalion's commander. "Introducing females into an all-male unit, at least for the initial piece of it, could lead to a spike in misconduct."
Commanders, he said, were worried about sexual harassment and assault incidents as well as inappropriate consensual relationships as they moved women into the small artillery units. He said platoon members on deployment can be on duty for 24 hours straight, crowded together in the cab of a rocket launcher the size of a large truck cab.
So far, he hasn't seen any problems. It's been "pretty impressive to see the women coming in and running circles around the men," he said. "Most of my female lieutenants outrun my male lieutenants. On overall strength, the males are stronger. But the females — endurance-wise and running — really made these guys take their game up a notch."
Valeriano and other commanders met with the platoons before the women arrived to talk about team building and good moral character and let the men air any concerns.
"We had to sit them down as a pre-emptive strike to make sure they were prepared for this," Valeriano said. "They knew it was coming. It was just new to the overall artillery community. Some hadn't had women in their units ... so at the tactical level where these guys are operating and conducting fire missions, they don't see women normally. Now they're being led by a bunch of women."
Col. Trevor Bredenkamp, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, said he had lunch to discuss the situation with his battalion commanders and talked to other officers across the 4,400-member brigade.
He met with all the unit's female soldiers to make sure they heard directly from him that he will not tolerate sexual harassment. And he said he routinely gets together with new soldiers in the brigade to talk about the importance of being a team and treating others with dignity and respect.
"When I jump out of an airplane in the middle of the night and I land next to somebody else, I've got to trust them," he said. "It doesn't matter what gender they are."
While men largely said they were unconcerned about the integration of women into their unit, commanders said some initially weren't too thrilled. So Army leaders are watching to see whether Requa and the other women can fit in, keep up and lead.
Capt. Fred Janoe is in charge of Bravo Battery, roughly 100 people including two platoons — Requa's and one other — and some support personnel. Before Requa joined the unit, there was a lot of talk about "is she going to be able to keep up? She doesn't know anything about cannons. But when she got there, she was very impressive. So none of that was really talked about anymore," Janoe said.
Men also worried about job standards being lowered to allow women to qualify. They wondered about favoritism and whether the men would automatically help the women, who might be smaller. And they fretted about swearing in front of the women.
"For us it's been a pretty OK transition. A lot of combat soldiers use a lot of foul language, especially with young soldiers. And that's changed, for now," Sgt. Antuan Campbell said with a laugh. "I wouldn't say 'don't swear,' just 'watch what you say.'"
Commanders also said younger soldiers, particularly those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, are more accustomed to working with women. The greater adjustment may be among older enlisted and non-commissioned officers who have long served in men-only artillery, infantry and armor units.
Requa, who just returned from Afghanistan, says there haven't been any problems so far.
"They're bigger than me," she said of the men. "My main goal is just keeping up — meeting the standards. So, in PT (physical training), I keep up with the guys no problem. It seems to work out."
She started out working with bigger rocket launcher systems, where jobs had already opened for women, but was eager to move to the cannon platoon. "When people think of artillery, the first thing they think of is the cannons," said Requa of Edmonds, Wash. "The crews have to work seamlessly together. There's a lot of moving — move location, shoot, move location, shoot. It's fast-paced and you get to shoot and blow things up."
Army leaders play down suggestions that they have chosen top female candidates to ensure that the early experiences are good.
"Every officer deserves a chance to be platoon leader. ... That's your obligation," said Col. Stephen Smith, commander of the 18th Fires Brigade, which includes Valeriano's battalion. "To me there's no tryout period, or a PT test. I don't do that to the male soldiers. You come in, there's an opening and you go. I don't say well you're only 105 pounds, you don't look like you would fit in."
But others say it hasn't hurt that the first women tackling the new jobs have been top performers.
"With officers like Kelly being a pioneer, it really helps," said Janoe, the battery captain. "As a precedent, if she had been a low performer I think it would have been difficult to break down those barriers."