LOLITA C. BALDOR
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. (AP) -- 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 master at arms 3. 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.