PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. - Onlookers squint across the field in the afternoon sun, their attention focused on deciphering hand signals Marines are using to communicate details of their mission.
The civilians look from the helmet-framed faces decorated with camouflage paint and beads of sweat to the heavy rifles slung across the Marines' sturdy frames. They watch like visitors at the zoo as these warriors complete the "Crucible," a 54-hour training test that includes little sleep, less food and a series of grueling, virtually nonstop missions.
Only after staring for a minute or two is there an awareness the platoon is made up entirely of women.
Their tour guide, Marine Maj. Kathy Lee-Wood, isn't surprised by the reaction. She patiently explains that femininity and strength aren't mutually exclusive.
Department of Defense statistics show that women make up about 14 percent of active duty forces and close to 18 percent of reserve and National Guard components. Defense officials say they expect that number to increase as more military jobs open to women, and the task is to figure out exactly how to find a compromise between equal rights and national defense.
Women at Parris Island - the only place in the country where the sexes are segregated for military training - say they actually are wary of becoming one of the guys. Don't get them wrong, cautions Maj. Lee-Wood, executive officer of Parris Island's female training battalion. These women consider themselves Marines first and foremost, and they complete the same training and carry packs just as big and heavy as their male counterparts'.
"We pull our weight," said Maj. Lee-Wood. "We do 100 percent."
The only difference in training is that women are asked to complete flexed arm hangs rather than pull-ups and have slightly more time to complete their runs. The women are fully integrated with the men once they have completed training and - in accord with Department of Defense regulations - the only jobs from which they are excluded are those involving direct combat.
There are many female service members who want to change that and are lobbying for policy updates. But there are just as many women who say any more equalization of the sexes within military ranks would be impractical.
By the NUMBERs
199,000: Active duty female service members
14.3: Percent of females in active duty forces
150,588: Females in the National Guard and reserve forces
17.8: Percent of females in Guard and reserve forces
Source: Department of Defense
Lt. Col. Katherine Estes, commanding officer of Parris Island's Support Battalion, enlisted in 1986. She said she has seen a great reduction in the macho, sexist attitude she says once prevailed in the Marine Corps.
However, Lt. Col. Estes said she believes there are at least some jobs - including combat-related occupations - that might better be left to men.
"I used to think as a lieutenant that I could run out there with all the guys, but as I got older ... I have a different perspective on that," she said.
There are physical and mental differences between the sexes that shouldn't be ignored, according to Maj. Lee-Wood.
"It's not better or worse," she said. "But men and women have different centers of gravity and carry weight differently."
And the Marine Corps isn't alone in recognizing the divide, said Patty Parks, a retired Navy commander who lives in Ooltewah. In the Navy, women aren't allowed to serve on submarines and aren't allowed to join special forces units.
There just isn't enough room on a submarine to install separate bathroom facilities for women and men, she said. In the case of special forces, menstrual cycles can affect how long women can hide out in the field without bathroom facilities.
In the service, she explained, women, just like men, are trained to care about the success of the group above any individual concerns.
"As soon as sexual equality interferes with the mission, then it becomes less important," she said.
To Mrs. Parks, who helps run the National Medal of Honor Museum of Military History in Chattanooga, the integration of women in the military will progress only at the pace society allows.
"I think it's right up there with boy babies wrapped in blue and girl babies wrapped in pink," she said. "It almost all comes back to our society, and what our society is ready and willing to accept."
The military actually represents a good cross-section of the American public, said Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain and director of the Women in the Military Project for the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington, D.C.
Attitudes toward women in military ranks vary from age group to age group, she said.
"Among the younger generations, so many of them have grown up playing sports with women and that kind of thing that it's just not that big a deal," she said.
A lot of it has to do with women proving they can back up fellow service members in a jam, said Cadet Evelyn Hall, a three-year Army reservist and junior in the ROTC program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
"I always gather all the females together at the beginning of the semester and say, 'They will look at you and assume that you'll take everything personally and cry about everything. Don't take it personally,'" Cadet Hall said.
It's this sense of camaraderie that helps women get through the tough times, she said. But women can undercut each other just as easily, she added.
During boot camp, Cadet Hall remembers seeing women "who would smile their way through training, and that's very frustrating."
Others would let men step in and help them with physical tasks such as digging foxholes, she recalled, enabling and encouraging the very gender stereotypes most military women struggle to overcome.
That's why, if there is any difference at all in training women, it would be that female service members need a little extra boost of confidence, Maj. Lee-Wood said.
"Really, it's all about self-confidence and self-esteem," she said. "That kind of thread is weaved through recruit training."