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Do women have the physical strength to operate an M-16 rifle, load bombs onto aircraft, put up and strike tents, change tires on large trucks? Do they have the aggressiveness, the stamina, the ruggedness?

The Persian Gulf war, in which women are a greater presence in a theater of conflict than ever before, raises again the long-debated question of women's fitness for combat.Many, including Dr. Scott Pengelly, a sports psychologist and former Navy officer, believe differences of physical strength are minor and not discernible at intense levels of performance such as combat.

``The biggest difference is going to be sociological and psychological,' said Pengelly, of Eugene, Ore., who has worked with male and female Olympic athletes.

There is a 10 percent difference in muscular strength - most notably, upper body strength - because of the higher levels of the male hormone testosterone in men, Pengelly said. But women metabolize energy sources with greater efficiency and thus have greater endurance in the long haul, he said.

Dr. Estelle R. Ramey, professor emeritus of physiology at Georgetown University Medical School, believes there is ``no good physical reason' why women in combat should respond differently than men.

``Most combat is not a test of musculature,' she said. ``It's sitting in a tank.'

Brian Mitchell, a former Army officer and author of ``Weak Link: The Feminization of the American Military,' disagrees with the argument that strength is not as vital with today's high-tech weaponry.

``It's a nice notion, but that's all it is - a notion,' Mitchell said.

``That high-tech equipment is very heavy and has to be manhandled to be put into place ... It's pretty plain that women don't have the physical strength to perform many of the tasks required in the military.'

Mitchell cites a Marine Corps study in which a high percentage of women could not throw a hand grenade far enough to avoid hurting themselves.

He also refers to Navy research on a firefighting unit in Alaska, which had to assign five women to engine companies that required only four men.

He says Army officers have told him about instances in which women in their units could not pull back the bolt required to operate their M-16 rifle.

Physical strength ``is only half the problem,' Mitchell said. His research found that women in the military seek two to three times the medical attention of men, have higher rates of attrition, lower rates of deployability because of pregnancy and, most importantly, are less aggressive, Mitchell said.

``Women won't have the extra edge in combat that men will have - and that the men they're up against will have.'

Pengelly agrees that ``given no training, men are typically more aggressive than women under challenging circumstances.'

But with military training, ``there is no noticeable difference,' he said. ``Women wouldn't have gotten to this point without that being abundantly clear.'

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