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.
"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, 23, 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.
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.