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Petite but proven: Two women warriors pass elite Army training course

NBC News

1st Lt. Audrey Moton is seen at the Army's Sapper Leader Training course for combat engineers at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

While the Pentagon brass and U.S. military leaders are struggling over how to bring women into ground combat training, two young female soldiers have already proven they've got what it takes to join their male counterparts on the battlefield.

1st Lt. Audrey Moton and 2nd Lt. Carley Turnnidge, both West Point graduates, took on the Army's Sapper Leader Training course for combat engineers at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.  It's one of the toughest combat training courses in the entire U.S. military and the only course of its kind that accepts women.  Since 1999, nearly 60 women have made the grade.

For more on women in combat, watch NBC Nightly News' two-part series. Part One airs on Saturday, Dec. 1.

Sapper training may be dirty, grueling and bordering on physical torture but petite women are proving their strength alongside their bigger, beefier soldiers. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.

Moton at 5'6'', and Turnnidge, barely reaching 5'4'', faced 28 grueling days of physical torture with little sleep or food.  But that was only half the challenge.  Training alongside 36 larger, more muscular male soldiers, both instinctively felt that as women they had to prove they could hold their own.  They did.

Turnnidge, a high school and West Point soccer star, went above and beyond the call.  After failing in tactical operations in her first try, remarkably, she took the course twice -- 56 straight days without a break.  In a training swim, Turnnidge had to drag her exhausted male partner back across the lake.  Moton vigorously trained to get in shape before she ever got to the course and believes she and Turnnidge actually motivated the men. "They'd think, 'Wait, I don't wanna get beat by a girl.' Well, then run faster," she said. "I'm not going to stop."

While women are permitted to fly fighter jets and attack helicopters in combat missions, Pentagon policy prohibits female soldiers and Marines from serving in direct ground combat roles.  In the past 11 years of guerrilla-style combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, those battle lines were essentially erased.  More than 130 female service members were killed and 800 wounded.  This week the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit to lift the ban on women in combat.

Both Moton and Turnnidge passed the course and earned the coveted title "SAPPER."  While it will likely open doors for future promotions and positions of leadership, they have no illusions they'll ever see ground combat themselves,  but believe they're helping pave the way for other female soldiers in the future. "It sets me apart from my peers," Turnnidge said, "and over time more women will be able to prove themselves."

Moton is convinced with proper training and personal commitment, women will inevitably see duty in ground combat. "Down the road, we'll see many more women doing this. We're gettin' there."

Major Mary Jennings Hegar is among a group that is suing the U.S. military over a ban on women serving in combat. Hegar explains the lawsuit to MSNBC's Alex Witt.

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