- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Col. Ellen Haring, U.S. Army Reserve
Best Defense guest columnist
January 24, 2014 marks the one-year anniversary of the elimination of the military’s official policy that kept women from accessing nearly a quarter of a million military jobs. So, what has changed for military women in the past year? Not a lot. The military services and Special Operations Command were given three years to open up all positions or to request, by exception, to keep some positions closed. So far, no requests have been made to keep any positions closed, but few positions have actually been opened.
On July 2, 2013, a 7th Infantry Division (ID) operations order encouraged soldiers to apply for the Army’s Ranger School. According to the order that went to all soldiers in a subordinate intelligence brigade at Joint Base Lewis-McCord, the unit is looking to “increase Soldier leadership skills across the Brigade”. There is one catch to this leadership opportunity. Women still need not apply.
According to the Army’s Ranger training brigade website, Rangers are soldiers who are highly trained in the principles of leadership and individual combat skills. “Graduates return to their units to pass on these skills.” The website outlines the physical and mental qualifications required to attend this leadership course. Ranger School accepts servicemen from all services and all specialties. The single qualifying distinction is that all men are eligible but not one woman is eligible regardless of her mental and physical qualifications. Male chaplains and doctors attend Ranger School but women fighter pilots, military police, artillery, and engineer soldiers are excluded.
When Army leaders are asked why women are excluded from Ranger School, the answer is that Ranger School is a sourcing mechanism for the Ranger Regiment and Ranger billets and since women aren’t assigned to these positions they don’t need to attend Ranger School. This is a grossly disingenuous answer and is refuted by the evidence. Even before the combat exclusion policy that prohibited women from serving in combat units was lifted, Ranger School was widely understood to be a leadership course and many men who undertake the course have no intention of joining the Ranger Regiment and are never assigned to a Ranger billet. The soldiers that the 7th ID intelligence brigade was recruiting were not headed to a Ranger unit. They were expected to return to their intelligence brigade and use their newly acquired skills to improve their units.
Furthermore, Ranger School completion becomes a performance evaluation discriminator in the minds of many operational commanders. As a member of a chaplain’s promotion board recently observed, chaplains who wear the storied Ranger tab are consistently rated higher than their non-Ranger qualified peers. Ranger School may make these chaplains better leaders or it may simply be that they are perceived to be better leaders as a result of being Ranger qualified. Regardless of the reason, women who are never afforded the opportunity to attend Ranger School are at a disadvantage when compared to their Ranger-qualified peers.
Women attend and graduate from the challenging Air Assault and Airborne courses. Some go on to become High Altitude, Low Opening (HALO) parachute jump masters. Women become Pathfinders where they are dropped into remote locations and navigate through harsh terrain to establish day and night landing zones to facilitate follow-on forces. In recent years, women became Sappers after completing the grueling month-long Sapper course. Sappers are soldiers who are trained in navigation and demolition techniques and are often inserted behind enemy lines. These are tough schools and the Army has managed to include women in all of them with no degradation of standards.
It has been one year since the combat exclusion policy was lifted but women are still excluded from Ranger School. This should have been one of the easy openings. Ranger School has long had well defined entry and graduation requirements. There is no need to either validate or establish non-existent standards. Standards already exist. Just open the school and let women compete on an equal footing with men. Opening Ranger School now will give women the opportunity to prove that they are soldiers capable of any test. It will put to bed any lingering doubts about whether or not women can serve in the combat arms. If women can graduate from Ranger school, then surely they can capably serve in combat units.
Ellen Haring in a West Point graduate and a colonel in the Army Reserve. She is a senior fellow at Women in International Security.