Two women have crossed rivers, scaled walls, and jumped over a gender barrier to make it through the U.S. Army's toughest training program.
- By Gayle Tzemach LemmonGayle Tzemach Lemmon is fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.
EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE — Under the baking hot early August sun of the sweltering Florida swamps, an Army Ranger School student perches on bended knee in the mud. Sporting a shaved head and a dank, sweat-stained uniform, the student talks to seven classmates on the black zodiac boat that will carry them all across the Yellow River. The student, vying for the black and gold tab awarded to Ranger School graduates, will row the boat and help pace the team, spacing out water breaks and steering around sandbars and other traps that could sap their limited energy reserves as they complete this final set of Army Ranger School tests.
Nothing appears at all remarkable about the scene, which plays out exactly the same way on nearly a dozen identical zodiacs all along the grass-patched river bank — except that the student speaking happens to be making history: She’s a female Army officer in the first-ever coed Army Ranger School class. On Monday, the Army announced that she and another fellow West Pointer will become the first women to graduate from the storied Ranger School, the Army’s premier leadership course, in a pilot program to open the school to women.
“I am very pleased; it is proof that if we open up these opportunities to women … there are qualified women that can be able to engage in combat,” former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who lifted the ban on ground combat in January 2013, told Foreign Policy. “I always believed that, without having to change the qualifications, that there were women who could live up to the same standards that we required of others, to be able to become Rangers and to be part of Special Forces. I had seen too many women who had the capabilities not to believe that if given the opportunity … they could make it.”
“I had every confidence that this story would happen, and I am proud of the fact that [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman] Gen. [Martin] Dempsey and I were able to open that door,” Panetta said. “Once we open that door to the opportunity for women to be able to fully participate, I don’t think there are any limits as to how far or how high they can go. We are going to benefit, this country is going to benefit, by having best fighters in the world defending this country, and there is no question in my mind that the best fighters are going to be both men and women.”
Those who know the women — whose identities the Army has asked to keep anonymous — say they are not surprised to see them step up and accept the challenge and trial of being firsts. “She was amazingly physically fit,” says a West Point instructor who is familiar with one of the women about to complete Ranger School, an Army lieutenant she calls her “No. 1 draft pick.” The woman is “extremely confident, but not cocky, and very determined — persistent and not flashy,” the instructor noted, adding that the lieutenant had talked about her passion for joining the infantry from the time she was a cadet at West Point. “She is passionate about what it is that the infantry does, and what Rangers do, and … believes that this is an opportunity for her to learn.”
And it’s not only the women entering Ranger School who’ve learned something.
“Whether I agree or disagree with it, they have changed my mind,” says Sgt. Maj. Colin Boley, the operations sergeant major for the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade. Boley, a recipient of the Silver Star who served in the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, completed more than a dozen Ranger deployments and won the Best Ranger competition a decade ago. “I didn’t think that they would physically be able to bear the weight, and I thought they would quit or get hurt, and they have proved me wrong,” he says.
Nearly four months ago, 19 women and 381 men entered Ranger School for the first time, as part of a one-time, integrated assessment announced in January of this year. After the grueling, four-day Ranger Assessment Phase, or RAP week — a series of tests which wipes out the majority of those who enter Ranger School and includes completing a 12-mile road march, a five-mile run, 49 pushups, 59 sit-ups, and a land navigation exercise — eight women remained.
RAP, however, is merely the physical test one must pass before entering the next phase, known as Darby Phase. None of the eight were able to pass Darby Phase, but each was twice given the chance to have what is called a “Day 1 recycle,” which means a shot at starting the entirety of the muscle-numbing Ranger School course once more.
After the second attempt at completing Darby Phase, three of the eight received the opportunity to try once more. They began that third attempt on June 21. All three made it through on that third try and advanced to the mountains of northern Georgia for the second phase of the school. Two of the three made it through the tests the mountains offered to join roughly 125 men in confronting the school’s final trial — 17 days in the swamps of Florida — alligators, snakes, and all — at Eglin Air Force Base, while the third restarted the mountain phase, where she is now.
“These females went through three phases of Darby, two RAP weeks, mountains, and Florida,” Boley says. “I have seen males do that and get hurt and quit.”
The two women in this assessment will earn the coveted black and gold Ranger tab worn by less than 3 percent of the entire U.S. Army. Their graduation will offer another data point in the Army’s months-long process to determine whether women really can meet the same standards as men, in a course that regularly sends people packing. At least a third of those who earn the Ranger tab fail at least one of the school’s three phases, according to the Army’s Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade, and face the choice of either repeating it or returning to their home units.
“It is designed to bring you to your breaking point and see if you break or not,” says Capt. Jackson Wittkamper, a Ranger School instructor who himself repeated the Florida phase of the school back in 2011 before earning his Ranger tab.
This Friday’s Ranger School graduation is the latest step in a march to open up opportunities and roles to female service members that began back in January 2013, when then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta officially lifted the ban on women in ground combat roles that had been codified by a 1994 memo from Secretary of Defense Les Aspin. For years, women had served on the battlefield — an estimated 300,000 have deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and more than 150 women have been killed in America’s post-9/11 wars. But ground combat jobs remained closed to them until the Panetta move, which laid out a three-year timeline for the military services to integrate women. By Jan. 1, 2016, the U.S. military must open all combat roles to women — or offer a reason why they will not. Among the decisions still pending: whether women will indeed be allowed to join the infantry, and whether they will be allowed to become Army Rangers, Green Berets, and Navy SEALs.
For those involved in the 2013 Panetta decision, this week marks a moment in watching policy transform into reality.
“Women could not do so many jobs, but Ranger School is probably the one that most people would have thought, ‘Never — that will never happen,’ as recently as 2011. And it is incredible. I have no doubt that women will do great things as Rangers,” says Monica Medina, who attended Georgetown University on an Army ROTC scholarship and served as Panetta’s special assistant. Under his leadership, Medina helped to write the rule that lifted the ground combat ban. “I don’t know that I will ever do anything else that is this important or has this much impact, and it is something I am proud of every day,” she said.
Scrutiny has greeted each decision along the way, with critics arguing that integration will weaken force readiness and cohesion, lead to ill-advised, watered-down standards, and cost too much money to open up jobs to too-few qualified people. At the Aspen Security Forum in July, current and former special operations commanders made headlines by taking on the topic of whether all special operations roles would open to women.
Certainly, Army leaders charged with managing this first-ever coed class have endured withering criticism, both from within and outside of the military. Facebook pages and message boards have seen no shortage of arguments over whether opening Ranger School to women means lessening the value of the tab. In response, those leading Ranger School have brought in widely respected, retired Rangers to observe the process firsthand. Those luminaries have reported back to the Ranger community that standards have not been watered down. And the media has enjoyed invitation-only access to each phase of the school. All of these efforts sought to prove one point: This is business as usual, just with women soldiers included.
“One thing we really focused on was standards,” says Col. David Fivecoat, who commands the Army’s Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade, during an interview in the Florida swamp. A former aide to Gen. David Petraeus who also served three tours in Iraq, among other deployments, he is no stranger to the public eye or to enlisting the media to help spread the message. “The standards will not change, and they will be the same for everybody.”
Fivecoat and other commanders note that women have served in all manner of battlefield roles since 9/11, including as Female Engagement Team members with the Marines and on Cultural Support Teams on direct action night raids alongside Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, and other special operations units. Women have served as combat pilots, engineers, and military police, and joined patrols alongside infantry units in Iraq and Afghanistan to search and speak with women. Years before Panetta lifted the ban, some commanders had already placed women in roles “coded” officially for male soldiers in Army systems because they believed they were the best people for the job.
“We were all flirting with the direct ground combat rule,” out of battlefield necessity, Fivecoat says. “Why wouldn’t you want that woman you are going to put out there to provide that capability to be Ranger-trained?”
Despite the scrutiny, the trio in Ranger School reportedly would prefer to avoid the history-making moniker entirely. Their support circle includes a tight-knit network of West Point women that has assembled to support them and their families, who say that these women neither want nor have sought anything other than a chance to meet the grueling Ranger School standard.
“It has been about their performance, their ability to lead and inspire, their physical and mental toughness,” says Donna McAleer of the female Ranger School students. McAleer graduated from West Point in 1987 and authored a book on the school’s women graduates titled Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point’s Long Gray Line. “They knew they were going to be scrutinized, and all eyes are on this class.”
McAleer says she and her fellow West Pointers who graduated in the 1980s hoped the day would arrive when women would get a chance to receive that tough training and serve to their utmost. “I look back on our days at West Point, and the epitome was becoming an airborne, Ranger-qualified, infantry battalion commander, and two of these four were blocked for women,” she says, referring to Ranger School and the infantry, which both were and are still officially closed to women.
For her part, the West Point instructor familiar with the two women in Florida phase notes that she herself received a role early in her career traditionally held by a soldier with a Ranger tab. She never forgot the chances she and those she led didn’t have.
“It always got me when people would say Ranger School is the best leadership opportunity, the best training in the Army, and you would think, ‘I didn’t have that opportunity — does that mean I am not as a good a leader? Are my soldiers cheated because I didn’t have that tab?’”
No decisions have yet been announced on whether Ranger School will open permanently to women, but an email alert went out on Monday from the Army announcing that the November Ranger School course will also be opened to women. Outgoing Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno spoke of the Ranger School class in his final press conference.
“The women in Ranger School are another example of — if they can meet the standard, they should be able to go, and they should be able to earn their Ranger tab,” Odierno said. “I think that’s how we want to operate as we move forward. If you can meet the standards that we’ve established, then you should be able to perform in that (military specialty). And I think that’s where we’re headed.”
Sgt. Maj. Boley says this week’s graduation is business as usual. “Nothing has changed. No female has been afforded any opportunity a male hasn’t,” Boley says. “It is history, I am sure it is, but this graduation is just another graduation” — albeit one to which his children may one day pay closer attention than usual.
“I have a daughter who is 12 years old, and six years from now if she wanted to join the Army and go to Ranger School, I will make sure she is ready.”
And for female soldiers who have been part of the process of observing the women since this spring, the moment is one to remember.
“It is just a big accomplishment for women; it shows that we are mentally tough, we are physically tough, and that we can do a lot more than what was previously thought of us,” said Sgt. First Class Tiffany Myrick, a military police noncommissioned officer who served as an observer and advisor at Ranger School. “Just give us that opportunity, and it shows that if given that opportunity, we can succeed.”
Photo credit: U.S. Army/Pfc. Yvette Zabala-Garriga
Correction, Aug. 18, 2015: The Army announced on Monday that the two female officers will graduate from Ranger School this Friday. A previous version of this article said that they became graduates on Monday.