The Army introduced its first two combat-ready female Rangers to the nation Thursday, and America all but surrendered. After decades of doubts over the wisdom of sending the “weaker sex” to the front lines, 1st Lieutenant Kristen Griest, and Captain Shaye Haver demonstrated a squared-away countenance and can-do attitude that impressed both their new Ranger buddies and commanders.
Eight of the 96 Rangers slated to graduate from the demanding 62-day Ranger School Friday met with reporters at Fort Benning, Ga. The pair of women looked little different from their six male comrades, except for their slightly-longer crew cuts. Both females and males spoke with a low-key grit that blurred the gender lines and signaled what is likely to be a growing role for women on the front lines of the U.S. military.
“We can handle things physically and mentally on the same level as men,” Griest, a military police officer from Orange, Conn., said. “We can deal with the same stresses and training that the men can.”
Haver, an AH-64 Apache helicopter pilot from Copperas Cove, Tex., said whenever she became discouraged while clambering through woods, swamps and mountains, she’d look to her male comrades and gain strength. “The ability to look around at my peers and see that they were sucking just as bad I was kept me going,” she said.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter hailed the pair. “It's a huge credit for anyone, man or woman, to endure the intense training and curriculum at Ranger School,” he said at the Pentagon, after calling the two to offer his congratulations. “These recent graduates will be leaders of our Army, of our force of the future.”
The men had no complaints. 2nd Lieutenant Zachary Hagner recalled being bone-tired after carrying a 17-pound machine gun for three days. “I went to every single person, just in a line, no order, and they were `No, I’m really tired, too, I’m broken,’” he recalled the men in his squad saying.
His last hope was Griest. “She basically took it away from me,” he said. “Nine guys were like `Well, I’m too broken, I’m too tired.’ She—just as broken and tired—took it from me with almost excitement. I thought she was crazy for that, but maybe she was just motivated.”
Other males agreed. “When we were given resupply and you’re given 2,000 rounds of machine-gun ammo, the last thing you’re caring about is whether or not your Ranger buddy is a man or a woman,” 2nd Lieutenant Michael Janowski said. “Because you’re not carrying all 2,000 rounds by yourself.”
“You’re way too tired and way too hungry to really honestly care,” added Staff Sergeant Michael Calderon. “At the end of the day, everyone was a Ranger.”
Haver said any male/female distinctions evaporated as the course dragged on. “It’s pretty cool that they have accepted us,” she said of her fellow Rangers. “We ourselves came to Ranger School skeptical, with our guards up ready just in case for the haters and the nay-sayers,” but such friction never happened.
Since the Ranger School opened in 1952, 77,000 soldiers have earned the patch, widely seen as an indicator of leadership potential and spur to promotion. Last year, 1,609 of 4,057 men who began the course—40 percent—ended up earning the tab. Only about 3% of Army men are Ranger-qualified. Earning the tab doesn’t guarantee admission to the 75th Ranger Regiment, the Army’s top light-infantry outfit, which is often deployed on the service’s riskiest missions. It simply means they’re eligible for an assignment to lead in that exclusive unit. Pentagon policy currently bans women from serving in direct ground combat slots, which include infantry—like the Rangers—as well as armor, most artillery, and special-operations units.
But the pair’s graduation is a significant crack in the wall keeping women formally off the battlefield. Griest and Haver, both West Point graduates, find themselves in a limbo created by the Pentagon as it grapples with integrating women ever more deeply into the military’s combat units. It’s basically trying to amass a stockpile of Ranger-tabbed women believing the Pentagon will lift that ban early next year.
One-time Army Ranger and retired three-star general David Barno says women have been waging war alongside their male counterparts since 9/11 and advancing them to the front lines is a no-brainer. “You’ve had women integrated for the first time in American history in units in combat, and have made that work pretty darn well,” he says.
But skeptics of the move to open up combat slots to women say that adding women to front-line units would “erode mission capabilities.” Physical differences will lead to more injuries among frontline female troops, they say. Unit cohesion—the glue that binds soldiers together in battle—will weaken amid sexual dynamics in co-ed front-line units, they add.
“Arguments for or against women in combat should not rely on the experiences of two women alone,” says Elaine Donnelly, whose Center for Military Readiness opposes putting women oin the front lines. “The case for women in direct ground combat still has not been made.”
Some critics suggest standards were eased at the Ranger School, to let women graduate. The Army vehemently denies it. “Nothing should be closed because of gender,” says Ann Dunwoody, who served as the first four-star female general in U.S. history before retiring from the Army in 2012. “But I also firmly believe that the standards should not be lowered to accommodate women.”
Haver and Griest conceded they felt the weight of their historical assignment. “I was thinking of future generations of women,” Griest said. “I would like them to have that opportunity, so I had that pressure on myself."