U.S. Army soldiers work through the Mountain Phase of the Ranger Course on Camp Merrill in Dahlonega, Ga., July 12, 2015.

U.S. Army soldiers work through the Mountain Phase of the Ranger Course on Camp Merrill in Dahlonega, Ga., July 12, 2015. U.S. Army photo

Tabbed! Female Rangers Lead the Way, but Now What?

Two women have completed the U.S. Army’s grueling Ranger School. What comes next is up to a new cadre of Army leaders.

American women have seen combat, fought in wars, and died on battlefields. But for the first time, two of them have completed the U.S. Army’s Ranger School, the service’s most grueling course for combat leaders. On Friday, they will don the Ranger “tab,” a shoulder patch borne only by those who endure and excel in two months of lessons and tests in woodlands, mountains, and swamps.

Graduating from the School earns a soldier the right to wear the tab — but does not guarantee assignment to the 75th Ranger Regiment, the unit of active-duty Rangers dispatched on the most dangerous and specialized of missions. Those Rangers work with other special operators like the Army’s Night Stalkers, the secretive helicopter wing that ferries troops in and out of danger zones, usually under cover of darkness.

What comes next for the two women – and the ones who will follow if Army officials keep the School’s doors open to women, as expected – is a policy decision awaiting Defense Secretary Ash Carter by year’s end. Army leaders, like the rest of the military, are in a testing period. Every military job has been ordered opened to female servicemembers, although the service chiefs may request exemptions for jobs they deem too difficult or inappropriate for women. Such requests are expected for elite combat specialties, including Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, and other special operations fields. 

For the Army, that decision will be made by the new chief of staff, Gen. Mark Milley, who was sworn in on Friday. Milley, along with the Army secretary, must recommend by Dec. 31 which jobs to keep blocked from female soldiers. Incumbent Secretary John McHugh is expected to retire soon, possibly leaving the final say to his replacement. Either way, Milley and the secretary will have plenty of information — including the results of this Ranger School.

Most Army jobs are expected to open for women. Ray Odierno, who stepped down as Army chief on Friday, said last month that all tank operator jobs would open, except for one specialty awaiting further evaluation in other fields. It was a notable revelation because tank jobs were the example used in recent years by skeptical Army leaders — including Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, a tank operator himself — citing the physical strength needed to load and clear heavy shells.

“We‘ve not made any final decisions on infantry or armor yet, but I think those are coming very shortly,” said Odierno at his final Pentagon press briefing, last week.

[Related: Three Women Advance, Inspire at US Army’s Ranger School]

“Congratulations to all of our new Rangers,” said McHugh, in a statement Monday night. “This course has proven that every soldier, regardless of gender, can achieve his or her full potential.” Graduation is set for Friday at Fort Benning, Ga.

Ranger School is a two-month, three-phase endurance test in woodlands, mountains and swamps. Army officials said roughly one-third of soldiers “recycle” through one or more phases—a second try, of sorts. In April, 381 men and, for the first time, 19 women entered the course. 

Their success comes years after women began serving with distinction in combat in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Army's efforts to bypass rules banning women in combat were documented by Defense One contributor Gayle Tzemach Lemmon in her book, Ashley's War, about women who fought and served in Afghanistan, which has garnered national attention.