U.S. Army Soldiers conduct a 12-mile foot march during the Ranger Course on Fort Benning, GA., April 23, 2015.

U.S. Army Soldiers conduct a 12-mile foot march during the Ranger Course on Fort Benning, GA., April 23, 2015. U.S. Army photo by Pfc Antonio Lewis

Three Women Advance, Inspire at US Army’s Ranger School

As the trio work their way through the Mountain phase, others across the Army watch, wait, and hope for their shot at the elite special operators course.

They’re still in it.

In the mountains of North Georgia, the U.S. Army Ranger School’s second phase opened as it has countless times before: with more than 150 men competing to beat the terrain, meet their instructors’ challenges, and earn the right to wear the coveted black-and-gold Ranger tab. Only this time there is one historic difference: for the first time, three women are tackling the Mountain Phase, too. And for the next set of days they all will climb, rappel and evacuate mock casualties to prove they have the physical and mental toughness needed to graduate.

After Ranger School opened its first, limited window to women candidates earlier this year, 125 entered the two-week pre-Ranger courses. In April, 19 women cleared that phase and became the first to enter the School proper. Only eight women made it past the first four days of physical tests, known as Ranger Assessment Phase, or RAP week, which included swimming, a road march and completing 49 push-ups, 59 sit-ups, six chin-ups and a five-mile run in under 40 minutes. But that 42 percent success rate was not too far behind the 48 percent rate for the men, 184 of whom made it through.

Of the eight women who continued into the course, none made it through the so-called Darby phase on their first try. Per the rules, they restarted the school at Day One with another set of RAP Week physical tests, alongside 101 men who were also “recycled.” Once again they did not make it through the Darby Phase, but three female and two male students performed well enough to receive a third shot at starting again.  

Only the women said yes. The other five women – along with 24 men – returned to their home units.

On Friday, leaders at Fort Benning, Ga., announced that “158 men and three women met the standards to complete the Darby Phase of the Ranger Course.”

They made it through.

The key word in that sentence, for many, is “standards.” Days before Ranger School opened to women earlier this year, Defense One visited the last of the pre-Ranger courses and found that everyone – the women aspiring to enter Ranger School and the men running it – made it clear that no one wanted the standards lowered for women. Women simply wanted a chance to meet them.  

“No one is pushing the women through,” says one of the officers charged with leading Ranger School. “They are succeeding on their own merit, determination, and will. They are meeting the exact same standards that their male counterparts are meeting.”

The officer added, “The fact that three of five students accepted the Day One recycle, made it through RAP week after being in Darby twice, and made it through a third iteration of Darby should speak for itself. At this point, they have been in the course for 83 or 84 days.”

As for the women’s lower success rate, some attribute that to the newness of the opening of Ranger School and say they expect to see those numbers shift over time if the school is opened once more.

“Patrolling was the biggest learning curve — controlling a group of Ranger students,” said Sgt. First Class Tiffany Myrick, a military police noncommissioned officer who served as an observer and adviser at Ranger School.

Myrick said the women showed it wasn’t the physical tests, but the patrolling experience they lacked.  

Fort Benning officials point out that infantry lieutenants know “well ahead of their commissioning that the expectation is that they complete the course. Rangers assigned to the Ranger Regiment know that if they want to stay in Regiment they need to complete the course.” This gives them time to ready themselves physically and mentally to meet that standard. It also provides them with mentors and role models who are graduates of Ranger School and ready to help their preparation.

Women, on the other hand, have never had a shot at attending Ranger School before this year, so their preparation time was short. Female graduates don’t exist to mentor them. And none of the women who attended Ranger School came from units with huge populations of Ranger qualified officers or noncommissioned officers to assist their preparations for the course.

As the Fort Benning leader noted, “The fact that five students were offered Day One Recycles, but only the three women accepted should speak volumes about their determination, attitude, resilience, and spirit.”

All of the Ranger School conversation comes against the broader backdrop of roles opening to women. By January 1, 2016, all roles in the military are to be opened to women, unless commanders give the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs a good reason why not.

This past Friday, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter talked about opening to women the remainder of the military’s occupational specialties. “I’m really committed to seeing this through,” he told troops at Fort Bragg, N.C. “Where I can have another half of our population be in that recruiting and retention pool, that’s a pretty good deal for the department,” he said. “It’s like doubling the population of the country.”

Carter said he expects to “close this chapter” of looking at which jobs should exclude women “by year-end or so.”

What’s next for the three women and the 158 men on the course is extensive mountaineering followed by training in combat techniques and two field exercises held in day and nighttime across the mountainous terrain. The reward for passing this grueling second phase in the Georgia mountains is yet more testing of the soldiers’ outer physical and mental limits: the final phase of Ranger School held in the snake-filled swamps of Florida.

Myrick is among a number of women waiting to see whether another round of Ranger School will open to them. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told reporters that “we'll probably run a couple more pilots,” but no dates have yet been announced.

“If they run another class, I am sure more women will come out,” Myrick said.  “There are definitely more women who can do it and they have been watching the women who have made it this far.”

Myrick counts herself among those inspired by the three still in the running to receive the Ranger tab.

“It feels like I was a part of history,” Myrick says. “I got to see the first group of women ever go through the hardest school in the Army and actually make it through the first phase. It was a good experience. It was a motivating experience as well.”