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Breaking barriers: Women pass first phase of Army's tough Ranger School

Three women in the US Army have passed the first phase of Ranger School. It’s a physically and mentally demanding program that teaches leadership and small unit technical and tactical skills in a simulated combat environment.

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    US Army Soldiers conduct the Darby Queen obstacle course as part of the Ranger Course at Fort Benning, Ga. Soldiers attend the Ranger Course to learn additional leadership and small unit technical and tactical skills in a physically and mentally demanding combat simulated environment.
    Spc. Dacotah Lane/US Army
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For the first time, women have successfully passed the first phase of Ranger School. 

It is a considerable achievement for the three women, all West Point graduates, who are now slated to begin the “mountain phase” of the storied program next week, Army officials say.

“Without a doubt, Ranger School is the most physically and mentally demanding course in the Army,” Maj. Gen. Scott Miller, commander of the US Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, which runs the program, said in a statement.

The women are part of the original group of 19 female soldiers who initially attempted to complete the first phase of the program in April.

Eight of them successfully made it through Ranger Assessment Program, or RAP week, the very first four days of the program and widely considered the most difficult. Roughly 60 percent of all candidates who fail Ranger School do so during RAP week.

The women went on to attempt the first phase, known as the “Darby” phase, but all eight women failed. They then tried again twice more, before passing. On the third try, they also had to repeat RAP week, which all three women completed (twice) on their first try.

“The feedback I’m getting is these females are performing exceedingly well – physically, mentally – and the cadre is very proud of how they’ve done,” Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army’s top officer, told reporters in May.

General Odierno went on to add that the problem the women were having was with patrolling. “Patrolling is something you learn from experience, and they just have not had the experience of doing it.” 

Recommended: Breaking military's ultimate glass ceiling? Women start Ranger training.

(“Patrolling” is when a military unit moving through terrain faces tactical challenges, including ambushes, enemy fire, and dealing with medical emergencies. Ranger School students are evaluated on how well they react to all of these scenarios, and whether they make it to their given objective.)

Advocates point out that all three women are West Point graduates, one of whom is an Apache helicopter pilot, and that men who pass the course include chaplains and physicians who often have little experience in patrolling, which is often conducted by junior enlisted soldiers, current and former military officers say.

“It seems to me that patrolling has been a problem for 100 percent of the women – is it a problem for the non-combat arms men?” says one former Army officer familiar with the Ranger School class. “If it’s not, then what does that say about the nature of the grading? Is it objective, or is it subjective?”

The women have also received positive assessments from their peers, known as “peering well,” according to sources familiar with the Ranger School class.

“How did they [the women] do it?” says one military officer familiar with the course. “They wrote patrol orders for their squad mates. They made sure they were always carrying some of the squad equipment. They sleep less and hustle more. You know the deal.”

The mountain phase will include 20 days of “intensive platoon training and operations” in the Chattahoochee National Forest near Dahlonega, Ga., according to an Army statement. 

This will include four days of military mountaineering training, four days of “techniques training,” as well as 10 days of student-led patrols. 

“The students of this class, just as all other Ranger classes, have shown strength and determination to persevere and complete the first phase of this rigorous course in the heat of the Georgia summer. I’m confident that they are trained and ready to tackle the Mountain Phase of Ranger School,” Col. David Fivecoat, commander of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade, said in a statement. 

According to the Ranger School’s website, 75 percent of soldiers who complete RAP week will eventually pass the Darby phase and move on to the Mountain Phase. From there it generally gets easier for the students: 94 percent of those who start the mountain phrase will eventually pass and move on to the Florida swamp phase, the final segment of Ranger School. According to the Army, 98 percent of those who start the swamp phase will eventually pass it, although one in five must try again at least once.

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