What motivates barrier breakers?

The young men and women who go through the US military's Ranger School aren't motivated by fame or fortune. They are motivated by values and causes that can't be publicized or monetized.

Spc. Nikayla Shodeen/US Army
US Army soldiers lined up during ranger testing April 20 at Fort Benning, GA.

Movie superheroes come equipped with spectacular muscles and physics-defying powers. The rest of us work with what we have. It’s the work that makes the difference.

In a Monitor cover story (click here), Anna Mulrine reports on the first contingent of women who did the hard work to qualify for the toughest training course in the US Army. Ranger School is a two-month ordeal that tests physical and mental endurance, rewards leadership and teamwork, and is so punishing that those who finish it lose on average 25 to 30 pounds. More than half of the students who start don’t finish.

That was true for the women Anna tracked. They got in – an achievement in itself – but didn’t go the distance. They have been invited back, as have many of the men who failed the first time. Students who “recycle” have a much higher graduation rate. 

The women who tried this first time trained, sacrificed, and pushed their limits. So did the men. They are – and this is important in a democracy – ordinary people who raised their hands not because they want a star on Hollywood Boulevard or a million-dollar signing bonus. They want a dangerous job that won’t make them rich and that they can’t say much about to friends and family.

Why do that in a society that seems to worship celebrity, money, and the high life? Why crawl through a mangrove swamp or hump a 70-pound load 12 miles in three hours? Some individuals are testing themselves. Some care about their comrades. Most want to serve their country. Does that sound strange? Despite the attention the rich, famous, and outrageous get in the media, there are deep wells in society of men and women motivated by values and causes that are not publicized or monetized. It is tremendously reassuring when you meet one of these people.

As Anna notes, women in the military are determined to achieve full equality with men. More than 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Women command battle fleets and fly warplanes. Hundreds have been wounded. The last barrier is frontline combat, especially in elite units such as the special operations forces. 

The question that hangs in the air is whether the standards in Ranger School, SEAL training, and other rigorous courses – standards designed by and for men – must remain exactly the same for women. To some critics, any change is a slippery slope. But breaking this last gender barrier is not just about gender equality. It is about military effectiveness. Special operations forces like Rangers usually work behind the lines and in civilian environments. The more diverse these units are, the more likely they will be able to derive what the military calls “situational awareness” from the men and women they encounter. 

There is little evidence that the first women in Ranger School got a break. They did the work, didn’t make the cut, and will work harder next time. One or more will eventually win the coveted Ranger tab. The ceremony won’t be televised.

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