Editor's note: What can women in the military do that no one else can? Check out a special Facebook chat with Pentagon correspondent Anna Mulrine on how views of women in the military are changing.
FORT BENNING, GA. — At first glance, the scene unfolding here in the rolling Georgia woodlands would appear to be unremarkable.
Two-by-two, bellies in the dirt and hands behind their backs, buddy teams of soldiers with shaved heads snake across the ground under the eye of the attentive instructors.
“Get your face down, Ranger!” one shouts.
“It’s an obstacle course – have some fun!” yells another to exhausted soldiers ordered to crab-walk to the evocatively-named “Belly Buster,” a station that involves running headlong into a stomach-high moving log.
It would seem to be a snapshot like any other in the 63-year history of the Army’s elite Ranger School. Except for one thing: For the first time ever, some of these buzz-cut soldiers are women.
You have to look closely to notice. The men have a little less hair, perhaps – their heads were shaved completely as incoming Ranger students. Some of the women wanted to do the same, but the Army decided it would be “too GI Jane,” as one official puts it.
Now that the men’s bald cuts have grown in, “I don’t even know who I’m yelling at,” says one instructor.
It is high praise for the women, who arrived at Ranger School amid criticism that has been quiet but steady: They can’t make the cut. They won’t fit in. They will lower the standards of the storied Rangers.
One week into the 62-day course, none of these dire predictions has come to pass.
The challenge for those who remain is stark, however. Between January and April, 113 women tried to qualify for Ranger School, but only 20 did. Of the 19 women who started the course – one had to drop out before school began – eight are still in the running one week later. (By comparison, 197 of the 381 men were dropped the first week.)
But this historic step has always been about more than just producing the first female Ranger this year. In fact, any women who pass this course won’t be allowed to serve as Rangers, since the ban on women in combat remains in effect until January 2016, when services must lift it or offer a compelling reason why they cannot.
But women who succeed will earn the prestigious Ranger tab as well as the respect and, perhaps ultimately, the opportunity that accompanies it. For this reason, the course is being closely watched by Pentagon brass.
What they’ve seen has encouraged them. The women here are coming up with creative ways not only to match the men’s physical strength but also how to get changed in the woods without freaking out the guys. They’re showing they can fight and use their past war experience to fit in at the legendary training ground for the Army’s special operations force, officials say.
“I’d be glad to serve with them on the battlefield anywhere, anytime,” says Brig. Gen. James Rainey, a Ranger who commanded a battalion in the Battle of Fallujah, and is now the Infantry School Commandant. “They’re phenomenal soldiers.”
Whether the women who remain – with backgrounds as varied as an Apache helicopter pilot and a reservist with two young children – make it to the end of the course remains to be seen.
But they are well-positioned, senior military officials here say, to become part of the elite 3 percent of Army service members who have earned the right to call one another Ranger.
On a sunny late-April day, the scent of blackberry and honeysuckle in the breeze blowing through the canopy of Georgia long leaf pines, the aspiring Rangers sound off cadences:
Top secret location, destination unknown
We don’t care if we’re ever coming home
The course is less than one mile long straight through, but it generally takes students the better part of two hours to complete the 26 obstacles in it. During this time they will be pushed to their physical limits.
As they perform over the next two months, they will be appraised not only by instructors here, but by their fellow soldiers, too.
It’s a crucial part of Ranger School, which requires not only outstanding and sustained physical stamina, but also positive peer feedback – as measured by narrative comments that Ranger students must complete.
It’s one way the Army can weed out what are known here as “spotlight Rangers,” who shine when leaders are watching and slack off when they aren’t.
These narrative comments tend to be solicited when Ranger students are exhausted and hungry, and they don’t pull punches.
“I wouldn’t trust this guy to water my cactus,” one Ranger recently wrote. “He steals food,” was another bit of feedback.
As the women make their way through the course today, they garner subtle nods in their direction from top Rangers tracking their performance.
“She’s one to watch,” says a male observer, signaling in the direction of one female contender.
“She’s smoking it,” another Ranger adds, referring to a second female student’s performance.
Col. David Fivecoat, commander of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade and a Ranger who has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, arrived here at the Camp Darby Queen course early, to run it himself before observing the students this morning.
The paint on the obstacles is new and the previous night’s downpour has made them slick.
He is standing beside the brigade’s command sergeant major, Curtis Arnold Jr., a lanky redhead with a thick Southern twang who has held every infantry position in the Army, from rifleman on up. He has four tours to Iraq and Afghanistan under his belt.
Together, they are connoisseurs of technique, always on the lookout for novel ways that students here are able to surmount the obstacles within the rough parameters provided to them.
Arnold tells Fivecoat that he has spotted a new one today, as he demonstrates a reverse-arm monkey bar grip used by one of the female students. Fivecoat agrees it is a solid innovation.
Adapting is key for all students, officials here say. “You may not be able to hump the extra weight because you’re a small person, but if you can do a great job planning, or going to get the water, or if you’re seen as value-added – that’s how you do well in peers,” Fivecoat says.
“You’ve got to figure out what you’re good at,” Arnold adds, “and you’ve got to make that known.”
Many of the women here have deployment experience and, in part because of that, have scored highly among their peers in operations planning, says Capt. Katie Fichtner.
A West Point graduate, Fichtner is a field artillery specialist, the first-ever female fires platoon leader in her home battalion. With a passion for trajectories and the math that accompanies them, she has become the school’s de facto statistics guru.
She is also one of 31 women brought in to be observer advisers, or OAs, for the female Ranger students.
Since pre-training began, the OAs have been called upon to weigh in on matters that men who had never deployed with women seem to “fixate” on, they say, like bathroom logistics and changing.
It is a source of great amusement to the women. “Men seem to have this mythical idea that women need to shower every three days,” Fichtner says, recalling a time she was tapped out in the field during artillery training to shower.
“I asked, ‘Do my [male] soldiers get to shower, too?’ ” When she was told no, she turned down the offer. It took a perusal of the regulations handbook for her male superiors back then to agree to accept her refusal.
When it came to changing, since the Rangers are living and sleeping together out in the field, the OAs suggested that women could throw on a rain poncho – part of every Ranger’s kit – or simply wear a sports bra.
Then there was the slight tussle over birth-control pills. Ranger School regulations say that students can’t take any medication with them into the field.
“It was idiotic,” says Arnold of the howls of protest that came from places like Facebook saying standards were being compromised.
The women were ultimately allowed to take the pills into the field. This means, Arnold notes, that they have to carry “an extra two ounces,” which should earn them more respect for their heavier load, he jokes.
As some soldiers duck-walk to the next obstacle, knees grazing pine needles and thighs no doubt burning, others are told to leap over a thick log about four feet high before tucking head-first into a combat roll – without use of their hands and without touching the log, either.
It is a task that about 1 in 3 of the soldiers who have been passing by are failing to accomplish.
Next up is a female soldier, who digs deep, leaps, and lands hard on her back. “Do not touch my beam!” the instructor yells.
She dusts herself off and tries again. (All students get three chances.)
This time, her fellow Rangers cheer her on. “Jump higher!” one yells.
She appears to take this under advisement, but grazes the log each time as she lands twice more with a thud. She gets the standard “spot report” for failing an obstacle, just like the soldiers before her.
Still, Arnold is impressed by the cheers of her fellow Ranger students. “That’s good,” he says. “That’s really good.” Some of the Ranger School classes fail to jell, for whatever reason, he says.
“All the classes have different dynamics,” Fivecoat adds. This group appears to be tight.
As he observes the field of soldiers on the course before him, Arnold is reminded of his 8-year-old daughter. He teaches her to maneuver on her older brothers using a Nerf gun, and she tells her dad that she wants to be in the Army, just like him. “She’s really smart,” he says. “She could do this.”
One of the reasons that women have managed to fit in at the school is that they’ve learned skills during their war deployments that make them “value added,” as they say here.
As an infantry battalion commander in Afghanistan in 2010, for example, Fivecoat sent two women down to each company to make sure the units could better do their job.
The female soldiers “had the ability to talk to women when we couldn’t,” he says, adding that they also came back with “atmospherics” – Army parlance for intelligence – “that were very helpful.”
No longer ‘extra baggage’
Staff Sgt. Cynthia Velarde, an OA from Fort Bliss, Texas, has seen the situation from the other side.
Standing at 5 feet, 1 inch with the closely-cropped haircut of the aspiring female Rangers, Velarde has an easy smile and a passion for athletics – her father, a United States Navy veteran who played on the Bolivian national soccer team, was her coach growing up.
She also deployed to Afghanistan with Rangers as part of a Female Engagement Team and frequently went on patrols with soldiers in scout and mortar platoons.
It took some time for them to accept women in their ranks. “At first, the guys looked at us as, ‘Great, extra baggage.’ ”
She recalls the first time she met up with some of the infantrymen in her new unit to work out. “We all knew, ‘This is it.’ They were going to try to kill us, physically, to see if we could hang.”
She went out hard with the fast group of men. “I don’t think they were expecting that,” she says. She kept up for a mile.
“After that it was a dead sprint for them. There was no way,” she says, smiling as she shakes her head. She couldn’t keep up, but she didn’t stop running, either. “I was hurting, but I wasn’t going to quit.”
As the end of her deployment in Afghanistan neared, the company commander sat her down. “He was like, ‘I would take you over any guy, any day on a deployment. I really hope that if they ever open up Ranger School that you do it.”
When the female Ranger training program was announced last year, the phone calls and e-mails started coming in from other Rangers who knew her, urging her to apply. “It was very humbling for me,” she says.
She debated signing up as a student or as an OA. She decided on the latter, because she wanted to help shape the program.
“I didn’t look at this as a career opportunity,” she says. “I wanted to look at it as this will eventually pave the way for females coming through.”
Velarde has offered particular reassurance on the hairstyle front. She buzz-cut hers in Afghanistan and never looked back. “Sand kept getting stuck in there,” she says, shrugging.
Having women in their ranks has helped ease the concerns of the men, says 1st Sgt. Daniel Moss, a brawny Ranger instructor who appears to have come straight out of central casting.
“Things that males might be hesitant towards,” he says. “A lot of the female advisers have been in situations where they were integrated. They were kind of the ones to be like, ‘Hey, you don’t need to worry about this – we can do this easier than you guys are planning.’ ”
He cites a funnel-like device that makes it easier for women to use the bathroom standing up in the middle of patrols, say, without removing heavy packs or squatting down with them, which would be particularly hard on the knees.
“The OAs said we can use those successfully,” Moss says, adding with a touch of wonder that this has indeed been the case. “It doesn’t single females out at all.”
Most important, he says, “They’ve been the ones who have helped make sure we haven’t changed any standards.”
Holding the line
Holding the line on standards at the storied school has been the mantra here. The school is one of the toughest in the US military. Only 20 percent of men who attempt it make it through the first time, and the ones who keep at it often require two or three tries.
Maj. Gen. Scott Miller, the commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence here, was raised in the Special Operations Forces’ tough mystique.
“We said up front that the standards won’t change – and they haven’t,” says Miller, a former commander in Delta Force, the Army’s covert counterterrorism unit, and a veteran of the Battle of Mogadishu, popularized in “Black Hawk Down.” “Ranger School is the toughest mentally and physically – the most demanding course in the US Army.”
That is clear to the students here, where the weight of the school’s history, with its reputation for superior leadership training, is a constant presence, Velarde says.
“You’re going into a tradition that dates back many years,” she notes. “Obviously there are going to be some people not on board with the idea.”
But in practice, instructors and observers say, the transition has been surprisingly smooth.
Some of the Ranger instructors were “standoff-ish” for the first week or so that the observers came in back in January, when the first training courses were held.
Now, Velarde says, “I don’t think there is any way that we all don’t feel like this is the right thing to do.”
Ranger instructors have told her they’ve been impressed to see how well they’re actually doing.
“It’s kind of neat to hear them saying, ‘She’s one to look out for,’ ” Velarde says. “You can’t help but be proud.”
If this grand experiment results in the Pentagon making the decision to open Ranger School to women permanently, Velarde says she will be the first to sign up.
“Honestly, they integrated well – they just blend in,” says Moss, the Ranger instructor. “I’d say I was even more pleased than I thought we’d be.”
As Velarde walks by, he calls to her. “There’s one of our OA’s now,” he says. “She’s crushing it.”