On Friday, the Army announced that all the women who had attempted to graduate from Ranger School had officially failed to meet the standards, according to a military source.
Ranger School, which grooms the Army’s most elite special operations fighting force, opened its doors to women for the first time this year. Eight of the 20 women who originally entered the school's first co-ed class were allowed to recycle through the program after they fell out in their first go-round. The Friday announcement confirmed this happened again. Three of the eight were invited to take the course over again in late June.
[Update Aug. 18, 2015: Two of the three women who retook the course passed. The third is still in the course]
To many, this means the system is working as it should.
The Rangers are the best of the best, and being a Ranger means passing a physical test that pushes body and mind to the breaking point. If women can’t do it, the argument goes, then they shouldn’t be Rangers.
But there is another opinion quietly being voiced as well: that Ranger School is more akin to a rite of passage – an opportunity for men to “thump their chest,” as one Ranger puts it – than a realistic preparation for leading in war. That women can actually make Ranger units more effective. And that the standards that keep them out are outdated.
It is an opinion, perhaps surprisingly, that comes from two current Rangers.
This is the sort of suggestion that has long been guaranteed to create a robust outcry in many soldierly quarters – one that involves, put most politely, the charge that this would amount to lowering standards in order to meet some goal born of political correctness.
It isn't a way of thinking likely to gain great traction anytime soon. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army’s top officer, made this clear during a breakfast with reporters Thursday. While praising the performance of the women at the Ranger School, he added: “I’m actually fairly adamant about not changing the physical standards.”
But a discussion is percolating.
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus told the Navy Times this week that once women start attending SEAL training, it would make sense to examine the standards. "First, we're going to make sure there are standards. Second, that they are gender-neutral, and third, that they have something to do with the job," he said.
It is increasingly men who are doing the talking about standards because, they say, they've trained in the schools, served in the field, and they believe it's the right thing to do.
"Of course women don't want to change the standard – they don't want to be accused of lowering it," says Col. Jason Amerine, a Ranger and West Point graduate. "And men don't want to change it either, because it lets us thump our chest."
As a result, "women will always fight to meet the male standard, even if it's arbitrary and kind of stupid," he adds. "I'm often pretty horrified at the adversity they face, while they keep their mouths shut and deal with it."
Other agree that the time has come for a conversation.
“I think it’ll be contentious, but I think it’s equitable and sensible to ask the question about what are the [Ranger School] standards that are only related to the fact that only men have ever done it," says retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who served as the top commander of United States forces in Afghanistan, as well as three tours in Army Ranger battalions.
What's more, "it needs to be a Ranger qualified leader," he adds, one with "intestinal fortitude" to ask: "What’s the ‘secret sauce’ of Ranger School? How do you not dilute that, but make sure the standards make sense?”
This argument is less about gender equity than the firm belief that women can make Ranger battalions better. In modern warfare, relations with local populations are crucial, and women Rangers would provide unique value added in places such as Afghanistan or Iraq, where cultural norms often prohibit contact between male soldiers and women. Ranger School also showed women were innovative problem-solvers who offered fresh approaches in the field.
On the battlefield itself, they have proven themselves. While at war, Colonel Amerine says, “I was rarely with female soldiers who couldn’t hang.”
To him, this raises the question of what Ranger School is actually about. As new technologies potentially make raw physical strength less important, the real challenge, many say, becomes bringing women’s leadership skills into the upper echelons of the armed forces.
For Col. Jason Dempsey, a fellow Ranger and West Point graduate, this points to a need for “reassessing what war-fighting is, and what’s really important,” he says, rather than “having 100,000 guys who are essentially pack mules.”
Ranger School could be made better, says Amerine, who was awarded a Bronze Star with “Valor” for Special Forces action in Afghanistan in the opening days of the war, and is currently under whistleblower investigation by the Army for criticizing US hostage rescue policy (Amerine has served on special forces hostage rescue missions).
“Nobody is saying, ‘Are the standards kind of stupid?’ ” he adds. “What’s interesting is that no one had this much love for the standards when it was only men.”
As it stands today, Ranger School involves, say, “carrying 60 or 70 pounds on your back and walking for 12 miles – it’s not brain surgery,” Colonel Dempsey says.
Despite this, “Any effort to change that is ‘changing the standard.’ ”
The question, he adds, is: Are these standards a fair measure of the challenges of combat?
Dempsey recalls being in violent Kunar province in Afghanistan and hiking up to the rugged Pakistan border. Along for the mission was a male first sergeant who was also a Ranger-tabbed Golden Gloves boxer. The unit had to stop for the first sergeant because he needed to rest during the strenuous march.
“No one’s going to say that the first sergeant is a deadbeat. We need him, and we’re just going to take a break.”
On other occasions, he adds, the combat patrols would simply make the decision not to bring along their heavy packs.
“The equipment we carry is just insane,” Amerine says. “We all have back injuries at the end of our careers.”
The No. 1 Department of Veterans Affairs claim – made by 58 percent of all claimants – is muscular-skeletal injuries.
“If we really are serious about integrating the force, the equipment we carry is going to be one of the things we have to have a hard conversation about,” Amerine says. “It’s in our grasp technologically to make things a lot lighter.”
Take away brute strength as one of the pillars of Ranger School, and its purpose begins to preparing Army soldiers to be excellent leaders, which has long been the promise of Ranger School, he adds.
In that context, the Ranger pass-fail rates look different. After West Point invested four years building the men in Amerine’s class into leaders, “All of us were expected to go to Ranger School, and all of us were expected to pass,” he says.
But that’s not true of women, “and I have a problem with that,” he adds. “I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with that structure.”
What he remembers from the six months it took to get his Ranger tab was that “my feet didn’t feel the same for literally two years,… but I can’t honestly say I learned much.”
“If Ranger School is actually about teaching soldiers how to lead and how to fight, then maybe the rite-of-passage aspect of it needs to be lightened,” he says. It might make more sense to figure out “what is the standard for serving in combat, then deal with the rite of passage.”
For now, there’s no indication that the Army is even considering such a move. But neither is it considering closing off women from trying for their Ranger tab.
“We’ll probably run a couple more pilots,” General Odierno said. “I don’t think we’re going to give up on it.”