Even years after they earn their Ranger tabs, the Army instructors in the north Georgia mountains debate the toughest season to be a student. The answer tends to depend upon whether they were battered by winter winds as they clung to icy cliff faces, or whether they had to sprint up mountainsides while being ambushed by “enemy forces” in humid summer air as heavy and unwelcome as a wool blanket in a steam bath.
They are all familiar, however, with the copperheads and timber rattlers that roam these woods, along with the poisonous spiders and occasional lost black bear cub trailed by an angry mother.
And they all curse the mountain laurel with its sinewy branches that make backcountry treks feel more akin to a medieval lashing, and the torrential downpours that can transform the ground cover here into something that most closely resembles slip-sliding on ball bearings.
As the latest crop of students gets indoctrinated to these perennial gripes, however, there is something different. For the first time, female Ranger students are out in the field to share these miseries right alongside them.
The Ranger Instructors report they have seen little difference so far in the men and women, except for one small thing, says Sergeant 1st Class Andrew Peddycord. “Just from what I’ve seen so far, they’re the only ones not complaining.”
For the first time ever, 19 women passed a series of tough physical tests to even earn the right to begin the Army’s storied Ranger School back in April. Now, there are three of them left, all West Point graduates.
They have two weeks in the mountains and another two weeks of drilling and testing in the Florida swamps ahead of them if they want to become the first women ever to wear a Ranger tab.
The move to open Ranger School to women is another significant step toward erasing historic discrepancies that have contributed to a perception that women were second-class soldiers, advocates of the change say, since some of the troops in the school go on to become the Army's most elite special operations fighting force. If they pass, the three women would not be able to serve as Rangers, but would instead earn the tab, which could conceivably garner them considerable street credibility within the service.
The three female soldiers are also proving their mettle in the final months before a decision is due about whether to open combat positions to women. The Pentagon officially made the decision in 2013, but it does not take effect until January. At that time, the services have to either integrate combat posts or come back with a reason why women cannot serve in those jobs.
On this day, the sun is breaking over Mount Yonah as the latest crop of students survey their morning destination, which appears to be a great deal in the distance at the moment. They will have 50 minutes to make it up there, 1.8 miles. The length of this hike matters less, of course, than the change in elevation, which will be about 1,000 feet. Rangers here say it’s not unusual to feel their ears popping as they make the quick ascent.
The morning march “is the one thing that stands between you and all this fun training, Rangers,” an instructor tells them.
And it will be brutal. Some Ranger students will start falling behind, and when they do “by all means try to motivate them” to keep up. “If you can’t, pass them,” the instructor orders them.
“If you’re a slower individual, I’d encourage you to move to the front,” he adds.
From the ranks of her platoon, up steps one of the female students, with close-cropped red hair and an easy smile. As she banters with her fellow soldiers, she takes a spot at the front of the formation, rifle at the ready.
Then the students set off on their ascent, an instructor whistling “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” behind them. “Let’s go Rangers,” one of them shouts. “America can’t keep itself free, right?
These aspiring Rangers have spent the last couple of days getting a crash course in some mountaineering basics at a camp dotted with old walnut trees nestled in the Chattahoochee National Forest.
Learning how to tie knots is a big deal here, largely because there is so much mountaineering involved in the course. The first thing students must do when they arrive is to pass a series of knots tests, or they are immediately dropped from Ranger School.
Minutes after they are tested, students then begin receiving instruction in how to rappel from a 30-foot tower with knots they have tied themselves. This encourages students to quickly conquer any doubts they might have about their new abilities, as well as any fear they might have of heights.
Nearby, the Ranger students practice their rappelling. “Hollywood-style,” as the Rangers here call it, is the gear-free version. The “combat” rappel involves a 30-pound pack, the weight of which sometimes causes students to “possum,” or roll upside down while clinging to the rope and shouting expletives.
“It’s entertaining,” says one Ranger instructor, gently chuckling before catching himself and coughing. “But we don’t encourage it.”
This is considered the “fun” part of the Mountain phase of Ranger School.
As the platoons of men and women make their way around the camp, Lt. Jill Mueller is on hand to observe and advise, one of four women that the mountain phase of Ranger School assigned to the site.
It was a job she says she knew she had to have as soon as the Army announced last fall it was opening the school to women. “I knew if I tried out, I’d have a chance to talk to leadership, and beg them not to have a ‘female’ standard, so women would have to do the exact same things as men – I think the women are capable,” she says.
A high school cheerleader who grew up on a large pig farm in a small Minnesota town, Lieutenant Mueller did not expect to join the Army. But the disarmingly friendly blond had a tough streak. While her dad worried that his daughters would get attached to the pigs and treat them as pets, “We’d just ask, ‘Can we eat them yet?”
She also liked to debate, and after some particularly robust discussion about the war, her mother encouraged her to join the military. “She said I should put my money where my mouth is,” Mueller recalls. One week later, she did.
In the time since, she has followed the comments about women in combat with great interest. “I would read everything [Army Chief of Staff] General [Raymond] Odierno said about it.” She decided to become a field artillery officer, because her mentor said it was the closest she could get to fighting.
Now the women are finally here, and as she watches the female Ranger students double-time it across the camp with their male comrades in arms, she sighs.
“You know how when you hear about a dream come true, or a fairy tale?” she says. “It’s like that.”
As the first platoon of soldiers begins streaming into camp after making the morning ascent, “Everything hurts,” Capt. John Tilley recalls of his Ranger days. “Your feet, your back – your spirit. It’s your first introduction to the mountains.”
The Ranger Instructors welcome their students to the tiny camp, where they will change their soaking wet T-shirts before earning the privilege of practicing the skills they learned the day before on a deadly-looking cliff face.
“I know you just walked up a mountain, Ranger, but carry that weapon like you mean it,” one instructor shouts to a student.
There is a lot on the line here. The terrain is so punishing that if the Ranger students fail, they won’t be allowed to repeat –known in military parlance here as “recycle” – the course more than twice.
“Realistically, to recycle a third time, it’s just not going to happen. The third time through the mountain you’re going to hurt a soldier – not just for a couple days, but for their career,” says Command Sergeant Major Curtis Arnold, the school’s senior enlisted leader.
Already the three women who remain in Ranger School have earned the admiration of many Rangers here for repeating the previous 14-day phase, known as the Darby course, three times before passing.
It happens, but it is rare. “That’s earned a lot of respect on my part, and from a lot of us,” says First Sgt. John Merenda. “They did pretty phenomenal.”
It helped that the scores the women were given by their peers – a key part of the grading process for all Ranger students – were “very high,” leaders here say. They also had no major demerits – known here as spot reports. And though they struggled with patrols, they had failed to pass by only a slim margin. These factors – along with their clear determination and high physical fitness – led to the decision to offer them that third chance, Command Sergeant Major Arnold says.
Such a triple shot won’t happen again here in the mountains, however. And though the tough terrain will be challenge for all the students, it will be particularly punishing for the women just coming off 42 days of pushing their bodies to the limit.
As the troops stream in, the commanders keep a particular eye on the redheaded female soldier who began the march up front. Instructors here, who keep close tabs on the health of all of the students, have noticed her limping a bit in recent days. But she finishes strong, still at the head of her platoon.
This is the key to Ranger School, Arnold says: “Don’t quit – and don’t get hurt.”
That latter instruction will be put to the test on a steep cliff face where students are peering up at the 200 feet soaring imposingly above them.
It is the most complex and dangerous ascent in Ranger School. “If they’re going to get hurt, it’s going to be here,” Captain Tilley says.
On one of several ropes snaking up the ledge, a student is stuck on the cliff face, cursing loudly as his foot slips and he slides backward. “You got the move, you’ve just got to execute it,” one of the instructors tells him.
The female observer-advisers are more interested in watching as one of the women makes her way to the ropes. Tilley is, too. “Climbing this is one of the benchmarks of Ranger School,” he says. “This is six decades worth of history, let’s be honest.”
She scales the wall speedily and with ease. “I always watch for shaking – she didn’t even shake,” says Capt. Lesley-Anne Crumpton, proudly noting that she and the female student are both MP’s, or military police. “They call it the ‘chick infantry,’ ” she says. “It was the closest I could get to combat,” she adds, echoing a common theme.
She notes that one of two female Silver Star recipients – the military’s third highest award for valor – was also an MP.
In Afghanistan, Crumpton, who comes from a long line of strong Alabama women, was attached to the Joint Special Operations Command forces in Kandahar. “I liked their professionalism,” she says.
She is standing next to Master Sgt. Bethany Frink, a jumpmaster who served in the opening days of the war in Afghanistan. Since then, Master Sergeant Frink has been deployed for 42 months over the past decade. But her first experience out in the field as a radio operator with Special Operations Forces was one of the best in her life, she says.
“It was just what you picture in your mind – living in tents, eating from pot-bellied stoves,” she says. “We were so happy and proud to be there.”
Her husband, a Ranger, encouraged her to become an observer-adviser for the program. “He thought it’d be awesome if we both had Ranger tabs.”
She did, too. “I think women can do anything.”
The students will be tested many more times over the next two weeks, practicing their new skills repeatedly – scaling cliffs in the middle of the night, in the pouring rain. They will move on to patrols, where they will be ambushed, panic in the fog of war on steep cliffs, and accidentally, yet inevitably, commit fratricide in mock battles with their blank rounds.
“You’d be amazed how often that happens,” Tilley says, shaking his head.
They will pile up demerits by falling asleep when they shouldn’t. They will be weak, hungry, and tired. And they will make lists.
Ranger Students historically love to make lists: of the food they will eat when they get out of this miserable place and of the instructors they would most like to punch in the face if they ever get the chance. It helps distract them from the miseries of the mountain, Tilley notes good-naturedly.
As if to drive home the point, a nearby student eyes an instructor eating a power bar. “Sorry,” the instructor says.
“I’ll eat it with my eyes,” the student replies.
“It is a mental fight for 10 days,” Tilley says, adding that he called upon the strength he gained from enduring these tribulations during his darkest hours in Afghanistan.
“This is what Ranger School prepared me for,” he recalls thinking to himself at 2 a.m., when his platoon still had another 10-plus miles to cover before reaching its target.
Upon arrival, his soldiers would need to be prepared for a fight. He was also leading 120 Afghan troops, of whom his soldiers were wary, since an Afghan soldier in the unit had recently opened fire on his American counterparts.
As they walked, Tilley went to each of his soldiers, taking rounds of ammo off their shoulders and putting them on his own before urging them onward.
“I’ve done this before,” he recalls thinking. “I’ve done something harder.” That something was the mountain phase of Ranger School, he says.
“We are very proud of our Ranger tabs, but we are not here to train people to get a Ranger tab,” Tilley adds. “We are here to train people to go to war.”
It is a point of which the female observer-advisers are acutely aware, particularly since some of them are interested in attending the school themselves one day in the near future, including Mueller and Frink.
At the same time, requests are already streaming in from their fellow female soldiers, asking their advice on how to best prepare.
Though Ranger School posts plenty of training regimes online for aspiring students, Mueller has found that, as a woman, some adjustments are helpful. She puts weight in her pack lower than is suggested, to use her hips for power.
They are also advising their friends to hang out with fellow soldiers in the infantry, to help hone their patrolling skills before they arrive. “You have to be able to look at a piece of land and read it.” There’s an art to that, Mueller says, that infantry troops have mastered, and it takes some time.
Because she has seen how tough the school is, Mueller is tough on her girlfriends who come to her for advice. “I look at their training plan and I say, ‘You need to double the weight you’re carrying,’ or ‘You’re not a fast enough runner,’ ” she says. “I can be kind of harsh with them.”
The goal is to get her fellow female soldiers to up their game and be ready if and when the doors of the school open to more of them. General Odierno has said that there will be at least “a couple more” pilot programs at Ranger School.
For now, the observer-advisers are focused on the women here. They’re instructed to maintain their objectivity among the female Ranger students. “We’re not supposed to smile or show any bias,” one says. And they are careful not to.
“None of us are here to be cheerleaders, but inside, all of us are so excited they have made it this far,” says Staff Sgt. Paris Cervantes, who as a kid wanted to either go into humanitarian aid work or join the military. She chose the latter and became an explosive ordnance device specialist, finding roadside bombs in Afghanistan.
“That’s what was killing soldiers, so that’s what I wanted to do.” Still, she acknowledges, that was after she was told she couldn’t be in the infantry.
“Just one of them. That’s all we need,” she says. “Just one is all it takes to say, ‘It can be done.’ ”