Army's top officer: Pioneering women in Ranger School have 'impressed'

Two female soldiers are in the running to become the first women to wear Ranger tabs. At his final press conference, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno reflected on the military's expanding role for women.

Evan Vucci/AP
Outgoing Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno speaks during his final news briefing, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015, at the Pentagon.

In his last press conference on the job, the Army’s top officer reflected on his tenure, including significant shifts in policy that are giving women an ever-greater role – and, as a result one day, a greater voice – in America’s armed forces.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno, who is retiring from the military after 39 years of service, also outlined what he sees as the most tenable way forward in Iraq, which may involve partitioning the violence-plagued nation.

A lifelong artillery officer who previously commanded all US forces in Afghanistan, General Odierno said that the feedback on the female soldiers currently making their way through Army Ranger School – for the first time in US military history – has been almost universally positive. [Editor's note: The original incorrectly identified what kind of officer Odierno was.]

“They’ve impressed all that they’ve come into contact with,” Odierno said Wednesday at the press briefing. Friday will be his final day on the job as Army chief of staff. 

These women still have several days left in Ranger School, he noted. “But the feedback I’ve gotten with these women is how incredibly prepared they are. The effort that they’ve put forward has been significant,” he said. “They are clearly motivated, and frankly, that’s what we want out of our soldiers.”

The Army will announce next week whether the two female soldiers still in the running to become the first women to wear Ranger tabs – of the 19 who started the course in April – have successfully made it through the program and will graduate in a ceremony next Friday.

The Army will probably launch another coed Ranger School course in November, Odierno said. “And then we’ll make a decision after that on whether we make it ... permanently open to women,” he said. 

The question, he added, is, “Can they meet the standard or not? And if they can, we lean towards the fact that it would probably be good if we allowed them to serve” in combat.

On the matter of Iraq – perhaps the defining policy question of Odierno’s career – the general acknowledged that he feels disappointed with the way things have turned out in the region. “It is frustrating to look at what has happened inside of Iraq.” 

By 2011, “We had it in a place that was really headed in the right direction. Violence [was] down, the economy was growing, the politics were OK,” he said. “As it turns out, they weren’t prepared to handle it.” 

Would more US military boots on the ground help matters?, one reporter asked. 

“I absolutely believe that the region has to solve this problem,” Odierno responded. If the US were to go in with military force, “We could probably defeat ISIL,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “The problem would be, will we be right back where we are six months later?”

The answer, he said, might be to partition – a little-noticed echo of Vice President Joe Biden’s recommendation nine years ago to do just this.

“I think that is for the region and politicians to kind of figure out,” Odierno said. Yet he added, “That is something that could happen. It might be the only solution – but I’m not ready to say that yet.”

In the meantime, he was asked his views on presidential candidate Donald Trump’s suggestion that the US military should ““bomb the hell out of [Iraq’s] oil fields” to counter the Islamic State. 

Mr. Trump added this week that he “would take the oil away. I’d take their money away.”

“Here is the issue I learned over the last 10 years or so,” Odierno responded. “There are limits with military power.”

“So you disagree with Donald Trump?” a reporter asked.

“I do,” Odierno said. “I do. I do.”

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