As first two women pass Ranger School, Army faces big questions

Two women have passed the course that feeds the Rangers, the Army's Special Ops force. But they can't serve until the Army drops its ban on women in combat.

Nick Tomecek/Northwest Florida Daily News/AP
A female Army Ranger student crosses the Yellow River on a rope bridge earlier this month at Camp James E. Rudder on Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The two female candidates who made it to the final phase of Army Ranger training there have passed Ranger School, the Army announced Monday.

For the first time ever, two women have passed Army Ranger School – widely considered one of the most physically and mentally grueling courses in the United States military. 

The announcement by the Army Monday is historic. The two women – a captain and a first lieutenant – are the first to pass a course that is a crucial stepping stone to a US Special Operations unit. Though they cannot yet serve as special operators, given the continued ban on women in combat jobs, the Ranger tabs they have earned bring considerable respect. Only 3 percent of all Army troops wear one.

The Ranger graduation ceremony Friday at Fort Benning, Ga., is expected to draw current and retired female officers from across the country who want to take part in such a momentous occasion.

But it raises questions, too, about the future of Ranger School and the broader ban on women in combat roles.

The decision on women in combat roles is expected to come in January, when each of the services is required to either lift the exclusion or ask for an exemption to extend it, backed by scientific research showing why women can’t fulfill the tasks necessary to serve on the front lines.

Women have already been doing just that in Iraq and Afghanistan, where battles lines shifted unexpectedly, say advocates of women in combat. Now, the graduation of two women from Ranger School – where, Army officials stress, the standards were unchanged – offers further evidence that women are ready for a combat role, the advocates add.

This was the first year that women were admitted to Ranger School as part of an experiment to test whether they could meet the tough standards of the program. Before he retired as the Army’s top officer last week, Gen. Ray Odierno said the Army would run one more coed Ranger School course, starting in November, before making a permanent decision about whether to allow women. 

​But it​ should not take until November to make this decision, says​ retired Army Col.​ Ellen Haring, a West Point graduate and senior fellow for Women in International Security, an advocacy organization.

Given that two women have now passed Ranger School and proven they are qualified to serve in the Army’s Ranger Regiment – the elite Special Operations branch of the service – the force should welcome new recruits, she adds, echoing the sentiments of many current and former service members. 

"When only 3 percent of the Army is qualified to be in the regiment, why would the Army exclude a potential demographic that adds to the available pool of qualified soldiers?" asks Ms. Haring.​

That could be coming next, if the ban on women in combat is lifted. It helps that in recent months, the graduating women have earned a great deal of respect among their peers, instructors at the school say. Their dedication and proven expertise have garnered them high peer evaluations as well.

Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy Lemma, a Ranger School instructor who also won the Army’s annual Best Ranger competition this year, acknowledged that he and many of his peers were skeptical of women in their Ranger School ranks. 

But their performance, he adds, has changed the minds of everyone who has come into contact with them. 

“They’re tough – mentally, I’d put them up against the toughest men,” he says. “That’s courage, strength – it’s impressive.” 

It’s a well-known adage among Army Rangers that getting into Ranger Regiment is easier than passing Ranger School, note many Ranger School instructors with pride. Many Rangers are assigned to the regiment before they attend Ranger School. But if they don’t pass Ranger School, they can’t advance in the regiment. 

And Ranger School is a legendarily difficult course. Of the class that the two women began, 400 students (including 19 women) started in mid-April. Of those, 37 were able to graduate after passing straight through the 61-day course. 

The rest of the students either dropped out – 274 of them had taken this route as of mid-August – or had to repeat a phase of the school, which is divided into three courses: woodlands, mountains, and swamp training. 

The women, for their part, repeated the woodlands phase, known as the Camp Darby course, three times before moving on to the equally arduous mountain phase.

“Physically, they’re in the top of the class,” adds Sgt. Brian Thomas, another Ranger School instructor. “Honestly, we’ve all been thoroughly impressed.”

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