It began with every cadence they ever chanted as they jogged with their fellow soldiers, morning, noon, and night, to get their bodies into top fighting form for the US Army: I want to be an Airborne Ranger.
Many women did want just that, to be Rangers, to live a life of danger as part of the Army’s elite fighting unit, charged with hunting and destroying enemy forces.
Lillian Pfluke, West Point class of 1980, dreamed of it, the day she would be tapped to command infantry soldiers in service of her country. She thought (“naively,” she says) that her sheer fitness – she assiduously honed her body and her leadership acumen – would be a revelation to top Army brass, who would invite her to join their fighting ranks.
While these Army women waited, they soldiered on, serving in the name of honor, duty, and country, because the US military was an institution they loved and believed in. But it’s one, too, that is ultimately in the business of fighting wars, a privilege women have been denied for myriad reasons: They aren’t strong enough, men might be attracted to them, distracted by them, their fellow citizens’ discomfort with the idea they might get raped.
This bred “years of frustration – frustration that somebody else, largely men, got to decide what we would or would not be allowed to do,” says retired Col. Ellen Haring, West Point class of 1984. More than that, she adds, “It was based solely on what they thought we should or should not be allowed to do – and it had nothing to do with what we actually could do, or what we wanted to do.”
Their mantra was the same: Just let us try.
This year, they were given that chance when the US military’s storied Ranger School, a pipeline for the Special Operations forces, was opened to women on an experimental basis. This week, top Army leadership made the experiment permanent, announcing that they were opening the school to all soldiers, regardless of gender.
This decision was driven in large part by the respect garnered by Capts. Kristen Griest and Shaye Haver, both West Point graduates, at Ranger School this summer, when they became the first female soldiers to ever earn a Ranger tab. Another woman, a major and mother of two, is currently in the final swamp phase of the school.
Their Ranger buddies praised their performance and their mental and physical strength, saying they would be honored to fight beside them anyplace, anytime.
To commemorate the occasion, the women of West Point red-eyed it from California and Germany, road-tripped from Florida and parts West with their daughters in tow, carrying with them well wishes from male comrades in arms whom they have known for 40 years. They convened at the golf club here on post, epicenter of the nation’s all-male infantry, for a celebratory barbecue dinner Aug. 20.
There were pioneers from West Point’s class of ’80, the first women allowed to attend the service academy, 175 years after it was established. There were women from the class of ’84, too, who furnished box wine.
The rowdy and jubilant crowd also included women from West Point’s class of ’94, who had volunteered to lead a “spirit mission” dreamed up by one of their fellow female graduates from the class of ’80. The venture involved a late-night operation to remove the letter “e” from a series of “Ranger Joe” military surplus store billboards around town.
It would be a fitting way, they agreed, to punctuate a landmark event in US military history, as Captains Griest and Haver were on the eve of becoming the first women to earn a Ranger tab.
'I wanna be an Airborne Ranger'
Ms. Pfluke for her part had flown in from Germany that day to toast the occasion. A cross-country runner who as a combat-booted plebe could cover two miles in 13 minutes and match male students pull-up for pull-up, she lettered in men’s ski jumping, captained the women’s lacrosse team, and graduated No. 1 in her class among women in physical education.
“I was in awe of her as a cadet,” Sue Fulton (class of ’80) said by way of introduction to the 70-plus West Point women who had traveled from out of town for the festivities, pausing to confess, “I was a little scared of her.”
In the decades since, Pfluke’s physical achievements have been no less titan: a national military triathlon championship, an interservice European ski championship, and status as a world-class cyclist.
“I just got here directly from the airport, took a Delta flight from Düsseldorf, to attend a 45-minute ceremony for people I don’t even know,” Pfluke said, taking the microphone. “I’d like to explain why.”
She echoed a common theme here: “Every jody we ever sang started with, ‘I wanna be an Airborne Ranger,' ” she recalled, to nods of the dozens of women in the room. “That was how the institution defined success.”
She never saw herself as a maverick. “I bought into the institutional values as presented,” she said. This included the desire to be a Ranger. “I was all in.”
West Point’s leaders, after all, were combat arms officers, and most of them had Ranger tabs. But when Pfluke petitioned for the chance to go to Ranger School, the request was rejected.
It was a harbinger of things to come. When it came time for her to choose a branch, she wrote a letter to the secretary of the Army, asking for an exception to the combat exclusion policy, “because I wanted to go infantry,” she said. She was denied.
Instead, she got “a very nice letter” from the Honorable Clifford Alexander, the secretary. “He told me about the wonderful opportunities available in the logistical support services and encouraged me to have a satisfying career.”
Pfluke filed suit with the American Civil Liberties Union, but in the meantime – and in a spirit of service that characterized the careers of many women in the room – she stayed in the Army and tried to make a difference where she could. “I took [Secretary Alexander’s letter] to heart and launched on my career as an Army ordnance officer, determined to prove myself.”
She sought out any chance to do that, making more than 200 parachute jumps and clinching a national triathlon championship nine weeks after giving birth to her son Christopher, she notes.
“Stop trying to intimidate me!” yelled Ms. Fulton from the back of the room.
Pfluke, who Fulton describes as “wound tight as a drum” as a plebe, cracked a grin, continuing, “I really was convinced – in retrospect rather naively – that the Army would eventually recognize my talents and give me the chance to serve as an infantry leader.”
Her lawsuit was ultimately dropped by the ACLU after a US Supreme Court ruling on the draft went “devastatingly against our cause.” But the first Gulf War gave her renewed hope.
Shortly after the war, in a nod to the achievements of female troops during the conflict, the Air Force opened combat aviation to women, and the Navy did the same with surface warfare.
But Pfluke’s beloved Army “did just the opposite,” she recalls, rewriting doctrine in some cases for jobs that involved, among other things, field artillery. This had the effect of strengthening the case to keep women out of these jobs.
“I was terribly personally disappointed by the behavior of senior Army leadership at the time, and I was hit by a blinding flash of the obvious,” Pfluke says: “No matter how strong I was, how fast I could run, how many pull-ups I could do, how good I was at motivating people and building cohesive teams, I would never get a fair shake to prove myself as an infantry officer.” She retired shortly afterward, in 1995.
The achievements of Griest and Haver, as well as those of the West Point graduate still making her way through Ranger School, “represent a vindication of decades of being put down, of being told we weren’t good enough, of being seen as lesser soldiers without being given the opportunity to prove what we were capable of,” says Ms. Haring, who flew in from Washington, D.C., for the graduation for the Ranger students, held the day after the dinner celebration.
“I think this deep frustration bred anger and resentment – and ultimately hurt – because what made it doubly hard, at least in my mind, was that it was done to us by an institution that we fundamentally believed in,” she adds. “I stayed in the Army for 30 years: I must have believed in it to some degree.”
Like Pfluke, Haring had filed suit against the Army in an effort to get it to lift the combat exclusion policy, but dropped the lawsuit in 2013 as she neared retirement. Her lawyers feared that because her co-plaintiff, a command sergeant major, was eventually offered the chance to apply for a job in a combat engineer battalion (a job for which she ultimately wasn’t selected), the chances of winning the suit were slim.
That was a disappointment of the sort that plagued her career from her first pioneering days at the US military academy. “It seemed we were always slightly apart: We were never truly members. We were kind of outsiders looking in the window,” Haring says.
'I'm going to try not to cry'
That lack of belonging made some women question themselves, too. “We weren’t sure whether we ever measured up.”
Until, that is, these women made it through Ranger School.
“We were never admitted to that inner sanctum, but tomorrow – I’m going to try not to cry,” Haring, who never cries, told her fellow female soldiers.
“But tomorrow!” the women yelled.
“But tomorrow, women will enter the inner sanctum,” Haring said, to whoots and cheers. “We finally have proof of what we all have known all along: that we deserve to be there. And that we belong.”
She handed off the microphone to Fulton, who has the rowdy, self-deprecating charm of a stand-up comedian, and the self-admitted lack of physical fitness prowess that generally accompanies that profession.
“I’d like to be the first tonight to say, ‘Welcome to the home of the infantry!” she yelled as women clinked plastic cups with a pride that trumped a touch of wistfulness.
“It is certainly bittersweet for me to be here,” Pfluke said. “I wanted to be them 35 years ago.”
That’s a word that Capt. Cherise Lau uses to describe the evening, too. She is decades younger than some of the women here, but by the time the news came last year that Ranger School was holding tryouts for women, “I was feeling a little senior, feeling maybe Ranger School might not be the best place for me.”
Instead, she signed up to be one of three dozen or so female observer-advisers whom the Army brought in to help establish the program, “so I could at least be a part of the process,” she says.
And if the day came that women passed the course, Captain Lau adds, she could be there “to tell the story that these women earned it.”
But what has been a particular revelation for women here – one that has made them feel bonded to their fellow male soldiers in a way they had always hoped to be – is that they haven’t had to do that.
“We don’t even have to tell the story. Every day, the men are doing it,” Lau says. They have trumpeted the achievements of their sister soldiers, stressing that the standards of the school haven’t changed and that the women deserve to be there.
It makes up for the times when Lau says that she, too, sat up late at night reading Army field manuals, hoping to be called to combat duty. “As a young lieutenant, a lot of times your classmates would look at you, reading doctrine. ‘Are you seriously reading FM 95-8?’ ” they’d ask. “Yeah, just in case,” Lau would reply. “We’re going to be back here, taking care of things – back here. But if you need us up there, we’ll be ready.”
Today, she says, her Army has made her proud. “I’ve always believed in this institution, but I don’t think we always get it right,” she told her fellow female soldiers. But this week, they have, she says.
“Nothing much had to change.” The Army just had to open these doors to women, who walked in “and executed just like their classmates. And tomorrow, they’re going to be Rangers.”
The legacy of Griest and Haver is that of Fulton, Haring, Pfluke, and thousands of other women in that long gray line through the decades. “Like us, they are tough, and they are strong, and they are determined. They took on this overwhelming challenge, and changed one attitude at a time with their positive attitude and overwhelming competence,” Pfluke says.
“I can honestly say I have thought about them every single day since they started the course,” she added, her voice breaking as she looked out at the glistening eyes of her fellow West Pointers. “It has absolutely consumed me. And I couldn’t be prouder of them if they were my own daughters. In fact, tomorrow, they are my daughters. They’re all of our daughters tomorrow.”