When Maj. Lisa Jaster takes her seat in the presidential box Tuesday night for the State of the Union address, she will be representing a historic group of women who passed the Army’s grueling Ranger School last year.
It is a nod to the Obama administration’s three-year-long effort to lift the ban on women in combat. In January 2013, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the Pentagon would open all frontline jobs to women unless the services could come up with a compelling reason – backed by scientific data – why they shouldn’t.
And so last year, the Army opened Ranger School to women, as an experiment. Major Jaster was one of three females to pass the course and earn her Ranger tab in Fort Benning, Ga., the heart of Army infantry country.
In September, the Army opened Ranger School permanently to all soldiers, regardless of gender.
Jaster’s journey was, in many ways, the toughest of the three women’s. But the gantlet she faced – the perseverance she showed, the accomplishments she notched – underline the path ahead as women reach for military positions they were previously denied.
All the services have now recommended that women be allowed to take part in battle – except the Marine Corps, an objection that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter overrode. This month, those jobs will officially open to women, after a notification period to Congress is complete.
The other two women to earn Ranger tabs – Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver – completed the course several weeks ahead of Jaster. While those two are in their mid-20s, Jaster was 37 at the time – with two young children, ages 3 and 6.
Two months becomes 6-1/2
A West Point graduate in 2000, Jaster is an Army Corps of Engineers reservist, with a day job as an engineer at Shell Oil in Houston. She thought Ranger School would be a two-month endeavor.
Instead, it took 6-1/2 months to make it through a grueling course divided into three phases in the forests and mountains of northern Georgia, with final tests in the steamy and reptile-infested Florida swamps.
During that time, her resolve was tested repeatedly. After she failed the first phase, she had to persuade Col. David Fivecoat, commander of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade, to give her another chance.
“Lisa was going to be dropped – she was completely convinced that she was going to get dropped,” says her husband, Allan Jaster, an officer in the Marine Corps Reserves.
“Colonel Fivecoat asks, ‘Why should I keep you?’ ” he recalls. Her answer: “Because I can do this.”
She pointed to her positive peer reviews, noting that when her squad mates wanted to pass a patrol, they would ask her to be the land navigator, an area in which she particularly excelled.
“See what my squad mates are saying about my tactics,” she told Fivecoat, who responded that if she could drop to the ground and give him 49 “regulation form” push-ups, she could repeat the course – known as a “Day One Recycle.” She successfully did the push-ups.
Some men were offered a Day One Recycle as well. Many choose not to take it, however, since it requires repeating the grueling gantlet of physical tests that make up the first few days of Ranger School – and that force the greatest number of aspiring Rangers to drop the course.
Captain Griest and 1st Lieutenant Haver also accepted Day One Recycles, and together the three women repeated, then passed, the first phase of the school. Then it was on to the mountains. Griest and Haver passed the first time through, but Jaster did not.
What’s more, commanders made it clear that though they would offer some soldiers a chance to repeat the mountain phase once, they would not offer a second shot, since doing so could, they said, break a soldier’s body for life.
“When Kris and Shaye moved on and I didn’t, that was by far one of the hardest days of Ranger School for me,” Jaster recalled at a press conference in October on the eve of her graduation from Ranger School.
“I remember Kris coming over happy, expecting me to say I was also moving on. She gave me the biggest hug and I looked at her literally with tears in my eyes saying, ‘I’m done. I can’t do this.’ ”
'I need to be their hero'
It was a photo of her kids, both her redheaded doppelgängers, that kept her going. “I keep a picture in my pocket where my daughter and son are both wearing superhero T-shirts,” she said. “I have written across the front of the picture, ‘I need to be their hero.’ All I had to do was look at that picture and remember I didn’t come to Ranger School just because I wanted to get a piece of cloth on my shoulder,” she said, referring to her Ranger tab.
Instead, she was there for a grand Army experiment, and she wanted to give it her best shot – for herself, for the women who come after her, and for the military she loves.
And so, “There is no quitting,” the CrossFit enthusiast decided. “I can’t have quit in me.”
Jaster’s Marine husband, whom she met while working out at the gym at 5 in the morning when they were both attending a career course for captains, has been her most vocal and devoted supporter.
“I know my wife – she’s probably the most physically and mentally capable person I’ve ever met,” he says. “And I’m not just saying that because I love her.”