CAMP JAMES E. RUDDER, Fla. — Wearing a cap, sunglasses and a 75-pound rucksack and carrying a 17-pound machine gun, the buzz-cut Army officer quickly traversed a muddy river, pulling on a rope stretched between trees on either bank.
After a short break, the soldier shoved a black Zodiac boat into the water for a two-mile paddle with nine other soldiers, one of hundreds of tasks over nine weeks of Ranger School, the top leadership course in the Army.
It was hard to tell anything was different about the officer, except when she opened her mouth to ask for the names and blood types of the other soldiers so she could fill out a manifest for a simulated mission, or when she took off her cap to reveal haircut a tad longer than that of her classmates.
If she and another female first lieutenant in the group manage to graduate this month from Ranger School, one of the most physically and mentally challenging courses in the military, they will be the first women to do so. They will also be the only graduates who will not be permitted, for now, to try out for the Ranger regiment or to serve as infantry or tank officers in the Army.
Leaders of the Army and other services are considering the question of how far they should go in integrating women into combat roles, including the most dangerous jobs, such as the fast-roping Ranger battalions that often work with the nation’s premier counterterrorism organization, the Joint Special Operations Command, and that serve as a farm team for the Army’s most elite unit, Delta Force.
In 2013, the Pentagon said it was lifting its formal ban on women in combat, a nod to gender equality and to the de facto progression of women toward the front lines that had been going on for more than a decade, from Marine female-engagement teams to the cultural-support teams that accompany Rangers, Navy SEALs and other special operators on raids. Women perform intelligence gathering and other tasks in SEAL Team Six’s top-secret Black Squadron.
“There have been women in combat since the wars kicked off,” said Sgt. 1st Class Frances Espinal-Teter, a female soldier assigned to observe the training here, and who supports women in the infantry. She deployed to Iraq a dozen years ago as a military police officer and top gunner in a Humvee, and later served alongside Marines and SEAL members in Afghanistan.
What stays off-limits?
The services have until Jan. 1 to decide which positions they want to keep off-limits to women, and they must provide a rationale for each, with the defense secretary making the final call. The performance of the two female officers, and 17 other women who started Ranger School this year but did not make it this far, is expected to help inform that decision and whether to continue to allow women to attend Ranger School, which was open only to men before this year.
The military’s other major infantry service, the Marines, recently opened its rigorous infantry-officer course to women, but none of the 29 female officers who started the program passed.
Though only 3 percent of soldiers in the active-duty Army have earned Ranger tabs, it is an unofficial prerequisite for obtaining many infantry commands and an explicit requirement for leading combat troops in the Ranger Regiment. It is also a significant career enhancer, even for officers who do not serve in combat units.
Out of privacy concerns and a desire to not create distractions for students or instructors near the end of an exhausting two-month course, the Army has not disclosed the names of the two women, both West Point graduates.
It also did not allow interviews with any students, as is standard practice. Yet it has invited journalists to observe their training, a move intended to help dispel the idea that the women have been cut any slack.
About 4,000 officers and enlisted soldiers start the Ranger course every year; and about two out of five graduate. Students drill and train with little sleep, carrying packs and combat equipment that typically weigh between 65 and 90 pounds, and over 61 days they carry out tactical patrols that cumulatively cover the same distance as walking from New York City to Boston.
Col. David Fivecoat, commander of the Army’s Airborne and Ranger training brigade, says the female students are competing on the same terms as the 160 men still in their class: no flexed-arm-hangs instead of pullups. No push-ups from the knees. The same cutoff times (40 minutes for a five-mile run, for example) and the same number of repetitions in the initial physical assessment (49 push-ups, 59 situps, six chin-ups).
The two women have performed well on the least subjective evaluations, such as fitness tests and hikes with heavy backpacks, including a steep, 1.8-mile trek up Mount Yonah in Georgia.
“Everybody’s backpack weighed the same,” Fivecoat said, “and they all had to put one foot in front of the other.”
Aside from slightly longer (but still buzz-cut) hair, the only official allowances for their sex are that the female officers are allowed to take prescription birth control (students generally cannot bring prescription drugs to the course) and when in barracks the women rotate shower and latrine time with the men, and string up ponchos as makeshift curtains when dressing.
The two women have gotten good marks in another key evaluation criteria: peer assessments, where classmates rank one another on how good a teammate and leader other students are, and how much they would want to be with them in combat.
The one major area where the two women have struggled is where male students also often stumble: graded patrols, where students take turns role-playing as platoon leaders, platoon sergeants or squad leaders, and are evaluated on how they plan and execute missions.
Meant to simulate what it is like for young Army officers and noncommissioned officers to lead troops during deployments, it also tests how well the students improvise, such as reacting to a surprise mortar attack, said Capt. George Calhoun, a platoon tactical trainer who served as a platoon leader in Afghanistan.
Do they seize up and just dive for cover? Or do they immediately report casualties and other information to their company commander, and see whether artillery or helicopters or jets can return fire?
19 began the course
Of the 19 women who began Ranger School this year, most failed the early phases, though one, a major who is also a West Point graduate, is “recycling,” or retaking, an earlier phase in hopes of progressing to this last segment, which takes place at Camp James E. Rudder, deep inside Eglin Air Force Base in the swampy, sweltering heat of north Florida. The decision on who graduates will be made in late August, but typically more than three of four candidates who make it this far graduate with their class.
The two female lieutenants at Camp Rudder have had to recycle phases, and they have taken longer to make it to the final phase than most students who ultimately graduate from Ranger School. But officers also say it is not uncommon for male graduates to redo the same number of tasks as the women have.
Traditionalists have not been happy about the potential of women serving combat roles, fearing they will destroy unit cohesion or lead to lowered standards.
As a point man for one of the biggest debates in the military, Fivecoat has been on the receiving end of personal attacks on Facebook and elsewhere.
“There is definitely a group out there that is very vocal about this thing, and they’re not real happy with it,” he said. “First the naysayers said, ‘They’re not going be able to do this,’ and then they did it, and then they said, ‘They are not going be able do this part,’ and they did it.”
Even some influential and enthusiastic supporters of expanding the roles women play in combat and commando units, such as retired Adm. Eric Olson, a former head of the military’s Special Operations Command, stop short of endorsing women for all combat jobs. Olson said last month that he questioned “how tactical leaders will respond to being in a position to put women to take the first bullet on a target.”
The course was also parodied on the popular military-satire website Duffel Blog, which joked that the colonel’s “pickle-jar opening test” was intended to make it harder for female Ranger candidates.
Fivecoat would not say whether he supported women serving in the infantry because he did not want to get out in front of his own commanders. But allowing them to attend Ranger School was a no-brainer.
“Why would you not want them to get this training, so they can be the best they can possibly be?” he said.