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Breaking the brass ceiling

Will the Pentagon open more combat positions to women?

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September 24th, 2015
Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st. Lt. Shaye Haver
Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st. Lt. Shaye Haver

History was made on August 21, 2015, when, for the first time, the graduating class of the U.S. Army Ranger School at Ft. Benning, Ga., included two women soldiers. Of the 381 men and 19 women who started Ranger school, only 94 men and 2 women made it through to graduation. (At press time, a third woman was close to completing the requirements for Ranger school.) 

Those women, 1st Lt. Shaye Haver, 25, and Capt. Kristen Griest, 26, successfully completed a grueling 62-day training program described by the Army as its “premier combat leadership course, teaching Ranger students how to overcome fatigue, hunger, and stress to lead soldiers during small unit combat operations.” 

The course requires soldiers to walk 10 miles carrying 50 lbs. of gear; complete a 5-mile run in under 40 minutes; and perform 49 push-ups, 59 sit-ups, and 6 chin-ups. Parachuting, swimming, combat patrol, and military mountaineering are also part of the training.  

Trailblazers

“Clearly, these two women are trail blazers,” Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said at a Pentagon briefing. “And, after all, that’s what it means to be a Ranger. Rangers lead the way.”

While the women excelled in certain parts of the training, even outdoing some of their male counterparts according to officials, both women failed to pass what is known as the Darby phase of the course. They repeated that portion twice before finally making it through to the next phase. Army officials say that many men typically repeat portions of the course as well and that the female soldiers did not receive any special treatment.  

Prior to the graduation ceremony, the families of Griest and Haver released a joint statement, saying the women felt “just like all the soldiers” in their graduating class: “happy, relieved, and ready for some good food and sleep. Like everyone who will pin the [Ranger] tab on Friday, they are exceptional soldiers and strong teammates.”

How did the men in the class feel? “I can say without a doubt that the team that I’m graduating with accepted me completely as a Ranger and I couldn’t be more proud,” said Haver, who also described graduating from Ranger school as one of the highlights of her life. 

Women in combat

Speaking at the graduation ceremony, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said of the two women graduates, “Like every Ranger fighting today, they will help lead the finest fighting force in the world.”

However, despite their successful completion of Ranger School, Haver, an AH-64 Apache helicopter pilot, and Griest, a military police officer, cannot join the 75th Ranger Regiment since Special Ops are not open to women soldiers. 

Armor, infantry, and artillery positions are also off limits to women, but those restrictions may change in the near future as all branches of the U.S. military are examining policies regarding women in combat. 

The ban of female troops in combat roles was dismissed in January 2013 by then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Since that time, approximately 91,000 combat jobs have been opened to women, while about 240,000 jobs remain closed. In Iraq and Afghanistan, over 280,000 women have served and 161 women soldiers have died in combat. 

Women and ground combat

Carter has said that the Pentagon’s position is that all ground combat positions will be open to women unless rigorous analysis suggests otherwise. In October, heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines made recommendations to Carter regarding women in combat with a final determination expected sometime in early 2016.

When asked about the upcoming decision regarding opening up more combat jobs to women, Griest said, “I do hope that with our performance in Ranger School we’ve been able to inform that decision as to what they can expect from women in the military. That we can handle things physically and mentally on the same level as men. And that we can deal with the same stresses in training that the men can.” 

Keeping up standards

Not to be outdone, the U.S. Navy plans to open up its elite SEAL program to women soldiers. Considered to be the most rigorous training in the entire military, many are skeptical that women can pass the difficult physical requirements of SEAL training. Some fear that as more barriers are broken, the inclusion of women in elite military training programs will ultimately result in lowering the tough standards required for graduation and service in the field.

“No woman that I know wants to go to Ranger School if they change the standards,” said Griest at a news conference. “Because then it degrades what the (Ranger) tag means. I don’t think anyone wants to see that done. Maintaining the standards is absolutely imperative.”

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