First Two Women to Graduate From U.S. Army Ranger School

It's history arising from precedent as female troops proved themselves in wars

First Two Women to Graduate From U.S. Army Ranger School First Two Women to Graduate From U.S. Army Ranger School
The first two women to graduate from one of the U.S. Army’s most rigorous training programs will do so on Aug. 21, 2015. They... First Two Women to Graduate From U.S. Army Ranger School

The first two women to graduate from one of the U.S. Army’s most rigorous training programs will do so on Aug. 21, 2015. They will be the first women to sport Ranger tabs on their uniforms, signifying their completion of the vigorous Ranger School.

The school is usually–but not exclusively–attended by troops from combat units.

This particular class of students has been in the media spotlight as part of a pilot program to see how women perform. The school been heavily scrutinized by both those who want to see women further integrated into combat fields, and those who insist doing so will weaken military readiness.

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In January 2013, then defense secretary Leon Panetta officially ended the Pentagon’s ban on women serving in combat units.

According to new policy, the military must open all fields to women by next year unless the brass provides a compelling case to keep any of them closed. The Ranger School pilot program is part of that.

The integration is already underway. On June 23, the Oregon National Guard inducted 18-year-old Mackenzie Clarke, who’s slated to become the Army’s first female combat engineer.

The end of the ban is a landmark event, but let’s not forget–women have already seen combat fighting in American overseas wars for decades.

Staff Sgt. Erin Donaldson, an adviser to Iraqi police in Baqubah during The Surge in 2007. U.S. Army photo

Staff Sgt. Erin Donaldson advising Iraqi police in Baqubah during the Surge in 2007. U.S. Army photo

In the line of fire

From pilots, Humvee gunners and medics, women have been in the line of fire and frequently fought alongside male comrades.

Women have already been fighting from the sky as helicopter and fighter pilots. Though some officers initially opposed their integration into combat aerial formations, that’s been a fact since Desert Storm. Often the pilots get incredibly close to the action.

During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the line between combat and non-combat troops blurred on the ground. Women regularly participated and led dangerous convoy operations on IED-infested roadways and helped fight off ambushes as turret gunners.

Support troops such as intelligence and civil affairs specialists frequently accompanied soldiers and tankers “outside the wire” into insurgent country. Female military police officers participated in combat patrols and served on training teams advising police in Iraq.

This extended to commando units. Female explosive ordnance disposal specialists accompanied Navy SEALs into Afghanistan’s hills for days.

Under the direction of Adm. William McRaven, Joint Special Operations Command put together a pilot program to attach women to elite units. It was the birth of Special Ops Cultural Support Teams. Women are in a unique position because they can speak to local women, relate to them and gather intelligence in ways that male commandos cannot.

The military didn’t necessarily intend for women to participate in direct action. But the enemy, as the saying goes, gets a vote. Unpredictable circumstances on the battlefield saw these women alongside male troops in the midst of intense gunfights and violent raids.

Some of the women on the teams had already been on multiple deployments and had seen combat. For others, it would be their first experience.

Capt. Jennifer Moreno was an Army nurse at Madigan Army Medical Center who volunteered for an assignment with the 3rd Ranger Battalion. She died in a bloody raid on an Afghan compound.

The operation also resulted in the deaths Pvt. 1st Class Cody Patterson, Sgt. Patrick Hawkins, Special Agent Joseph Peters and a military working dog named Jani. Thirty other Rangers and an Afghan interpreter were wounded.

Moreno died shortly after responding for calls to help a wounded soldier. A blast killed her as she tried to aid her comrades. The Army awarded her a posthumous Bronze Star for her actions during the raid.

Cody J. Patterson, Patrick C. Hawkins, Jennifer M. Moreno and Joseph M. Peters.

From left–Cody Patterson, Patrick Hawkins, Jennifer Moreno and Joseph Peters. U.S. Army photos

What’s next

“I think it’s kind of weird we’re still having this discussion in 2015,” said veterans’ advocate and former soldier Alyssa Mehl. “We’re at a point now where women can’t be overlooked.”

Mehl served during Desert Storm when even the presence of women in a combat zone caused controversy. “I always hoped that one day I would see female Rangers,” she said. “Seeing this is just such a big moment, it shows how far we’ve come.”

Some male veterans have welcomed the potential for women to take an expanded role. Others still have a great deal of skepticism.

Many are worried that the presence of women could threaten unit cohesion by distracting hormonal and impulsive young men that combat units often attract. Or that mixing genders could present stressful challenges for leaders in maintaining discipline.

There’s also a vocal contingent of veterans–both tabbed and untabbed–that has charged that allowing women to go to Ranger School will “water down the tab,” inevitably leading to a drop in standards. Currently, women are held to a lower physical training standard than men Army wide.

But even if women in combat units are held to the same standard, some male soldiers expressed lingering concerns that women in general might have fundamental physical limitations that will reveal themselves over time. Some point to the Israeli Defense Force–which many advocates of integration have held up as a model.

In recent years the IDF has reported high levels of career ending injuries for women in combat units, as well as commanders who have backtracked on their support for integration. Skeptics also point to the fact that the two women graduating Ranger School came from a pool 19 women, none of whom succeeded on their first try.

One veteran War Is Boring talked to conceded that he thinks the two graduates earned their tabs on merit, but he argued that Americans should carefully consider whether if it’s worth the time and money with such a high failure rate.

“Well, a lot of men fail too,” another special operations soldier said. He took a more optimistic view of what opening the school—and possibly other fields—could offer. He said that women have already proven incredibly valuable working with elite units and could offer a wealth of untapped talent.

“[Women] bring with them a whole different series of life experiences and perspectives that we simply do not have,” he explained. He said that it’s impossible to know the full range of capabilities women could bring to a team until the Army fully explores it.

Author and former U.S. Army Ranger Leo Jenkins wrote an impassioned defense of expanding the role of women in a post at Havok Journal.

Bottom line is this, women are not inferior to men. They aren’t. They have a slightly different set of strengths that offset our equal yet different set of strengths. If a woman has the patriotism to enlist and serve in the military, the desire and ability to serve in special operations and the capability to enter and stay in that world then there shouldn’t even be a discussion about it. In 70 years, we will look back on this topic and be as ashamed that we had it as we now should be about racial integration in schools in the 1960’s.

Though the women will make history by earning the Ranger tab, they are still barred from joining infantry units. The tab doesn’t make them Rangers. And their graduation isn’t likely to settle the controversy.

Detractors will accuse the Army of giving them their tabs as a political stunt and question whether they truly earned them. Supporters of integrating women into combat will insist the pace is too slow. This is a discussion that will likely continue for months if not years.

Regardless of the debate to follow, this experiment is far from over. Outgoing Army chief Gen. Ray Odierno already confirmed that the next batch of female students will enter Ranger School in November. And there’s not shortage of eager applicants–many of them combat-tested.

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