Army Ranger School tests if women are up to grueling challenge
FORT BENNING, Ga. (Tribune News Service) — The Army Ranger School instructor stood at the center of the sawdust pit, shouting instructions. Around him, dozens of soldiers low-crawled around the pit in a dirty, sweaty mass of bodies.
The soldiers weren't showing enough enthusiasm. "Louder, Rangers," the instructor yelled. "Some of you don't want to be here." The students shouted louder, the pain and exhaustion etched on their faces.
It looked like a typically grueling class to earn elite Ranger status. It was anything but. For the first time in more than six decades, Ranger School – the Army's toughest course – has opened to women. It is a one-time "assessment" to see whether women can handle the physically demanding course as well as the fittest male soldiers trying to become Rangers.
This test is part of a broader step by the Pentagon to remove its historic ban on women serving in "ground combat" jobs throughout the military by the end of this year. It is highly controversial because critics worry the move will lead to lower standards for training, less unit cohesion and reduced combat effectiveness in the field.
The Marines have embarked on a similar test, but no woman has completed the Infantry Officers Course.
Women have been exposed to plenty of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, but some specialties are off limits, such as infantry.
Army leaders say they are taking pains to ensure Ranger School will remain as challenging as it has always been despite the presence of women. This week, they invited reporters from a small group of news outlets, including USA TODAY, to observe the first days of training.
The women are housed in the same open barracks because unit cohesion is as important as physical strength in the combat units, such as infantry, which requires great physical strength and living under primitive conditions for long periods in the field.
Their hair is cut to the minimum allowed for women under Army regulations, 1/4 inch, only slightly longer than the men's, who sport buzz cuts. Otherwise they look the same in the loose sweat-stained uniforms.
When students are ordered to carry their Ranger buddy over their shoulders, the women often end up carrying men who weigh significantly more.
After the first couple of days of training, three women out of 19 who started the course were dropped for not meeting the initial physical test. In the same course, 78 men from the class were dropped, a slightly higher percentage for them. The attrition rate at the school is about 50%.
"The standards are not negotiable," said Lt. Col. Rob Robinson, executive officer of the 6th Ranger Training Battalion.
The Army said updated attrition statistics would be released Thursday.
The 19 women are part of a group of 113 who volunteered to be among the first women to try Ranger School. Only 20 passed a two-week preliminary course that allowed them to take the full course. One apparently chose not to enroll.
Jim Lechner, a retired Army officer and former Ranger, said skills required in infantry and other combat arms can't be measured by push-ups and pull-ups alone. They involve trekking over long distances day after day and carrying heavy weapons such as machine guns and mortars.
Marine Staff Sgt. Cliff Wooldridge said most of his colleagues in the infantry oppose allowing women into the field, expecting it would lead to a lessening of physical standards. Wooldridge earned a Navy Cross, the nation's second-highest award for heroism, in hand-to-hand combat with a Taliban fighter in 2010.
"There is no pressure to change the standards," said Maj. Gen. Scott Miller, who commands the Army's Maneuver Center of Excellence, which includes the Ranger School.
Monday, soldiers went through a battery of physical fitness tests. Then they headed to a water survival course, where they climbed a ladder and edged carefully across a 70-foot-long log stretched over the water. A slip would mean a 35-foot plunge into the water.
From there, they crawled along a rope and dropped the 35 feet into the water, when the order was given. Any sign of hesitation or fear attracted the attention of instructors, who watched carefully from below.
Later that night, they were put through sessions of calisthenics and classes in close-combat skills. The following day, after only a few hours' sleep, they were up well before dawn to take a land navigation test, which required trudging miles through dense woods using only a map and compass to find boxes scattered among the pines.
Students were staggering back after the sun rose, many covered in mud or soaked from falling into the creeks that crisscross the training area. A failure to find four out of five boxes would mean taking the test again the following day.
The course is broken up into several phases, including training in mountains in Georgia and the swamps of Florida. During much of the time, participants will be forced to survive on two meals a day and get little sleep. They will carry equipment weighing up to 100 pounds.
Students lose on average 15 to 20 pounds by the end of the two-month class, said Col. William Butler, deputy commandant of the Infantry School.
They are graded on their performance almost every step of the way.
"It is a grueling course," said 1st Lt. Alessandra Kirby, part of a group of women brought in to observe the class and provide advice to the staff. "You starve, and you can't sleep."
Ranger School is not a requirement for infantry jobs, but it is important for career advancement in combat fields because it is among the best training for small-unit leaders.
Opening the infantry without allowing women to attend Ranger School would put commissioned officers and non-commissioned officers at a disadvantage. Ranger School confers "instant credibility," Butler said. "They've been through a tough, arduous course and come out the other side."