How May 29 changed the female Ranger discussion
Army Capt. Kristen Griest was getting dropped from Ranger School. After six weeks of surviving sleep deprivation, hunger and seemingly impossible physical and mental challenges, she stood in a windowless cinderblock office on Fort Benning awaiting her fate.
It was May 29.
She was one of more than 80 students, including the eight women remaining in the Army's first gender-integrated Ranger School class, waiting to get bad news from Col. David G. Fivecoat, commander of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade.
Now it was her turn. Fivecoat asked her what had gone wrong during those six weeks and why she had failed multiple times at leading small-unit patrols, the core of the curriculum.
"He said, 'You are going to get dropped,'" Griest remembers. "He recommended I come back if the Army does this again."
If the Army does this again. Many of the men hearing the same news that day were being told they could return in four to six months. But as a woman participating in a pilot project, she might not get another chance.
Griest knew two men in her squad who'd been offered a rare Day 1 recycle, meaning they'd started Ranger School from scratch with little time to recover before again taking the grueling physical assessment.
"I knew it was an option, but I didn't know who got one and who didn't," Griest says.
She asked Fivecoat for a Day 1. He dismissed her without an answer and she waited in the hall for 10 minutes.
The colonel called Griest back. He asked her to do 49 pushups, and a Ranger Instructor was there to grade her.
For the past six weeks, she'd been pushed to exhaustion, her strength depleted. Now her adrenaline was pumping. "I didn't think I was going to be able to do it," Griest says, "but I did."
When she left Fivecoat's office, she was still in Ranger School.
She was starting over, but the dream was still alive.
The world now knows that Capt. Kristen Griest, 26, 1st Lt. Shaye Haver, 25, and Maj. Lisa Jaster, 37 at the time, were given another chance, and that all three would eventually receive Ranger tabs. Two male soldiers were also granted a Day 1 recycle, but declined the invitation. Many more men would later return to the course after months of recovery and preparation.
Despite plenty of media attention, the public still knows little about why the women attended Ranger School in the first place, or how they made it through.
Though they've stayed out of the spotlight since achieving their historic feat, each woman recently conducted an exclusive interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, sharing her motivation, struggles and perspective from the journey.
This is their story.
Griest decided she wanted to go to Ranger School when she was a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy.
One of her mentors, an officer who had served in the Ranger Regiment, ran an Infantry mentorship program for male cadets.
Her senior year in 2010-11, he invited Griest and a few other female cadets interested in Ranger School to join them.
He had one requirement: The women had to train to meet the male physical standard and would be graded on that scale.
"Being held to that higher expectation made all the difference for me," Griest says. "Suddenly there was someone with experience and authority not only saying I could do this, but that I should do it because my soldiers deserve my best effort."
Her perspective changed. "It was like, 'OK, I'm not outstanding if I meet this standard, I'm letting someone down if I don't meet it,'" she says.
When Griest graduated and began her Army career, she immediately wished she'd had Ranger training. "As a second lieutenant, I wanted to be trained and tested under the toughest conditions the Army could provide before I took a platoon to Afghanistan," she says. "The option wasn't open to me then, but I wanted to do what I could to make it available for other junior officers and NCOs regardless of their gender. I felt like I owed them that, as a leader."
In early 2014, as a first lieutenant assigned to a military police battalion in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., she started hearing talk that Ranger School might open a test program to women.
She registered for the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in nearby Nashville to jumpstart her training. In the fall, she ran the Army Ten Miler.
When the call for women to volunteer for Ranger School came in November, Griest was ready, but her battalion did not have a pre-Ranger School assessment program. She reached out to the Infantry brigades, and Fort Campbell's 3rd Brigade responded.
"I told them I would like to jump on whatever train-up you do for men," she says. "They said they were happy to support."
Haver remembers visiting West Point with her mother before starting her plebe year. "I knew that's exactly where I wanted to be and that I was going to take it and run with it, and whatever jokester let me in -- I don't know what he was thinking -- but I was ready for it."
Unlike Griest, though, she never aspired to attend Ranger School.
After graduation in 2012, she became an attack helicopter pilot and was stationed at Fort Carson, Colo.
In October 2014, Haver's battalion commander was talking her up to Brig. Gen. Randy George, deputy commander of the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson.
George looked at her and asked, "You want to go to Ranger School?"
"No, sir," Haver said. "I haven't thought about it."
She doubted it would matter to her career as an aviator. But at least now she was thinking about it -- and the practical training it would offer.
"When I decided to own it, it was for my soldiers and the ground soldiers," she says. "The better I understand what the guys are doing on the ground, the better it is going to make me at being able to direct assets toward that. I want to understand battlefields. I plan to be an operational commander down the road and this opportunity was the best opportunity I could have for insight into that."
When Jaster was a seventh grader, her paternal grandmother gave her a book called "In the Men's House," by Capt. Carol Barkalow, one of the first female graduates of West Point.
"I read that book, and was, 'Wow, this is what I want to do,'" she says.
She graduated from West Point in 2000 with a degree in engineering. When the call came for female Ranger School candidates, Jaster was a reservist working for Shell Oil in Houston.
She and her husband, Allan, an officer in the Marine Corps Reserves, had two children, Zac, then 6, and Tori, a 3-year-old, red-headed carbon copy of her mother.
At 37 years old, Jaster didn't need Ranger School, which is usually attempted early in one's career. But she had a reason for considering it.
"If Ranger School is really a leadership school, and all combat arms, combat support and even some combat service support officers and enlisted can attend this school, and the only differentiating factor is gender, then I wanted to prove there are females that can do it," Jaster says. "... If a male engineer officer can go, then a female engineer officer should be allowed to go, as well. If it is an infantry school, that is a different discussion. But it is not an infantry school. A male MP, a male pilot, a male finance officer can go if their command supports it, but a female combat heavy engineer couldn't attend."
Jaster did not like being told no.
"Closed doors based on gender and nothing more than gender have always been very difficult for me to deal with because I am competing against male counterparts who have had these opportunities," she says. "And if I find I have an issue with something that is out there, I feel obligated to try and do something about it."
In January, Maj. Gen. Scott Miller, commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, visited the Pentagon with Fivecoat to talk to the Army's top military and civilian leaders about the pilot program for females at Ranger School.
Their audience was enthusiastic about the idea.
"We stepped in there to make it clear this was a tough course and do not be surprised if there are zero female graduates," Miller said.
Miller wanted to make certain the expectations were properly managed.
"The chief and secretary looked at us and asked if we had the standards right," Miller said. The Army leadership also asked if any adjustments needed to be made. They didn't.
"They said, 'OK, you got it,'" Miller remembered.
In mid-January, Jaster and Griest were among 26 women attending a pre-Ranger School course run by the National Guard at Fort Benning. Completing the course was mandatory for any woman wanting to attend Ranger School.
When Griest expressed some concern about the upcoming pushup test, Jaster, a CrossFit enthusiast, helped Griest with her form.
It was the start of a bond.
"I didn't know she was a reservist, a 37-year-old mother of two," Griest says. "I was impressed."
Jaster also was impressed with Griest, one of four "young, very capable women who were still active duty."
"One of these ladies will do it," Jaster remembers thinking. "I don't need to fight and prove women can do this because one of these women will do it."
Jaster and the four young women were the only females to pass the course.
When it was over, Jaster called home to talk to her husband, Allan, a Marine who had seen his share of difficult schools. He asked if she thought she could do it.
Of course she could do it, she told him.
"So, what does that mean?" he asked.
"I don't want to do it, but yeah, I think I can do it," she remembers responding.
That's where they left it.
In late January, Haver went to California to train with her unit. A few days later, her commander told her she was leaving for Fort Benning the next day.
He told her to "go crush Ranger School," come back and they would have a job for her.
"It was cool my chain of command had such faith that I could do it," Haver says.
Haver crushed the pre-Ranger School training course, the only female to pass in a class that included 17 women.
At Fort Benning, Haver had two months to prepare after the second pre-Ranger School course. She was staying at an extended stay motel on Victory Drive and training during the day.
One night, she was at a restaurant called The Loft in downtown Columbus, when the couple next to her struck up a conversation. Tasca Hagler, an administrative law judge handling workman's compensation cases, and her husband, Richard, a criminal defense attorney, figured out Haver was one of the women who would be attempting Ranger School.
The Haglers picked up the tab for Haver's dinner that night in appreciation for her service, something that happens a lot in Columbus restaurants.
About a week later, they ran into her again. This time Tasca Hagler insisted on trying to get Haver into a better living situation, and she did, moving her out of the Victory Drive motel and into a cottage in the Historic District across the street from them.
Over the next six weeks, Haver became part of the Haglers' family, eating with them, going to church and building a friendship.
"I knew if I needed anything they would be there," Haver says. "I call them my Georgia family."
Being in a neighborhood setting also allowed Haver to mentally prepare for what was coming.
"If I had been in a complete military mode and mindset I probably would have driven myself crazy," she says. "The ability to interact with the community, making friends, feeling like that was home -- I didn't feel like I was in the limbo that I was."
Griest returned to Fort Benning a month before Ranger School started and trained with a group of about a dozen women preparing for the course. The Army was assembling a group of women who would have a chance to physically compete in the male-dominated world that is Ranger School.
The women were making their own assessments of who had a chance to complete the training. There, Griest and Haver met. Griest was impressed.
"When I met Shaye, all along she was the one woman I thought was going to pass," Griest says.
By mid April, 20 women had passed the pre-Ranger School training course and were selected to the first gender-integrated class. They were assigned to report on April 19 to Camp Rogers on Fort Benning.
Jaster was going to be among them. She was leaving a normal life in Houston for the unknown. The day before she was to report, she summed up her feelings in this Facebook post, the last one she would make for months:
"One final goodbye to the family. I forced the kids to snuggle with me from 3:30-4:30 this morning. Now it's time to make history. In 25 hours, I will get in a cab and meet up with 19 other women. At 9 a.m. Eastern on April 19th, we will walk onto Malvesti field to be tested in the only integrated Ranger school class."
She greatly underestimated how long it would take.
"I don't know how the next two months will go," she wrote, "but I promise to give everything I have."
This was not a normal day at Ranger School. The 399 soldiers included 19 carefully selected women -- the 20th woman had failed to report. The media and outside attention was obvious and distracting.
At 4:30 a.m., the physical assessment began. The soldiers would have to do 49 pushups, 59 situps, six chinups, and a 5-mile run in under 40 minutes.
Before the week was out, the students would also have to pass the land navigation test and complete a 12-mile march carrying about 50 pounds of gear in under three hours.
From the pre-Ranger School course and her work at Fort Benning before reporting, Haver was confident she could pass what she called "the reindeer games."
"Not to say I could do anything better than anyone else, but I realized my fear of being the weak link was not true," she says.
"I had gained the respect of those around me. They saw they could rely on me to do whatever it was. I was just as capable as they were."
At times, it felt like the women were a team, Griest says.
"The Army wanted to know if women could pass the course, and I wanted to contribute to that," she says. "All 19 of us showing up on April 19, we were like a football team trying to get one of us in the end zone."
By the end of the morning, three of the 19 women were gone.
By the end of the first four days, eight women had passed and were moving to the first patrol phase at Camp Darby, a wooded encampment on the eastern edge of Fort Benning.
Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade Sgt. Maj. Colin Boley, a battle-tested warrior who had seen 15 deployments over 15 years in the Global War on Terror, considered this female experiment a success.
At the time he was adamantly against women in the school, but wanted to see at least one woman pass the assessment phase.
"If we could get one female out of RAP week, I would not have to justify the standards," Boley said.
As for the men, more than half of them had been dropped. Just 192 of the original 399 soldiers had passed the phase.
Nothing would come easy for the women as their class moved from Camp Rogers to Camp Darby.
The patrol phase proved challenging and appeared to be where the gender program was going to end.
Patrols are at the heart of Ranger School. It is where students are assigned leadership roles, given a military mission and graded on that assignment by Ranger Instructors -- RIs for short.
"The RIs are the keepers of the standards," Boley said. "The RIs are the only people who can put a tab on anybody's shoulder."
Another way to think of them, said Boley, is as "judge, jury and executioner."
All eight women failed the Darby phase the first time, and got a second shot three days later when the next class moved out of the physical assessment.
It didn't get any better. On one of her patrols, Haver led a reconnaissance mission to a site that ended up being a drug lab.
"At the end of the recon, I thought I had all the information I needed," she says. "We had gotten away undetected, initially. We had found out the enemy had relayed our information, so we would not be trapped as we were backfilling. The takeaway was we needed to be more stealth. The failure came from not utilizing our training, people or equipment to the fullest extent."
Again, all eight women failed to pass the patrols.
"It was confusing for us," Haver says. "Ranger School is not designed to be fair. I think the most frustrating part was maybe we didn't understand exactly what we were doing on all of it. We were counseled at the end of the patrols. In their opinion we did not have enough tactical knowledge."
As May 29 dawned, Jaster was ready to get her life back. She was thinking about her children. She also wanted to get back in shape, her body worn down by road marches, patrols, lack of sleep and lack of proper nutrition.
For the three days it would take for Ranger School to cut them loose once they were dropped, she and a male soldier were planning workouts.
"We got really excited and said, 'To hell with it, let's start getting back in shape now,'" Jaster says. "There was a CrossFit competition and lifting competition coming up, so I wanted to get back in shape. So right there and then, the guy and I started doing pushups, dips on the curb, situps and squats."
Griest, however, was not willing to accept defeat.
"I remember Kristen saying, 'I really want to try and stay here,'" Jaster says. "I remember saying, 'We are dropped. Let's just accept it -- we are dropped.' That is how I was thinking. 'I am going home. I am going to workout. I am going to be ready to pick up my babies. I am not going to be sick or depressed. I am ready to be dropped and move forward with my life.'"
Moment of truth
Along with about 75 men, the eight women awaited judgment on May 29 at the hands of Fivecoat and Sgt. Maj. Curtis Arnold, the leadership team of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade.
The lengthy process started at 5 a.m. One by one, students marched into the room and stood on a piece of green tape a few feet in front of the colonel.
Fivecoat, a West Point graduate whose assignments include aide to then Maj. Gen. David Petraeus during the invasion of Iraq, sat behind one of the desks.
Arnold, a 27-year veteran who has held every infantry position from rifleman to command sergeant major, sat on a worn blue couch below shelves loaded down with old equipment.
A yellow beam in the middle of the room held up the ceiling.
There is nothing comfortable about these meetings and the room reflects that.
Each meeting started with a salute, then the colonel would return it and say, "Rangers Lead the Way," the motto of the organization.
The first four women came out with news they had been dropped. Considering the patrolling results, that surprised no one.
"There was a lot of frustration because all eight of us were getting dropped," Jaster says. "It wasn't hard for me to understand getting dropped from the course. It was just hard for me to understand all the other women getting dropped from the course. I thought at least somebody could make it through. But we were all getting dropped."
Griest had other ideas.
She marched into the room to face Fivecoat, Arnold and several RIs. From the beginning, Fivecoat was clear: Griest was being dropped.
The women's options were limited and Griest knew it. So she asked for the worst of all options. She asked for a Day 1 Recycle.
That's when the colonel dismissed her, called her back after 10 minutes, and told her to do 49 pushups.
His concern was that Griest couldn't pass the Ranger Assessment Phase again after nearly six weeks of grueling training.
Griest did the 49 pushups and got her chance to start over.
She then marched out of the office and into the compound where the others were gathered. Haver was there awaiting her turn.
"She came out and looked at us with these eyes like 'what just happened?'" Haver says of Griest. "Then she went around the corner."
Griest was hurrying to move her gear from one side of the compound to the other. She was able to quickly tell the others that they could possibly remain in the school if they could do pushups.
Haver marched into the Fivecoat's office.
"I thought it was over and it was a really weird feeling," she says. "You felt literally out of control -- the emotions of 'I can't do anything to stay here' and 'I don't want to be told I am done.'"
Fivecoat asked her to explain why she thought she was failing.
"I told him about the tactical piece -- I thought it came from experience and if I had the opportunity to continue, I would want to do that," Haver says. "I told him I thought there was not any one task that was too hard."
Fivecoat asked Haver why she thought she deserved to remain in the school. She pointed to her positive peer-to-peer reviews, an essential element in passing the course. This was a common denominator between the three women -- the soldiers who had worked most closely with them on the patrols respected them and that showed in the peer evaluations.
"I told him that showed my squad was willing to fight for me to stay," she says.
Fivecoat then asked what Haver would say if he offered her another chance.
"I said, 'I would ask to go to the mountains with my squad, sir,'" Haver says. "Sgt. Maj. Arnold said, 'I would ask for a pot of gold, but we don't get everything we want.'"
Haver then asked for a Darby insert, which would afford her the opportunity to bypass the physical assessment. That didn't happen.
"OK, sir, I will take a Day 1," Haver responded.
The command staff had the same concerns about Haver's ability to pass the physical assessment, so like Griest she had to drop and give them 49 pushups.
"I am sure they were horrible, hideous, but I tried my hardest," Haver says. "Somebody grading said, 'Good enough to move on.'"
Now it was Haver pulling her bags around the corner.
Griest was there, and all she could think was, "Well, here we are."
A fifth woman was dropped. That left Jaster, the last soldier to meet with Fivecoat. It was well into the lunch hour by now.
Finally, she was called and marched into the room.
"I didn't really care -- I was done with the school," Jaster says. "I had mentally checked out and gone home. I wasn't paying attention to anybody in there. I was frustrated and I thought the school was making a horrible mistake by not allowing one female to make it through."
She was bringing years of military and corporate reasoning to her thought process.
"If this test is going to look like it was properly run, there needs to be an attrition just like there is an attrition with the males who go through Ranger School," she remembers thinking. "It is not like all the males who go through Ranger School don't pass the first week, then fail Darby. I was thinking even if all of us suck at tactics, it still looks bad if all of us fail on tactics. I wasn't angry, I just thought we were missing an opportunity."
Then it all changed.
"I remember the colonel asking me why he should give me a second chance," Jaster says. "At some point, he said, 'Do you think you can do this?'"
"Roger, sir, I can definitely do this," Jaster remembers saying.
What happened next surprised even Jaster.
"He asked, 'Why do you think you can do this?'" Jaster recalls.
"I remember looking at him, and regretting how I said it, but saying, 'Because I can f---ing do this, sir.' There is probably a much better way I could have expressed myself, but at that time I knew I could do it. I had just screwed up."
Jaster, in her eagerness to get back in shape, had been doing pushups and situps most of the morning.
Now she had 49 pushups to do.
"It took every ounce of me," she says.
By the time she left the colonel's office, the chow hall had closed for lunch. She grabbed an MRE and took a seat, trying to mentally check back into the school.
That's when Griest and Haver showed up.
The three of them looked at each other and one of them said, "Let's do this."
After accepting the colonel's offer to restart the course, the women had three weeks to physically recover as they remained at Camp Rogers and waited for the next class to show up.
For the first time since the class started in April, they had a chance to really get to know each other.
They were sleeping in the same barracks as the men, only separated by lockers used as a partition when they were dressing.
They had small chores to keep them busy, while also doing Physical Training to prepare for what was to come.
"We felt like we could talk comfortably among each other," Griest says. "You bond a lot when you are picking weeds out of cracks in parking lots for hours."
But there was one growing concern.
"Shaye and Kristen started feeling better a lot faster than I did," Jaster says.
The fact that Jaster's nearly 38-year-old body was taking longer to recover was normal, but it was still a major concern as 62 days or more of Ranger School loomed after the three-week break.
"I was very worried and several times mentioned that I may have volunteered to restart a school and waste another three weeks," Jaster says. "I really thought it was such a slim possibility that I would recover in time to go through another RAP week successfully."
They were also dealing with the reality that if they had gone straight through the school they would be graduating on June 19, rather than waiting two more days to start over. Only 37 soldiers in the original class of 399 had gone straight through the course.
As the graduating class returned from the Florida swamps, Jaster was standing guard duty at the gate as they marched past her.
"I knew you were still here ma'am," one said.
Another simply said, "Jaster."
A third offered encouragement: "You got this ma'am."
The recycled soldiers awaiting the June 21 class to start got a day pass to leave Camp Rogers on the Friday before the Sunday report date. It was good timing because it was graduation day.
When they returned from a few hours of freedom, they were assigned to clean the grounds at Victory Pond, where the graduation took place. They were picking up bottles and cleaning when Haver pulled the other two aside at a spot where hours earlier proud families had pinned tabs on Ranger graduates.
"Our RI was yelling at us to get back in the truck," Haver remembers. "I just looked at them right there and said, 'Someday we are going to be standing right here again.'"
Griest remembers the conversation.
"I remember not feeling very confident," she says.
Haver ended the gathering with two words: "I promise."
(c) 2015 the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.