Female soldiers interested in applying to become students or advisers at the U.S. Army's Ranger School under a plan to test gender integration at the institution face upcoming deadlines.
Those who wish to become advisers at the historically all-male school must submit their applications to commanders by Oct. 10. The women who want to become students in the rigorous, two-month training program must turn in their packets by Dec. 1, according to Gary Jones, a spokesman at Fort Benning, Georgia, home of the Airborne & Ranger Training Brigade, which conducts the course.
How many – or even whether any – of the women will be selected has still not been decided by the Army. Service leaders including Secretary John McHugh and Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno are expected to make a decision sometime after Jan. 1 on whether to approve the tentative plan for a first-ever co-ed class, known as the Ranger Course Assessment.
"We're just now getting to the point to potentially integrate women into an assessment to see how well it would work," Jones said. "We're doing deliberate and measured planning to ensure we have the best-qualified soldiers to serve in any position they're capable of … whether they're a man or a woman."
Like the other military services working under a directive last year from then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the Army must open all combat jobs by 2016 to women or explain why any must stay closed. The Pentagon lifted its ban on women in combat jobs in 2012, but gave the military services time to gradually integrate female troops into male-only front-line positions.
Women make up about 15 percent of the U.S. military's 1.3 million active-duty service members, according to Pentagon statistics. As of August, there were almost 71,000 female soldiers in the Army's active component, which is the largest of any branch and totals some 510,000 soldiers. Military-wide, there are some 237,000 combat-arms jobs.
The Ranger Course Assessment will be open to all women in the grades E-4 through O-4 whose end term of service, or ETS, is no earlier than Oct. 1, 2016, according to one of two All-Army Activities, or Alaract, notices about the proposal.
Jones didn't say how many positions might be available for women. Officials are still waiting to see how many applications they receive for the slots. He couldn't say how many packets have been submitted so far, but he's personally received a handful of phone calls from female soldiers wanting to learn more about the opportunities.
The proposal is already generating controversy, with both supporters and opponents speaking out on social media websites.
"In my opinion, this is a horrible idea," Mariah Comfort, an active-duty soldier who has served downrange, wrote on Facebook. "Yes, there are some women who are up to the standard, but there are many reasons why this isn't a good idea."
Others disagree. "I think this is an awesome idea," Mike Metcalf wrote on the same thread. "Radical terrorists like ISIS members are horrified at the idea of being killed by a woman because they believe that will keep them from entering Heaven," he added, referring to an acronym for the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq and Syria. "So I propose establishing some all-female Ranger companies whose specific mission it is to hunt Islamic terrorists."
Meanwhile, Chris Ballard noted that his Ranger class had an attrition rate of about 70 percent.
"Invited is a long, long shot from graduating," he wrote. "That said, if they can do it, they'll have earned the right to do any job they want."
If the Army moves forward with the experiment, they'll pick a number of women -- ideally, those with experience as drill sergeants or platoon leaders -- to enter modified training regimen sometime next year to get a sense of what Ranger School is like so they can work alongside a cadre of male instructors to serve as advisers or observers to the female students who will enter a co-ed class in April.
"If they know, as women, they had particular difficulty with something, they might be able to look out and see what these students are having similar difficulty with and let the Ranger instructor know, ‘You need to bear this in mind' or ‘Hey, I think she can handle it,'" Jones said.
Even so, female recruits shouldn't assume the presence of same-sex advisers means they'll catch a break on the school's notoriously difficult physical requirements. They'll face the same standards as their male counterparts.
"They need to be able to meet the physical profile and physical standards that are laid out in the regulation that male students would have to meet," Jones said.
Ranger School is a punishing ordeal that many young infantry leaders, both officers and sergeants, are encouraged to complete. The 61-day course pushes students to their mental and physical limits. About half the students end up dropping out. In the past few decades, at least several soldiers have died during the training.
Students are expected to perform on limited rations and just a few hours of sleep a day. They typically wear and carry 65 to 90 pounds of weapons, equipment, and training ammunition while patrolling more than 200 miles across the forests of Fort Benning, mountains of Camp Merrill, and the swamps of Camp Rudder, Florida.
Female applicants will take the Ranger Physical Assessment, which includes 49 push-ups, 59 sit-ups, a five-mile run in 40 minutes, six chin-ups, as 12-mile march in three hours, the combat water survival assessment and land navigation. The march, by the way, must be completed while carrying an assault rifle and wearing the Army Combat Uniform, boots, fighting load carrier, patrol cap and rucksack weighing at least 35 pounds (excluding water).
The course is so grueling that officials encourage women who are interested in applying to begin training well in advance. They've offered links to sample training programs lasting anywhere from one month to three months, along with recommended books and nutritional guidelines.
Yet even if the female students complete the leadership course, they'll only be entitled to wear the highly sought Ranger tab. They still won't be allowed to serve in the 75th Ranger Regiment, the special operations forces unit, or receive the special skill identifier code added to the end of their military occupational specialty – unless the existing rules and regulations are changed.
"That might come later," Jones said.
Interested applicants can find more information about applying here.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at email@example.com