(Story was updated to include revised number of applicants.)
More than three dozen women have applied to be advisers at the U.S. Army's elite Ranger School so far, an official said.
The service through Oct. 10 is accepting applications from female soldiers interested in becoming observers or advisers at the historically all-male combat training course, a punishing two-month ordeal designed to train future infantry leaders. It's the first step in possibly opening the school to women.
If the Army moves forward with the plan, the women will start a modified training regimen next year to give them a sense of what the program is like so they can work alongside male instructors and help observe the female students selected for the first-ever co-ed class, known as the Ranger Course Assessment, tentatively scheduled for this spring.
"Right now, the applications are to be observers/advisers, and as of yesterday, we had three applications," Col. Linda Sheimo, who works for the Army's human resources policy directorate, said Oct. 3 at a defense conference in Washington, D.C.
Lt. Col. Justin Platt, a spokesman for the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, on Friday morning said the number of applicants has since increased to 38 and may approach closer to 50 by the deadline later in the day.
How many – or even whether any – of the women will be selected hasn't yet been decided. Army Secretary John McHugh and Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno, among others, are expected to make a decision sometime after Jan. 1 on whether to approve the plan.
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 remain closed. The Pentagon lifted its ban on women serving in such roles in 2013, but gave the services time to 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.
While the vast majority of jobs in the Army are open to women of various ranks – enlisted, officer and warrant officer – less than 10 percent of infantry, special operations and security forces positions in the service are open to female enlisted personnel, and less than half of tactical operations positions are open to female officers, according to a 2012 report to Congress.
In considering opening Ranger School to female recruits, the Army is following similar steps taken by the Marine Corps and the Navy.
The Marine Corps in 2012 allowed women to take the Infantry Officer Course, though none has yet passed the physically challenging 13-week program. The Navy in 2010 allowed female officers to serve on submarines and is in the process of integrating female enlisted personnel into the submarine force, though the service has no plans to integrate the commando course, Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL, or BUD/S.
Service officials hinted the number of women actually interested in applying for combat assignments will be relatively small.
NATO countries that have opened infantry jobs and similar positions to women report that only about 1 percent of potential female recruits apply for the jobs, Sheimo said. What's more, if the U.S. military fully integrates women into all jobs, the services' various recruiting offices will vie to recruit that small subset of the population, she said.
"Unfortunately, all of us will be competing for those same women," Sheimo said.
Even so, the percentage among women interested in applying for combat jobs who are currently serving in the military is much higher – somewhere around 30 percent, according to Marine Corps Lt. Michael Samarov, plans officer for the Corps' Innovation Office.
"There will be a good deal of female Marines that are interested," he said. "I mean, they're Marines."
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.
While any would-be female student who has the support of her chain of command can apply to Ranger School by Dec. 1, those applying for the observer/adviser position were pre-screened to do so, Sheimo said. They will act more as an overseer than mentor, she said.
The female observers won't be "there to interface with the students," Sheimo said. Rather, they'll "be able to give input to the Ranger instructor or battalion or brigade commander" as part of regular assessments throughout the course, she said.
Her comments echoed those recently made by Gary Jones, a spokesman at Fort Benning.
"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,'" he said in a recent telephone interview with Military.com.
Female soldiers who want to become students in the rigorous, two-month training program must turn in their packets by Dec. 1. Women selected for the highly competitive slots will be identified in January, Sheimo said. The Army has published detailed information about the application process here.
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 a cumulative total of more than 200 miles across the forests of Fort Benning, mountains of Camp Merrill, and the swamps of Camp Rudder, Florida.
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.
-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at email@example.com