Female soldiers hoping to attend the first-ever, co-ed class of U.S. Army Ranger School have a much better chance of completing the grueling, two-month course if they prepare for what faces them in the first week, according to Ranger School officials.
Ranger School is a punishing ordeal designed to push combat leaders, both officers and sergeants, to their mental and physical limits. About half of all candidates fail to earn the coveted, gold and black Ranger tab.
In January, Army Secretary John McHugh and Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno are expected to make a decision whether to allow females to attend the historically male-only, infantry course.
If approved, 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.
The effort is a result of former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s January 2013 directive that all services open combat-arms roles to women that so far have been reserved for men. The services have until 2016 to make this happen.
Like male candidates, female Ranger School students will have to spend long hours training to prepare for weeks they will spend weighted down with infantry weapons and equipment on patrols through the thick forests of Fort Benning, Georgia, and the dense swamps of Camp Rudder, Florida.
They’ll also be expected to climb and rappel in the steep mountain terrain of Camp Merrill near Dahlonega, Georgia.
Ranger School candidates have to endure these challenges on two meals a day while getting three to four hours of sleep a night for eight weeks.
“It is a tough and demanding course,” said Col. David Fivecoat, commander of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade at Benning. “The graduation rate for 2013 was a 45-percent grad rate.”
“In the summer the guys are wet all the time; in the winter they’re cold all the time,” he said. “The toughest part is having that mental strength, mental toughness to persevere in this over a period of 62 days.”
But the challenge that “overwhelmingly” eliminates most Ranger School candidates occurs on the first day of the week-long Ranger Assessment Phase, Fivecoat said.
“We lose the bulk of our students the first week when they show up to Ranger School,” he said. “The number one obstacle that causes Ranger students to fail is the Ranger Physical Fitness Assessment on the first day.”
Students must perform 49 push-ups in two minutes and 59 sit-ups in two minutes. They have to run five miles in 40 minutes and do six chin-ups.
Many soldiers can do 49 push-ups, but they have to perform them to standard, Fivecoat said.
“We had a class in November that had 406 students show up, and we dropped 91 students for various physical fitness events that day,” he said.
In both the Army and the Marine Corps, the big question has focused on physical standards -- will the services have to lower the physical standards required for infantry and other combat-arms training for women to be successful in these jobs?
Like the Marine Corps infantry training courses, Ranger School standards “are going to stay the same,” Fivecoat said. “We have definitive standards that we apply to every Ranger student; if they can meet them, they will be successful.”
If students pass the fitness assessment, their next challenge on the first day will be the combat water survival assessment.
The CWSA “consists of a log walk and rope drop where they have to scale a ladder 30 feet above the pond, walk across a beam, up some stairs, down some stairs and they end up at a rope,” Fivecoat said. “They have to shimmy out onto the rope and do a pull-up, and they have to ask permission to drop into the pond. They drop into the pond and they move to the side.
“Then they are given the swim test portion where they enter the lake, shed their [fighting load carrier] and rifle without panic and swim 15 meters … without panic to demonstrate their ability to swim to safety should they get into a position where they are in over their head in the swamps of Florida or anywhere else during training.”
The second morning begins with a 10-kilometer, land navigation course. Students have to find four out of five points in five hours – 2.5 hours in the dark and 2.5 hours during daylight.
Students who fail course can retest on the following day. Following the land-nav course, students spend the rest of the afternoon crawling through the mud and negotiating other challenges on the Malvesti obstacle course.
The last hurdle of RAP is a 12-mile road march students must complete in less than three hours, carrying a rifle, fighting load carrier vest and a rucksack weighing approximately 43 pounds.
The week-long Ranger Assessment Phase accounts for about 40 percent of the students who fail to make it through the course. Another 15 percent of students fail to complete the course because of injuries and poor performance.
“After that you are at day five, so you’ve got 57 more days to go,” Fivecoat said.
Shouldering Heavy Loads
Students spend about half of Ranger School living in the field. In addition to food, water and individual gear, candidates have to carry all the items found in a normal infantry platoon including M240 machine guns, litters, radios and extra batteries.
“The lightest guy carries about 80 pounds … that’s a student with an M4 carbine,” Fivecoat said. The load goes up when students take turns carrying heavier items such as the M240, which weighs 27.6 pounds. One hundred-round belts of blank, 7.62mm ammunition weigh five pounds each.
Students will set into patrol bases, receive missions, plan them and move seven to 10 kilometers a night to attack their objectives. The amount of time it takes to cover this distance through the woods depends on the students’ navigation skills, Fivecoat said.
“The most essential guy in Ranger School at night is the compass guy that can get you to where you are going without a lot of excess movement,” he said. “The really good platoons spend a lot less time carrying the stuff because they figure out who their good compass guys is.”
Through this time, limited rations can take a toll on students.
“The Rangers are losing weight,” Fivecoat said. “The average Ranger loses about 10 to 15 percent of his body weight from the beginning of the course to the end.” But it’s not all about physical endurance. Students have to pass a certain number of graded patrols in each phase. They also have to pass a review from their Ranger peers, Fivecoat said.
The Army would not be the first service to open one its most prestigious combat schools to women. The Marine Corps in 2012 allowed women to attend the enlisted and officer infantry training courses.
In November 2013, three female Marines made history when they became the first women to graduate from the Marine Corps Infantry Training Battalion Course. Since then approximately 100 females have graduated from the course, according to a Marine officer familiar with the effort.
Despite the milestone, no female Marine officers have made it through the Infantry Officer Course. IOC is a demanding 13-week school that historically averages a 25-percent attrition rate for male Marines.
The Marine Corps recently launched a year-long experiment at Camp Lejeune, N.C., to evaluate how women perform in physically-demanding jobs such as the infantry.
The goal of the experiment is to try to determine what type of physiological profile women need to have to succeed under the current, training standards associated with direct-combat related jobs, the Marine officer said.
To help prepare students, Ranger School offers training resources on the web such as the “30-60-90 day PT plan,” Fivecoat said.
Army units also run pre-Ranger training courses for to improve their soldiers’ chances of earning the Ranger tab.
Service officials have hinted that the number of women actually interested in applying for direct-combat related assignments will be relatively small.
Fivecoat, however, said he has seen no shortage of women willing to go through Ranger School.
“There is lots of interest out there,” he said.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at Matthew.Cox@military.com.