FORT BENNING, Georgia -- On the eve of his Ranger School graduation, 2nd Lt. Michael Janowski admitted he had his doubts about how women would perform in the physically punishing infantry course.
"I was skeptical whether they could handle it physically," he said.
Then Janowski remembered hitting a mental wall during an exhausting night movement in Mountain Phase, about half way through the two-month long school.
"I had a lot of weight on me, and I was struggling," he recalled. "I stopped and asked if anyone could take some of this weight."
The males in his platoon hesitated. "I got a lot of deer-in-the-headlight looks and guys were like 'I can't handle any more weight,'" he said.
It was 1st Lt. Shaye Haver who offered to share some of Janowski's burden.
"She was the only one who would volunteer to take that weight," he said. "She took the weight off me, and carried it. ... She literally saved me. I probably wouldn't be sitting here right now. From that point there was no more skepticism."
On Aug. 21, Haver and Capt. Kristen Griest will become the first two women in history to earn the coveted Ranger Tab, a hard-won honor that has eluded many a male soldier since the course was founded in 1952. They will do so alongside 94 men.
Haver, Griest and a third female officer -- who is currently repeating Mountain Phase -- are all who are left of the original 19 female volunteers to go through the first co-ed class of Ranger School beginning April 20. In addition to the 19 women, there were 380 men who started the course.
Ranger School is a 62-day course that's described as the Army's premiere infantry leadership course, an ordeal that pushes students to their physical and mental limits.
Over the past two years, only about 40 percent of males successfully completed the course, according to leaders from the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade.
During the three-phase course, the students learn how to operate in three environments -- woodlands in Fort Benning, mountainous terrain in Dahlonega, Georgia, and coastal swamp at Camp Rudder in Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
Spc. Christopher Carvalho's first experience with women in Ranger School was during the Ranger Assessment Phase, or RAP, week.
"One particular incident that stood out in my mind was the 12-mile ruck march during RAP week," he told a group of journalists.
Students carry a 47-pound rucksack along with other gear on the march.
"These two women finished well ahead of some of the males," he said. "Right there and then -- that validated it for me that these women are here to stay. They are carrying the same weight we are, and they are doing the same stuff we are."
Second Lt. Zachary Hagner was also skeptical of women at first.
"I was ignorant and assumed that because they were women it was going to be harder for them," he said.
His view changed on the last day of Mountain Phase, when he had reached his limit from humping the M249 squad automatic weapon.
"I had carried the SAW for about three days, and I was like somebody take this from me," he said.
His male comrades felt as tired and "broken" as he did, Hagner said.
"Griest wanted it -- she basically took it away from me," he said. "She took it from me with almost excitement. I thought she was crazy for that," he added, with a chuckle.
It was clear from watching the two females and six of their male Ranger buddies at the press conference with several news agencies that they had all bonded as a unit.
"It's pretty cool that they have accepted us," Haver said. "We ourselves came to Ranger School skeptical, with our guards up, just in case there were haters and naysayers. But we didn't come with a chip on our shoulder like we had anything to prove.
"Becoming one of the teammates -- that we could be trusted just like everyone else -- whether it was on patrol or to carry something heavy or whatever -- it was that every single time we accomplished something it gave us an extra foothold in being part of a team. I can say that without a doubt that the team that I am graduating with tomorrow accept me completely as a Ranger, and I couldn't be more proud and humbled by the experience."
Griest echoed Haver's comments.
"My main concern in coming to Ranger School was I might not be able to carry as much weight or not be able to meet up to the same standard," she said. "I tried to do as much as I could, and I saw everybody else helping each other out and you just try to be the best teammate that you can."
But the 123 days it took to earn the Tab was no easy journey, both women agreed.
Haver and Griest failed the first phase of the course twice, though their performance impressed Ranger leaders enough to be offered a chance to start over from day one.
"When we when into the brigade commander's office after we had failed twice, we pretty much thought we were going to be told we were going to be dropped," Griest said. "I was willing to take whatever he would give us. When he offered the day-one recycle, I just immediately took it without thinking about it.
"I'm definitely glad I took it. I didn't hesitate to take any chance to continue the course."
Haver admits it was hard to start over but said she wasn't going to quit.
"We decided right then and there that if that was what it was going to take to get our Tab, that's what it was going to take," she said.
In addition to Haver and Griest, five male candidates were also offered to start over the course from day one. Traditionally, only 25 percent make it through without any recycles, Ranger School officials maintain.
Many on social media have accused the school of lowering the standards to make it easier on women. Ranger instructors at the school disagree.
"I thought there would be direct pressure to push them through," said Staff Sgt. Michael Davenport, a Ranger instructor at Mountain Phase. "But honestly, none of that stuff has happened at all. There was no pressure in any way, shape or form. The standards didn't change at all."
Griest and Haver's achievement comes at a time all of the services are preparing to make recommendations of how to open direct-action combat jobs such as infantry to women. Under a 2013 directive from then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the military services must open all combat jobs to women by next year or explain why any must stay closed.
Second Lt. Erickson Krogh said he would have no problem fighting alongside his two female Ranger buddies.
"In Ranger School you build bonds through hardship; I can say that I will always rather have someone with a Ranger Tab to my left or right in combat situations, and I don't care if that's a male or female," he said. "If they have a Ranger Tab, I want them next to me, and these two females have shown themselves and they can serve by my side at any time because I know I can trust them."
To Griest, the decision to open up combat units is up to the senior leadership.
"But I do hope that our performance in Ranger School will help to inform that decision as to what they can expect from women in the military – that we can handle things physically and mentally on the same level as men and that we can deal with the same stresses in training as men can," she said.
"I'm definitely interested to see what new jobs do come open up for women. I think Special Forces would definitely be something that I would be interested in."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at Matthew.Cox@military.com.