FORT BENNING, Ga. -- The one weakness that plagued the two female graduates of Army Ranger School was that they had far less infantry training than male students going into the course, Ranger School officials said.
The Aug. 21 graduation of 1st Lt. Shaye Haver and Capt. Kristen Griest from the 62-day infantry course is a significant step forward for opening more military jobs to women, as senior leaders from all branches of the U.S. military prepare to make recommendations on whether to allow female service members in direct-action combat roles, such as infantry and special operations jobs, or explain why any must stay closed by the end of the year.
Ranger School is physically and mentally punishing leadership course that's open to the officer and enlisted ranks of all services, but it has only been opened to women on an experimental basis since April. For the past two years, only about 40 percent of men graduate from the course, and only about 25 percent of that number make it through without having to repeat one or more of the three phases.
Students must master the skills necessary to lead successful infantry patrols while carrying heavy combat loads and operating on limited amounts of food and sleep.
"It's a tough course; rarely are any of us put in a situation so tough, so difficult where we truly find out who we are," said Command Sgt. Major Curtis Arnold Jr., CSM of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade here.
"We do that to you over and over again in Ranger School through sleep deprivation, food deprivation, heavy loads ... so when a person graduates from Ranger School, you are going to get a really tough person who completes the mission, no matter what."
Ranger and infantry leaders say it's too early to know what having two female Army officers earning the coveted Ranger Tab will mean when it comes to deciding whether women should serve in infantry and other combat units.
However, the senior leadership at Ranger School and the Maneuver Center of Excellence agree on one point: If male students had an advantage over females in this gender-integrated Ranger course, it had less to do with physical strength and toughness and more to do with the on-the-job experience that most male students have acquired serving in infantry roles.
Haver and Griest were among the 19 females that volunteered to go through the first co-ed class of Ranger School that began April 20. In addition to the 19 women, there were 380 men who started the course. One other female is in the final phase.
Haver, an Apache pilot, and Griest, a military police officer, struggled at first with passing the graded patrols, officials said.
"What we learned was it wasn't specific to the females, it was more tied to the MOS" jobs that offer no exposure to infantry skills, Arnold said, referring to the acronym for military occupational specialties. "You can't say it was because they were a woman; it was from a lack of experience doing these things. So if you are not an infantryman, the learning curve is high."
But Ranger School students who come from infantry, armor and Special Operations Command units have a higher grad rate compared to other MOSs, Ranger School officials maintain.
The two largest groups that feed Ranger School are second lieutenants from the Infantry Officer Basic Leaders Course and members of the 75th Ranger Regiment, according to Col. William Butler, deputy commandant for the Infantry School at Benning.
"The lieutenants have just completed 17 weeks out of the Infantry Officer Basic Leaders Course, which is focused primarily on the tactics techniques that an infantry platoon leader is expected to know and understand and be able to execute when he gets to his first unit of assignment and assume the responsibility for a platoon, whether that is in an infantry brigade combat team and armored brigade combat team or a Stryker brigade combat team," Butler said.
Similarly, Rangers from the Ranger Regiment serve in an infantry organization even though it's a special operations force, he said.
"They are in an infantry organization doing infantry stuff for 18 months or 24 months; they have a lot of experience to draw from to succeed in the Ranger course," Butler said.
"These women, and other low-density MOS soldiers, they are not in an infantry organization because they are currently closed, so they don't have a whole lot of experience with regards to infantry tactics, techniques and procedures.
"So they went to RTAC and they do patrolling for about five days. That's not a whole lot of time to really understand the expectations, the nuances and the requirements to plan, rehearse, synchronize and execute a patrol."
Griest admitted learning how to lead a patrol on the fly was the most challenging part of Ranger School for her.
"It was definitely a very humbling experience; we thought we were coming in a little more prepared than we turned out to be," she said. "Looking back, as we actually did start passing patrols ... I actually realized how much I had learned in Ranger School -- just going through the repetitions, just how beneficial that was to develop some sort of tactical sense as opposed to when we first came in when we were going a little bit more just by the book."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.