Over six months of training at the Army's famously difficult Ranger School, Maj. Lisa Jaster grew to realize something, she said: She was the unicorn.
The engineer officer was one of 19 women who attempted the course in April, when it was opened to female service members for the first time ever. And in some ways, she was the most unusual of them all: While most troops who attend are on active-duty, male and in their 20s, she was a 37-year-old officer who was activated from the Army Reserve to go, temporarily leaving behind a successful career as an engineer with the Shell Oil Company in Houston and her husband and two young children for a shot at making history.
Jaster ultimately graduated in October, becoming one of just three women in that inaugural class to complete training and earn the right to wear the coveted Ranger tab on her uniform. On Tuesday night, that achievement will be recognized when she is part of a small group of distinguished Americans invited to attend President Barack Obama's State of the Union address in Washington.
Jaster said in a phone interview Friday that she wants her presence to show that there are men and women capable of succeeding in almost any role.
"I want my presence to symbolize the fact that there are competent people out there, and as long as the standards don't change, the best person for each job needs to be placed in that job," she said.
Jaster will sit in a box with first lady Michelle Obama — a tradition dating back to Ronald Reagan's presidency. Last year the White House invited eight of the men and women who had written letters to the president about surmounting life's difficulties, as well as the former federal subcontractor who had just been released from five years in a Cuban prison due to a diplomatic breakthrough. Altogether there will be 23 guests — including two people who made their mark on Obama's first presidential campaign, Edith S. Childs and Earl Smith — and an empty seat standing in for victims of gun violence.
"She and others represent all the infinite possibilities, that people who are prepared to work hard can break all kinds of barriers and achieve their dreams," White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said of Jaster. "Every young girl can have the opportunity to do what she did, if that's their dream."
Jarrett said that the first lady's guests, taken together, represent both the trajectory of Obama's presidency and the role everyday citizens had in shaping it. "They embody what's great about America, when ordinary people who are willing to make their voices heard, come together, and are able to move our country forward in a positive direction."
Obama and his aides have been eager to highlight both the success of the Army Ranger School's first three female graduates, as well as the military's decision to open all combat roles to women. While these moves have come under fire in some quarters, administration officials have pointed to them as areas where the president has expanded opportunities for women in U.S. society.
Jaster said that she and the other women had to earn respect from their male peers, some of whom considered it bizarre that women were at the school. She was held back, or "recycled," in each of the three phases, meaning she had to establish and re-establish relations with male students numerous times.
"I was the unicorn," she said. "When they saw me, it was like spotting a unicorn. It was odd, funny, they didn't know how to act. That was the feedback I got. But, each group, there was a single moment where they transitioned to I was just Ranger Jaster. I stopped being the girl, I stopped being the female, I stopped being the unicorn and I became their battle buddy, their Ranger buddy, their peer. Each of those little spikes reminded me why I went, which was just to prove that you should expect higher. Expect more."
When the Army opened Ranger School to women last year, it was on a temporary basis, as the military performed research required in 2013 by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta into how it would more fully integrate women in the future. The school is considered the Army's premier leadership school, and divided into three phases — one in the woods of Fort Benning, Ga., one in the mountains of the Chattahoochee National Forest in northern Georgia and one in the swamps of Eglin Air Force Base on the Florida Panhandle. Historically, about half of all students pass.
Only three women — Jaster, Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver — would make it through the first phase of training and head to the mountains, and that was after multiple recycle attempts. Haver and Griest would go on to complete the mountain phase and swamp phase on the first try and become the first two female graduates in August, but it took Jaster two tries on each. That left her as the only remaining women in Ranger School from August through her own graduation in October.
"The lowest point is easy," Jaster said. "When I recycled swamps I was surprised, I was extremely disappointed in myself and I could barely figure out how to call my husband and tell him that I had to stay for another four weeks, because there was a one-week break before the next class started up. That was definitely the lowest point."
Jaster said it has been easy to adjust to life since completing Ranger School, in part because she returned to civilian life with her family in Houston. But she has been inspired by letters she has received, especially from children. One 10-year-old boy recently wrote and said that he wanted to join the Army, but knew it was hard. He wasn't sure if he could do, he added, but he wanted to "cool" like Jaster.
"I just thought, 'Wow, being in the Army means you're cool,' " she said. "That's a wonderful opinion that I want to continue to support in our children because you lose that as you get older and get more polarized on what is going on in the world."