2 female soldiers pass Mountain Phase at Ranger School, 1 step short of graduation
By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: July 31, 2015
WASHINGTON — Only the swamps of Florida stand between two female soldiers becoming the first women to ever graduate from the Army's famously difficult Ranger School.
The women have completed the school's Mountain Phase, and will move on to the third and final phase of training, Army officials said Friday. It begins Sunday when they and 125 men who also completed the Mountain Phase parachute into the Florida Panhandle and start training at Eglin Air Force Base's Camp James E. Rudder.
A third woman who advanced to the Mountain Phase was "recycled" along with 60 men. That means they did not advance, but will be allowed to try the course again and can still graduate later. All three women began the Mountain Phase on July 11 alongside 156 male students who also were attempting it for the first time, and 42 men who already were training in the mountains, but failed to pass there the first time.
"The Ranger students, both male and female, are two-thirds of the way done with Ranger School," Col. David Fivecoat, the commander of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade, said of the those who passed. "I was very impressed with the students' toughness at leading platoon-size patrols in the North Georgia Mountains during this extremely hot summer. The coastal swamps of Florida will continue to test the students — only the best will be successful and earn the Ranger Tab."
The women are attending for the first time as part of an ongoing assessment by the military about how it should better integrate women into combat roles in the military. It follows a 2013 decision by Pentagon leaders to open all jobs in the military to women by 2016. The services were required to conduct research first, and are permitted to request an exception to the new policy in coming months for any jobs they want to keep closed, provided they can show evidence that it wouldn't work.
Nineteen women started Ranger School on April 20. They have been whittled to three, and will be allowed to wear the Army's Ranger Tab, a prestigious decoration that greatly helps career advancement, if they graduate. They will not, however, be allowed to join the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, which performs Special Operations missions. Many male soldiers, ranging from pilots to artillerymen, also earn the tab and serve in roles outside the Rangers.
The Mountain Phase, held in the mountains of the Chattahoochee National Forest, included 20 days of climbing, hiking, rappelling and patrolling, mostly with minimal sleep and little food.
The Florida Phase is 17 days long, and focuses on extended platoon operations in the steamy coastal swamps near Valparaiso, Florida. It includes two airborne jumps from aircraft, four days of waterborne operations, a 10-day field training exercise with students leading patrols and two administrative days in which students are counseled on their performance.
Training at Camp Rudder takes place in several locations, and includes instruction on stream-crossing and small-boat operations. At least 22 students have died during Ranger training there, though none since an "invisible safety net" was put in place after four students died of hypothermia while maneuvering through chest-deep water in February 1995.
The course now includes field ambulances that are posted minutes away, evacuation helicopters and numerous rescue boats that are kept on standby, according to an information paper published by the Army. Before students enter water, divers also check on conditions, and "an elaborate system to monitor weather and water conditions and depths exists at every step in the exercise," it said.
The effort has faced intense scrutiny inside and outside the military. Some critics have questioned whether the remaining women have been afforded unfair opportunities; others say Ranger instructors grading them faced pressure to fail them.
Fivecoat said earlier this month it's inevitable that "you're going to get hammered from both sides." He's instructed his staff to continue doing their job as it always has, he said: "We're trying to make sure everyone has a fair and equal chance to the earn the tab."