An Army trailblazer set her sights on a new target. The reaction highlights a deep rift.
By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: May 8, 2021
One of the Army's most celebrated trailblazers watched with concern as her service began revising its new combat fitness test.
Capt. Kristen Griest, who made history in 2015 as one of the first two women to graduate the Army's famously difficult Ranger School, had avoided the media spotlight for years. But she decided to take a public stand when Army officials floated a plan to consider the test scores of men and women separately amid complaints about a gender gap. Women were disproportionately failing events requiring significant upper-body strength, causing an outcry among lawmakers.
To Griest, who also became the Army's first female infantry officer in 2016, the adjustment is regrettable.
"I'm here saying, 'Women can do more than we think.' I have learned this," she said in an interview, explaining her thinking. "Your gender is not as much of a limitation as you think it is."
Griest, 32, has received a frosty response from some female service members and veterans, and was accused of "internalized misogyny." Others have taken her side, or said that they understand her motivation.
The reactions highlight the divisions and challenges that persist for women in the military five years after the Obama administration opened the doors to women serving in all jobs in the Armed Forces. While Griest and other groundbreaking women have been lauded, the Pentagon continues to struggle with systemic issues such as sexual harassment and assault, low retention rates among rank-and-file women, and a dearth of female leaders.
At the same time, senior defense officials have fended off critics who say the military has strayed from its roots as a fighting force by taking steps toward inclusion, such as improving parental leave and maternity uniforms - and altering the new test. In March, Pentagon leaders rebuked Fox News talk show host Tucker Carlson after he complained that the military was becoming too "feminine."
Griest initially spoke out about the fitness test changes in an opinion piece published on a website run by her alma mater, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
"To not require women to meet equal standards in combat arms will not only undermine their credibility, but also place those women, their teammates, and the mission at risk," she wrote.
The test evaluates soldiers in six events: dead lifts, a two-mile run, push-ups, a shuttle run, a medicine ball throw and leg tucks, in which soldiers must hang from a bar and bring their knees to their elbows. About 54% of women and 7% of men failed the test last year.
The latest version, adopted April 1, added an option for soldiers to replace the leg tuck with a plank to test core strength. It also introduced plans to rank scores for men and women separately as they compete for promotions.
The Army has said the tweaks are meant in part to avoid compounding the challenges women in uniform face.
Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain who represents Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), a nonprofit advocacy group for women in the military, said the changes help "a lot" when it comes to fairness.
But Griest and some other women who broke in with formerly all-male units have lingering concerns. The point was to prove they could meet the same standards as men, she said.
"This is everything that all of us women in combat arms have been fighting for at least the last five years," Griest said.
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Griest arrived at West Point in 2007, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were both raging. She and her older brother, Michael, an Army helicopter pilot, grew up with "no limits and high expectations," she said, and an outdoorsy lifestyle that included hiking, canoeing and camping.
She noticed early on that her gender mattered more as a cadet than it had in her hometown of Orange, Conn.
"Somebody's telling you, 'Oh, you did really good for a girl!' " Griest said. "Over time, it impacts you psychologically."
Griest aspired to join the infantry - an option that did not yet exist for her. She felt "presumptuous" and "obnoxious" for mentioning the idea, she said, but did so anyway.
"Like, who the hell was I?" Griest said, recalling her mind-set at the time. "I was just 19. I was just a girl. I couldn't max the male fitness test, so who was I to say those things?"
But she grew confident with the support of faculty members.
For an American politics class, Griest wrote about the policy banning women from combat assignments, interviewing officials who were involved. Her professor, Maj. Tommy Sowers, a Special Forces officer, encouraged her project, which reinforced her view that the policy was due for new consideration.
"For Kris, it wasn't like it was a difficult discussion," said Sowers, who has since left the Army. "She knew what she wanted to write about."
Griest and a few other women were asked to join a West Point mentorship club for prospective infantry officers. The invitation, by then-Lt. Col. Michail "Gus" Huerter, who had a long career in Special Operations, was unusual for women at the time.
Huerter, nicknamed "The Hurt Locker" for his enforcement of Army standards, challenged cadets to boost their fitness scores and posted them for each other to see. Griest eventually met the standard for men, she said.
Huerter, now a retired colonel, said that Griest worked hard throughout her senior year, reaching the top third of the 40-cadet group.
For Griest, the experience was "eye-opening."
"I was like, 'All of these men are about to go to Ranger School and the infantry, and I'm not allowed to - supposedly because my female physiology is so weak?"
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Griest became a military police officer and deployed to Afghanistan in 2013. The following year, the Army began recruiting women to attend Ranger School in a pilot program as the Army weighed how to open up more military jobs to them.
Griest was interested, and began preparing.
Ranger School is considered instruction in leadership, but it is also a test of character and toughness, and focuses on infantry skills such as patrolling and hiking while carrying a heavy load. Students scale obstacle courses, climb mountains and wade through waist-deep swamps while carrying weapons. Less than half usually pass, with many who do continuing careers in combat arms.
Nineteen women, including Griest, started out in the class beginning in April 2015. They initially failed to make it out of the first phase of the course at Fort Benning, Ga., but Griest and two other women - then-Maj. Lisa Jaster and then-1st Lt. Shaye Haver - were allowed to start over. Army officials occasionally offer such chances - known as a "Day 1 recycle" - to promising men and women.
That August, Griest and Haver became the first women to complete the course. Jaster finished in October. Rumors flew that the Army went easy on them in part by allowing them to start over from the beginning, but senior Army officials insisted that was not the case. Day 1 recycles must suffer through the grueling hikes of Ranger School's opening week all over again, and soldiers often decline.
Griest said she didn't want to leave the course, in part because of the uncertainty over whether she would ever be allowed to try again. Some critics said afterward that the women hadn't earned their Ranger Tab, which she said was "super tough" to hear.
The top officer overseeing Ranger School at the time, then-Maj. Gen. Austin "Scott" Miller, said no standards were changed.
"This was an emotional event, and when you have an emotional event, sometimes it brings out the best in us and sometimes it brings out the worst in us," said Miller, now the four-star U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
Huerter proudly watched as Griest and her fellow soldiers received their Ranger Tabs at a ceremony at Fort Benning.
"She wanted to go through the school as a soldier going through Ranger School, not a woman going through Ranger School," he said. "If the standards were lowered because of her, it would not sit right with her."
Dozens of women have graduated Ranger School since then, including Capt. Shaina Coss, who became the first female infantry officer in the elite 75th Ranger Regiment in 2018 and deployed to Afghanistan with the unit.
Griest became the first woman to lead a company of infantrymen, commanding in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C. She deployed again to Afghanistan in 2019. She expects to pursue a master's degree at Columbia University later this year, followed by an assignment overseeing cadets at West Point.
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Griest reflected on her own history as she weighed in about the combat fitness test.
The old Army physical fitness test, adopted in 1980, required soldiers to complete as many push-ups and sit-ups as they could in two-minute periods, followed by a two-mile run. But service leaders wanted a new test that more closely resembled tasks required in combat.
The early results of the six-event replacement raised numerous concerns. Doctors and lawyers in the Army, who are often older, failed at high rates. So did women in general.
The Army decided not to scrap the entire program. But after adding the plank and altering the scoring, it received fewer complaints.
Friction points remain, however, especially with scoring.
In the latest version of the combat fitness test, men and women will be placed in color-coded groups by gender, with the top 1 percent in each group considered "platinum" and the top 10% labeled "gold." By that process, it is likely that some women could end up in a higher category than men who have higher scores.
Griest, Coss and some of their female colleagues in combat units have concerns about that. Writing for Military.com, Coss said that "true equality comes from real achievement, not from the Army adjusting numbers to generate more favorable scores" for women.
Like Griest, Coss failed the new test the first time she tried it and put in work to improve, she said in an interview. The direction of the conversation about the new test being too tough was an "unhelpful direction for female integration," Coss said.
Others have noted their outspoken nature.
Jerri Bell, who served in the Navy as it was integrating women in new roles in the 1990s, tweeted that Griest's article was "a whole lot of internalized misogyny."
In an email, Bell said that some women "accept inaccurate and distorted perceptions of women's strengths and the values of their contributions in the armed forces."
"Physical fitness standards are often used as a bludgeon in this fight," Bell said.
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston, the service's top enlisted soldier, said that he appreciates the perspective and dedication of soldiers like Griest and Coss.
But no group should be disadvantaged through the new combat fitness test, Grinston added. "Our ultimate is to make a better fitness test for all," he said.
Jaster, now a lieutenant colonel, said she agrees with Griest and thinks it is misogynistic to have separate guidelines for men and women.
"It's very frustrating for those of us who want to be thought of as equals and peers," Jaster said. "It puts an automatic asterisk by each of our accomplishments."