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Female veterans cheer achievement of Ranger graduates

By HOWARD ALTMAN | Tampa Tribune, Fla. | Published: August 19, 2015

TAMPA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Thursday morning, Laura Westley will get into her Volkswagen Tiguan and make the six-hour trip north from her mother’s house in Port Richey to Fort Benning, Ga.

A West Point graduate who served for seven years with the Army, Westley, 36, is a member of a Facebook group of women who are delighted to see two female academy graduates join one of the world’s most elite combat units.

After passing a grueling, two-month-long Army Ranger School training program that washes out most of those who attempt it, the two officers are set to take their place in history as the first women to graduate and earn the right to wear the coveted Ranger tab on their uniforms as part of the Army’s premier raiding force. Tuesday, the Army announced that the women, whose names have yet to be released, will be among 96 soldiers taking part in the Ranger School graduation ceremony Friday at the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning.

A third woman, who Westley remembers from West Point, is currently undergoing the mountain phase of the Ranger School training.

Like other female Army veterans, and two former Rangers living in the Tampa area, Westley expresses great pride that a long-time barrier has been broken.

“This shows that not allowing somebody to do something because of gender is ridiculous,” says Westley, now a technology consultant for a pharmaceutical company. “There are women who served in the past who would have loved this opportunity, but it never came about. It’s about damn time.”

While Westley says she never had any interest in becoming a Ranger, two other Tampa-area women say they would have jumped at the chance.

“If I was younger, yes, I would have tried for it,” says Lisette Bonano, 56, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. “I was always a top performer in physical fitness.”

“If this were around when I was in my 20s, I would have tried,” says Valerie Ellis, 42, who retired as an Army first sergeant in 2014.

Like Westley, Bonano and Ellis say they are proud of the women Rangers.

Both combat veterans, they say the lines were blurred for women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During her time in Iraq, Bonano, who worked in human resources and civil affairs, routinely came under fire.

“I am pretty proud of them, I have to say,” says Bonano, who was stationed at Forward Operating Base Warhorse in Diyala, Iraq. “I don’t see why this has become such a big ruckus. A lot of women have already worked alongside men in combat slots.”

Friday’s graduation will come at a time when U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., is working to determine how to integrate women into commando jobs, including those with the 75th Ranger Regiment.

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The Ranger School is a 62-day course on leadership and small unit tactics that “pushes Ranger students to their mental and physical limits by forcing them to operate on minimal food and sleep,” according to Nathan Snook, an Army spokesman. “Ranger School is the Army’s premier combat leadership course, teaching Ranger students how to overcome fatigue, hunger, and stress to lead soldiers during small unit combat operations.”

During the course, students learn how to operate in three different environments — woodlands in Fort Benning; mountainous terrain in Dahlonega, Ga.; and coastal swamp in Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle.

There is a physical fitness test consisting of 49 push-ups, 59 sit-ups, a five mile run in 40 minutes, and six chin-ups; a swim test; a land navigation test; a 12-mile foot march in three hours; several obstacle courses; four days of military mountaineering; three parachute jumps; four air assaults on helicopters; rubber boat movements; and 27 days of mock combat patrols.

Ranger students undergo about 20 hours of training per day, while consuming two or fewer meals daily totaling about 2,200 calories, according to the U.S. Army Ranger Association. They sleep an average of 3.5 hours per day, more before a parachute jump for safety reasons.

“Ranger students typically wear and carry between 65 and 90 pounds of weapons, equipment, and training ammunition while patrolling more than 200 miles throughout the course,” according to the association. “Ranger School is recognized as the Army’s premier leadership course and it is impossible to attain a leadership position in the 75th Ranger Regiment without it.”

Nineteen women and 381 men started Ranger Class 06-15 on April 20.

By Aug. 1, when the swamp phase of training began at Eglin, there were 165 men and two women left.

After the completion of the swamp phase, two women and 94 men will graduate on Friday.

About a third of the candidates, including the two women, have to redo at least one phase of the course, adding to the fatigue and stress.

For those who have been there, Ranger School is a mental and physical challenge that requires teamwork and is the ultimate leadership class.

“It’s very difficult,” says retired Army Col. Jaime Bonano, Lisette Bonano’s brother, who graduated from Ranger School in 1984 and left the Army last year. “It is mentally and physically demanding. The whole intent of the course is to challenge you to where you have to dig deep inside your guts to drive you to make it through to the next day.”

To T.G. Taylor of Tampa, who retired earlier this year as a lieutenant colonel, “the way Ranger School was sold to me and the reason why I went there is that it is a leadership school. It is not about infantry necessarily or being in combat or on the front lines, but about being extremely stressed out by lack of sleep, lack of food, being in stressful environments and being able to lead people while extremely stressed.”

Like the female veterans interviewed for this story, both Jaime Bonano and Taylor say that for surmounting the same challenges as the men, the two women have earned and deserve their status as Army Rangers, whose motto is “Rangers Lead The Way.”

Jaime Bonano, who served as an Army foreign service officer, worked with a variety of militaries, including the Israelis, who have long integrated women into combat roles. He says he sees no reason the U.S. shouldn’t learn from the Israelis.

“In the military, especially, it takes time for us to break the paradigms,” Jaime Bonano says. “It takes time to learn from others. It is the same with gays in the military. Why are we degrading people if they can do the mission? We are seeing more women who are just as capable as the men serving in combat units.”

Taylor, who last worked with U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, says women have long served in combat roles and deserve to be Rangers if they can hack it.

Taylor first attempted Ranger School in 1996 and was one of those who had to redo a phase. A member of the graduating class of 2001, he says that at the time, he could envision women being able to withstand the challenges.

“I had West Point classmates that, whenever the conversation came up about whether we should send women to Ranger School, I knew three classmates at West Point who could do a heck of a lot better than I am doing here.”

As someone “who believes in service to the nation and service to the soldier,” Taylor says “I am proud of these women. When I went to Ranger School, when times got hardest, I thought about the soldiers I would be leading. I thought they deserved the best leader I could be and it make me pick up my rucksack and keep going. To me, this is not about them being the first women to graduate, it is about them being the best leaders for future troops.”

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Like the individual services, Socom has to figure out how to integrate women into roles traditionally set aside for men — in this case, serving with commando units like Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Air Force and Marine special operations units and the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment.

SOCOM has divided its efforts into three phases: assessment, analysis and implementation.

“We are currently nearing the end of our assessment phase which includes a review of all standards; the entry standards tested in the screening programs as well as those for the qualification courses,” says SOCOM spokesman Bockholt. “As we head into the analysis phase, we will have a better understanding of our way ahead as we receive feedback ... We understand that this will take time, but we want to get this right.”

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of SOCOM, will forward his recommendations to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter this fall, at the same time the services do, Bockholt says. Carter will make his decision by Jan. 1, 2016, Bockholt says.

As for the future of the two women with 75th Ranger Regiment, “the shot at 75th is still to be determined by the folks in Washington,” says Snook.

Bonano and Ellis say they may try to catch the Ranger School graduation ceremony online, and Westley says she is excited to make the trip to Georgia to see it in person.

There is a dinner planned for Thursday night, she says, with early female graduates from West Point scheduled to speak. Then there will be a luncheon on Friday after the graduation.

“I don’t know the two that are graduating on Friday,” Westley says. “They are much younger than I am, But I do know of the one woman still at Ranger School. What is amazing is that she is a year older than me. It is remarkable, because a lot of men my age couldn’t handle Ranger School training.”

Westley, who wrote a play about her West Point experience called “War Virgin,” says she doesn’t know how many will attend the ceremony from the hundreds of women and some men who are part of the special West Point Facebook page.

But there is a common thread whether they attend or not.

“We are ecstatic,” she says. “We are so proud.”

haltman@tampatrib.com

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