This week, military officials announced that 94 soldiers are expected to graduate from the Army's elite Ranger School, having completed one of the most physically and mentally challenging courses in military service. Each year, the grueling program whittles thousands of applicants down to a handful of the country's most well-trained soldiers, and this year is certainly no exception. What will be exceptional, however, is the makeup of Friday's graduating class. According to army officials, for the first time in history, the school will graduate its first female soldiers from the military's premier leadership course. So, who are the first female Army Ranger School graduates? The Army has asked that the students' identities be kept anonymous, but their accomplishment marks a breakthrough for women in the armed forces and for the Army itself.
According to The Washington Post, the notoriously difficult course attracts approximately 4,000 servicemembers each year. The soldiers go through three phases of training over 61 days in Georgia and Florida. At best, around 40 percent of soldiers graduate the program. In April of this year, a total of 19 women and 380 men started Ranger School together in Fort Benning, Georgia. This week, two women (both graduates of West Point) and 92 men will complete the program, earning the coveted Ranger Tab on their Army uniforms.
Speaking to Foreign Policy, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the program was the latest step in an effort to open up more opportunities for female service members:
I had every confidence that this story would happen and I am proud of the fact that [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman] Gen. [Martin] Dempsey and I were able to open that door. Once we open that door to the opportunity for women to be able to fully participate, I don't think there are any limits as to how far or how high they can go. We are going to benefit, this country is going to benefit, by having best fighters in the world defending this country and there is no question in my mind that the best fighters are going to be both men and women.
Panetta lifted the Army's ban on women in ground combat during his leadership. Even though an estimated 300,000 female soldiers have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and more than 150 have been killed, women weren't officially allowed to take on combat roles until Panetta lifted the ban.
The first female graduates of Ranger School mark an important shift in military attitudes as well as policy. Foreign Policy reported that several training officers expressed a change in thinking about women serving in combat roles after watching the female students' performance. And according to The Washington Post, retiring Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno told reporters that any soldier — male or female — with the strength and skill to meet the services required should be allowed to serve.
The women in Ranger School are another example of — if they can meet the standard, they should be able to go, and they should be able to earn their Ranger tab. And I think that’s how we want to operate as we move forward.
Still, even with the landmark decision to allow women to train at the Ranger School, important barriers remain for female soldiers aspiring toward positions of combat leadership. For example, military leaders have not yet decided whether women will be allowed to join the infantry, or become Green Berets or Navy SEALs.
As for the two women set to graduate Ranger School on Friday, officials have not yet decided whether to allow them to actually join a Ranger regiment. Odierno told the Post that Army officials would hold off on making a decision until the next Ranger School course finishes in November.