She marched 12 miles with the same rucksack the men carried. She wriggled beneath knee-high barbed wire through the infamous muddy worm pit. The mountaineering phase was as frigid for her as it was for the men in Ranger School that winter.
But there she was, with the coveted Ranger tab on her shoulder in Kuwait, seven years after the military lifted the ban on women serving in combat roles, and the Army had no women’s body armor for Lilly.
“I got the small male one; they said that will work,” Lilly said. “But it doesn’t because the torso is too long for women and it’s sitting on my hips and every time I had to get in or out of a Humvee, I was barely able to pick up my leg.”
It was 10 years ago this week that Leon E. Panetta, then the secretary of defense, announced the end of America’s ban on women serving in combat roles.
In that time, thousands of women officially became the warriors they’d been off the books for decades. They flooded armor and infantry units with bravado and got smacked down for their gumption. They earned respect and changed minds, hearts and regulations. One group of 22 studied by experts summed up the experience for most — half of them left the military, two of them were sexually assaulted, all of them made history.
“These women have defied all of the naysayers,” said Col. Ellen Haring, one of two Army Reserve officers who filed a lawsuit against the Defense Department and the Army for barring women from certain combat units and other jobs on the basis of their gender just a few months before the Pentagon lifted the ban. “Not only do many women — like men — want combat jobs, but they are excelling in these roles.”
In 2015, when Ranger School opened to women after a couple of years fighting bureaucracy and pushback, the nation gasped in awe as infantry officers Kristen Griest and Shaye Haver graduated. Each year after that, more women passed with more superlatives — first Latina, first Black woman, first mother, oldest woman (Lilly) and, seven years after they let women in, there are more than 100 who wear that Ranger tab.
Now it’s up to the military culture and structure to change. Women stepped up and did their parts, under great pressure.
“I knew I had to be successful so that any other woman who wants this opportunity could get it,” said Lilly, a graduate of Virginia Tech who is now a leader in the brigade combat team with the North Carolina Army National Guard. “I kept thinking that if I screw this up, they might shut the door on us again.”
Instead, Lilly and the others blew the door wide open. And they hold it open — through a tight, supportive social media group — answering questions and offering advice to women following them into Ranger School.
In some cases, commanders tried to include women — despite pushback from the young bucks angry about women doing as many (sometimes more) pull-ups as they did and exasperation from women tired of condescension.
“I remember they asked all the men to leave — they were trying so hard — and one of them read from an index card on how to keep ourselves clean in the field and that it’s okay to drink cranberry juice for a [urinary tract infection],” she said. “In the room, there was a collective 300 years of experience in female hygiene, and he was reading from an index card.”
One of the pioneering Ranger School graduates, a 29-year-old woman who retired from the Army and works in tech in the D.C. region, said she constantly had to deal with men surprised, confused and threatened by her. But it got better over her six years in.
“I went from walking into a room and everyone hating me, to walking into a room and not even being noticed,” she said.
The woman, who asked not to be named because she’s trying to keep a low profile after leaving the military, said she and her military husband both retired for lifestyle reasons. They were constantly apart and didn’t want to raise a family that way.
Her ruck weight, she jokes, was heavier than her male peers’: “I had everything they had, plus 120 tampons.”
Women have long deployed humor to defang comments about the “differences” that historically have been weaponized against us.
Lilly’s philosophy about this is tattooed on her arm: “The question is not who will let me, but who will stop me.”
Anne Coughlin, a law professor at the University of Virginia who helped push the legal argument for women in combat, worries about the consequences for women who may be losing control of their own bodies in the land they are willing to defend with their lives.
“I find myself wondering about the impact of Dobbs,” Coughlin said. “What would the position of the military be on giving women access to health care and birth control? … It may depend on what state you’re living in, what kind of reproductive care you have access to.”
The fight continues. But we are tactical. We’ve had to be. As the armed forces denied women combat roles, essential to climbing the leadership ladder, it effectively enforced a brass ceiling.
What’s been the most frustrating part of integration for most leaders is the continued lack of women assigned to Special Forces units even though they’ve qualified. “Women have historically held critical roles in the military. However, women make up less than 10 percent of [ U.S. Special Operations Command] service members, compared with about 19 percent [Defense Department]-wide,” said a report issued last month by the Government Accountability Office.
It said that in those elite operations, “leaders have acknowledged existing issues of gender discrimination, sexual harassment and assault, and career impediments, and the need to do more.”
And like those barrier-breaking women who earned their law degrees, then couldn’t get hired at law firms (See: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg), they’re not really being hired for the jobs they trained for.
Women have died fighting. Over the dozen years before the historic shift in January 2013, about 283,000 women had deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 800 were injured and 139 were killed. One of them was 1st Lt. Ashley White, a 24-year-old from Ohio who was embedded with an Army Ranger unit in Kandahar province in Afghanistan when she and two Rangers were killed by a roadside bomb.
White was with the unit because she could do things — such as frisk women wearing burqas — that men couldn’t. “Women like her do this all the time,” Haring said.
Haring, a Military Academy graduate who had always wanted to go to Ranger School, was thrilled to see the enthusiasm and resilience of the women who participated in her study. She heard from combat units that the inclusion of women boosted professionalism and success. Hazing and abuse weren’t the defaults. The entire group was elevated.
She was disheartened to see the continued issue of sexual assault among the ranks. One of the women was assaulted by a military chaplain. He was jailed for that. Another was assaulted by her commanding officer. He was denied a promotion, Haring said.
Two of 22 may seem high. But get this — that was 9 percent of the group of women. Across the nation, 24.8 percent of women have experienced some form of contact sexual violence, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Lilly, like many of her peers, hates hearing the argument that their presence creates more opportunities for sexual violence.
“The problem isn’t that women are there,” she said. “The problem is that men aren’t often held accountable.”