U.S. soldiers cool down after a two-mile run with their weapons before participating in an obstacle course at Fort Benning, Ga., Feb. 7, 2015, as part of the Ranger Training Assessment Course. (Photo by Sgt. Sara Wakai/ U.S. Army)

FORT BENNING, Ga. — Forty-four U.S. soldiers lined up here in formation before dawn Saturday with one more major requirement left before they could attend the Army’s elite Ranger School: A six-mile road march while hauling a rifle and 45 pounds of combat gear. It was one last test of wills through the winding hills and humidity of western Georgia.

Mixed into the group were nine women who are part of a historic, one-time experiment in which female soldiers will attend Ranger School for the first time beginning April 20. The Army launched the effort to gather research and assess options following a Pentagon directive that requires women be integrated into more jobs in combat units by 2016. Any woman who graduates from Ranger School this spring will wear the service’s prestigious Ranger Tab on her uniform, but will not be assigned to the Ranger Regiment, which remains closed to women.

[Meet the women helping at Ranger School as it takes on female soldiers for the first time]

Before daylight arrived, eight of the nine women — and 31 men — completed the march, with several men and women doubled over in exhaustion by the end. It’s all but assured that they will attend the grueling elite leadership course because it was the last event at which students are dropped for not meeting requirements, Army officials said. It means that up to 20 women could be part of the Ranger School class; 12 had previously qualified.

“The amount of genuine admiration and respect for anyone who raises their hand and says ‘I want to give this a shot’ is unquestioned,” said Brig. Gen. James Rainey, the commandant of the Army Infantry School at Fort Benning. “We all want more Rangers, and we all have a ton of respect for anyone who signs up, because a whole lot of people don’t.”

U.S. soldiers maneuver through an obstacle course during the Ranger Training Assessment Course (RTAC) on Fort Benning, Ga., April 5, 2015. (Photo by Spec. Dacotah Lane/ U.S. Army)

The Washington Post visited Fort Benning Friday and Saturday for a behind-the-scenes look at how women are being trained and evaluated for Ranger School. Army officials did not allow interviews with male or female students, but allowed The Post to join the march and observe other events.

[The Army approved women going to Ranger School, and reaction is mixed]

The research is considered unwelcome and controversial by those who do not want women serving in units that have been all-male for generations. But the Pentagon is requiring the services to study what is possible and present requests for exception to the new policy favoring integration.

The Army announced in January that it was opening Ranger School as part of that research, and required that female volunteers first attend an existing 17-day preparatory course known as the Ranger Training and Assessment Course (RTAC). It’s run by the Army National Guard at Fort Benning, and attended by more than 5,000 prospective Ranger students annually.

Ranger School is not just for those who want to serve in the Army’s elite 75th Ranger Regiment. Its graduates include pilots, armor officers and a variety of other soldiers.

The latest course, which began April 3, started with 139 students, including 61 women, said Lt. Col. Edmund “Beau” Riely, the battalion commander that runs the assessment. Of those women, 24 had attended at least one earlier assessment course, including six of the nine women who made it through to Saturday’s road march. Men also can take more than one RTAC, but typically do so in much smaller percentages.

The assessment course tests many of the same skills that soldiers will need to get through Ranger School. Among the requirements are a 2.5-mile run on Day 2 that must be completed within 20 minutes, land navigation exercises on Days 3 through 7, and a combat water survival  test and the Ranger physical fitness test on Day 8, one day before the road march. The Ranger fitness test demands at least 49 push-ups, 59-sit-ups, a five-mile run in under 40 minutes and six chin-ups.

Data gathered so far show both the strengths and weaknesses for of the women who participated. On average, female soldiers in RTAC have completed 39 push-ups, 10 less than required. But they have shown both competence and confidence in mission planning and while taking turns leading fellow troops, Riely said.

In 2014, about 1,100 soldiers went through RTAC, and 57 percent graduated, Riely said. By comparison, women have attempted an RTAC 138 times since they were opened, and are on pace to graduate 20. That’s just under 15 percent.

Potential male and female Ranger Course students complete obstacles during the Ranger Training Assessment Course on March 14, 2015, at Fort Benning, Georgia. (Photo by Markeith Horace/ U.S. Army)

The point of the assessment course isn’t too burn out the potential Ranger students, however, Riely said. Rest is built in, and these next few days before Ranger School won’t include any events like the march or a long run.

“We can destroy anybody physically, but that’s not why we’re here,” Riely said. “We’re here to get them ready for Ranger School.”

At the march, the soldiers moved out around 5 a.m., humidity hanging in the air following downpours overnight. Within minutes, sweat rolled down the faces of men and women alike, and the weakest performers began falling to the back of the pack, their boots dragging.

“Keep up! Don’t lose the group already!” older soldiers training the potential Rangers urged, marching with them.

One of the trainers carried a blinking light on his backpack, serving as a pacing mechanism for those who had to pass. He was walking a brisk 15-minute pace, and anyone falling behind him was in trouble. Medics were positioned at the back of the march in case anyone got hurt.

The student who led the march was a woman. Perhaps 5 foot 3 and 120 pounds, she finished and counted those who remained at the end. After breakfast, the whole group moved on to an obstacle course with a variety of bars, ropes, walls and a 50-foot tower to climb. The soldiers worked in tandem in some events, helping each other climb, and some of the women performed as well as the men.

It will get more difficult in a week when Ranger School begins. The 62-day course is famously grueling, with about a 50 percent graduation rate overall.

More than 60 percent of service members who attempt the school fail in the first four days, during what is known as Ranger Assessment Phase, or “RAP Week.” It includes the same fitness test requirements that soldiers see in RTAC, as well as a 12-mile road march, a land-navigation exercise without GPS and a combat water survival test. One part of it calls for soldiers to climb a 35-foot tower, walk 70 feet across a log, “commando crawl” along a rope, and then drop 35 feet into the water.

U.S. soldiers participate in a patrol during a field training exercise at Fort Benning, Ga., on Feb. 16, 2015. The FTX is conducted during the Ranger Training Assessment Course, which recently began including women. (Photo by Sgt. Sara Wakai/ U.S. Army)

About 75 percent of students who make it through RAP week eventually graduate, Ranger School officials say. But it can take months. Students can fail individual portions of Ranger School and get “recycled” into a later group.

The later phases of the course includes mountain warfare training at Camp Merrill, about 65 miles north of Atlanta in Dahlonega, Ga., and swamp training around Eglin Air Force Base on the Florida panhandle. The culminating events for those two phases are a rappel of more than 200 feet down a mountainside at night and a raid using small boats.

Students are evaluated by both peers and Ranger instructors. If an instructor is found to be grading women differently, it will be noticed and addressed, Army officials said.

Retired Col. Ralph Puckett, a legendary Ranger who earned Distinguished Service Crosses for valor in both Korea and Vietnam, said the peer evaluations in particular will be valuable and have been part of the process since the 1950s.

“I think the peer report might be the most objective and the most nearly accurate assessment of a person’s leadership, because it comes from the people who are being led and have seen an individual under extreme stress,” Puckett said. Ranger instructors “can’t see everybody on every patrol the entire time, but the students know what is going on.”

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