FORT BENNING, Ga. — Before the Army announced it would take female students at Ranger School this spring, it sent an invitation to about 60 female soldiers. The offer: Come to this massive Army base in western Georgia and be part of the service’s research into which combat assignments should be opened to women.

They didn’t have a lot of time to decide, three of the 31 “observer-advisers” ultimately selected said in an interview Saturday. There was about a one week window to accept.

“At first you had to take a step into the darkness,” said 1st Lt. Alessandra T. Kirby, a member of the Utah National Guard. “You had no idea what you were really applying for.”

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The women chosen are now part of the Army’s historic one-time experiment to allow women to attend Ranger School in the course beginning April 20. Up to 20 women are set to qualify, including eight who made it through their last major requirement Saturday in 17-day preparatory course at Fort Benning.

The service launched the effort to research options following a Pentagon directive that requires women to 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.

The observer-advisers aren’t students in the course, but hand-selected soldiers brought on to offer suggestions to commanders and instructors at Ranger School — all men — on how to make the integration of women as seamless as possible. The service will not drop its standards for the famously grueling 62-day course, but some practical changes needed to be made to include female students, commanders and observer-advisers both said.

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Col. David Fivecoat, commander of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade, said the women were interviewed by Army officials also attempted numerous events involved in Ranger training before their selection. That includes the main events of the initial Ranger Assessment Phase, commonly known as “RAP Week.” It requires 49 push-ups, 59-sit-ups, a five-mile run in under 40 minutes and six chin-ups and other physical demands, and is the spot at which about 60 percent of Ranger School students wash out.

The observer-advisers selected have a range of experience, they said. For example, Sgt. 1st Class Maria Duncan, a member of the Army Reserve who deployed to Iraq from 2005 to 2006, has served as a drill sergeant. Kirby went to quartermaster’s school and was an enlisted soldier first. First Lt. Tracy Ross is an intelligence analyst, and said she worked previously with Rangers while serving in support of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command based at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Duncan said the observer-advisers have made recommendations on logistical issues, like allowing birth control medications that women were already taking (students are not typically allowed to bring medication).

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“When we have females and we have a male drill sergeant, sometimes that drill sergeant may want to back off a little bit and let the female drill sergeant handle it,” Duncan said, reflecting on her past experiences. “In this situation, everyone is the same. There is no male/female. They’re all Ranger students. So we need to make sure we conduct it the same way…So the standards need to remain the same, no matter what.”

The male and female students will sleep in one open barracks room with bunk beds. All men and women must wear a minimum of shorts and T-shirt at all times in the barracks, but the Army decided to keep them together because it wanted to build the same cohesion between male and female soldiers in Ranger School as it typically did in a single-sex environment.

The women attempting Ranger School will not be graded by the observer-advisers. That process will remain the same as it has been for generations, with students evaluated by Ranger instructors and each other. Duncan said it was an easy decision to make the leap and join the assessment, though.

“Seeing this is history in the making,” she said of women attending Ranger School. “So why not be a part of that?”

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