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At Army Ranger School, admiration — and frustration — in assessment of women

U.S. soldiers prepare for combatives training during the Ranger Course at Fort Benning, Ga., on April 20, 2015. (Photo by Sgt. Paul Sale/ U.S. Army)

The heavily scrutinized assessment of women attending Army Ranger School could be nearing its end soon, and it comes with a dichotomy: senior service officials are laudatory of their efforts, while some of the women who washed out question whether they got a fair shake.

The effort at the legendary school at Fort Benning, Ga., was launched earlier this year on a one-time basis as the Army grapples with which combat jobs it should open to women in the future. The Army included women in the school following a January 2013 directive by senior Pentagon leaders to research the roles women could undertake and make recommendations by the end of this year.

[Inside the Army’s effort to train and assess women for Ranger School]

Any woman who passes the course will make history and be allowed to wear the Army’s prestigious Ranger Tab, a decoration that is admired across the military. However, they will not be allowed to join the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, which conducts raids and other Special Operations missions.

Three women who failed the first phase of training twice will have one more chance beginning Monday, when the next class begins. They were labeled as “Day 1 recycles,” a status offered by senior leaders that allows them to try again. It is typically awarded to soldiers who excel in some aspects of Ranger School, but struggle in a single key component, said Col. David Fivecoat, the commander of the Army Ranger Training Brigade.

The remaining three women are the last of 19 who attempted the grueling Ranger Course beginning April 20. Sixteen of them passed an initial physical fitness test and eight of them made it through the initial Ranger Assessment Phase, commonly known as “RAP Week.” Historically, 75 percent of students who make it that far eventually graduate Ranger School. But all eight have fallen short twice since, and only three remain.

Sources familiar with the assessment said some of the final eight women were shocked and frustrated when they learned they didn’t pass the next part, the Darby Phase. It is known for its daunting Darby Queen obstacle course, but includes a variety of exercises in which Ranger students take turns planning and leading foot patrols through the wooded hills of Fort Benning. That’s where most, if not all, of the female students were dropped.

Ranger students are graded by both peers and Ranger instructors (RIs). The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to concerns about damaging their careers, said many of the women who made it to the Darby Phase were graded well by their fellow male Ranger students — a process known as peer reviews — but informed at the end that they had failed at least two patrols and wouldn’t be able to continue.

“There’s the sense that no RI really wants to be the first one to pass a woman,” one of the sources said.

[All remaining female soldiers fail Ranger School’s ‘Darby Phase,’ can try again]

Male students who had women in their patrols also failed at an unusually high rate, the sources said. The average Ranger Course typically sees a few dozen soldiers wash out during the Darby Phase, but eight women and 101 men were “recycled” and held back in the class that begin Ranger School on April 20. An additional 35 male soldiers failed to meet the standards in the Darby Phase and were not allowed to try again, Army officials said.

Brig. Gen. James E. Rainey, the commandant of the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, disputed that any Ranger instructor maliciously intended to hold female students back.

“The women did worse than men at patrolling,” he said. “That’s a fact.”

But he said Ranger School officials are looking at whether “subjective grading and objective grading” by the instructors contributed to the failure of women at the school.

“We don’t really have enough data to draw a conclusion on this,” Rainey said. “We have a pretty rigorous and detailed system that we use, and we’re learning a lot along the way.”

Ranger instructors grade students during patrols using a system that measures a soldier’s performance as a leader under stress and his or her unit’s ability to complete the mission at hand. It requires instructors to rely in part on their own combat experience to determine whether the Ranger students are ready, Army officials said.

[Meet the women helping the Army as Ranger School takes on female soldiers]

It’s also not uncommon for male students who wash out in Ranger School to feel like they were short-changed in grading, Army officials said.

Women have impressed officials with their tenacity and showed that they could handle the physical rigors of Ranger School by making it through RAP Week, Rainey said. He attributed their failure to pass the Darby Phase to a lack of experience, and said that with more repetitions in patrolling, women could eventually do so.

Not all men attending Ranger School have a background in combat arms either. In fiscal 2014, 76.5 percent of the students at Ranger School came from infantry, armor and Special Forces units, Fivecoat said. Ranger School officials did not provide a breakdown of which kinds of soldiers have historically performed the best, but said those with a combat arms background succeed at higher rates in part because they have more experience with the skills required.

The assessment at Ranger School was cast as a one-time project, but there are signs already that it will continue. In a meeting with reporters in May, Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said the Army could run “a couple more cycles” with women.

“We’ll probably run a couple more pilots,” Odierno said, according to Army Times. “It’s been a real success for us, and we’ll see how it goes from there.”

However, the timeline for doing so is unclear. If the Army proceeds, it would likely need to recruit not only additional women to participate, but new female soldiers who serve as “observer-advisers.” Thirty-one were selected this year, offering guidance and suggestions to the male soldiers who run Ranger School on how to make the integration of women as seamless as possible. They are expected to return to their units.

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

Ranger School officials declined to comment on if or when more female soldiers could be recruited to try the course, saying it is a policy decision that must be made by the Army’s top leaders. Sources familiar with the assessment said that if it continues, new female students won’t likely take on Ranger School again until late this year or in 2016.

School officials continue to take criticism from groups advocating both for and against integrating women more fully into Ranger School and the Army’s combat units.

Ellen Haring, a reserve Army colonel, expressed disbelief that none of the 19 women who originally qualified to try Ranger School has succeeded. She’s a fellow at Women in International Security, a non-partisan organization that has closely studied the integration of women in the military.

[Why physical standards still dog the fight about women in combat units]

Haring said that the longer that Ranger School is left open to women, the more accepted it will be in the ranks and the more likely it is that a woman will graduate. She questioned how men who do not come from a combat arms background can pass Ranger School after attending a preliminary courses at Fort Benning, but no woman has.

“They just have to keep the course open, because this will normalize over time,” Haring said.

But Elaine Donnelly, the president of the Center for Military Readiness, said if they Army characterized the assessment as a one-time event, it should remain so. Donnelly, a frequent critic of integrating women in combat units, said the service is pursuing the effort as an “equal opportunity project,” rather than a careful assessment of whether opening more jobs in combat units will improve the military.

“Where do we get to the point where we say ‘Maybe this really isn’t a good idea after all?'” she said. “When they start making accommodations like that when you said that there wouldn’t be, you start to question the whole process.”