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Two women pass Mountain Phase at Ranger School, now one step short of graduation

Students at Ranger School attend the Mountain Phase course based at Camp Frank D. Merrill in northern Georgia. (Video: Video courtesy the U.S. Army)

Only the swamps of Florida stand between two female soldiers becoming the first women to ever graduate from the Army’s famously difficult Ranger School.

The women have completed the school’s Mountain Phase, and will move on to the third and final phase of training, Army officials said Friday. It begins Sunday when they and 125 men who also completed the Mountain Phase parachute into the Florida Panhandle and start training at Eglin Air Force Base’s Camp James E. Rudder.

A third woman who advanced to the Mountain Phase was “recycled” along with 60 men. That means they did not advance, but will be allowed to try the course again and can still graduate later. All three women began the Mountain Phase on July 11 alongside 156 male students who also were attempting it for the first time, and 42 men who already were training in the mountains, but failed to pass there the first time. The phase includes 20 days of climbing, hiking, rappelling and patrolling in the mountains of the Chattahoochee National Forest, mostly with minimal sleep and little food.

[Earlier coverage: Ranger School’s assessment of women has moved to the mountains, but scrutiny remains]

“The Ranger students, both male and female, are two-thirds of the way done with Ranger School,” Col. David Fivecoat, the commander of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade, said of the those who passed. “I was very impressed with the students’ toughness at leading platoon-size patrols in the North Georgia Mountains during this extremely hot summer. The coastal swamps of Florida will continue to test the students — only the best will be successful and earn the Ranger Tab.”

The women are attending for the first time as part of an ongoing assessment by the military about how it should better integrate women into combat roles in the military. It follows a 2013 decision by Pentagon leaders to open all jobs in the military to women by 2016. The services were required to conduct research first, and are permitted to request an exception to the new policy in coming months for any jobs they want to keep closed, provided they can show evidence that it wouldn’t work.

The odds of a woman completing Ranger School are now relatively high. In fiscal 2014, the average class in the Florida Phase had 190 students, with 4 percent dropped from Ranger School, 19 percent recycled to take it again and 77 passing, Fivecoat said. The average Mountain Phase course had 219 students, with 6 percent dropped, 24 percent recycled to try and 70 percent moved on to the Florida phase.

The earlier portions of Ranger School have historically been the biggest obstacles. The average class at the beginning included 369 students. Nearly half — 44 percent — failed to make through the initial four-day Ranger Assessment Phase.

Nineteen women started Ranger School on April 20. Any of the remaining three who graduate will be allowed to wear the Army’s Ranger Tab, a prestigious decoration that greatly helps career advancement, if they graduate. They will not, however, be allowed to join the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, which performs Special Operations missions. Many male soldiers, ranging from pilots to artillerymen, also earn the tab and serve in roles outside the Rangers.

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

The Florida Phase is 17 days long, and focuses on extended platoon operations in the steamy coastal swamps near Valparaiso, Fla. It includes two airborne jumps from aircraft, four days of waterborne operations, a 10-day field training exercise with students leading patrols and two administrative days in which students are counseled on their performance.

Training at Camp Rudder takes place in several locations, and includes instruction on stream-crossing and small-boat operations. At least 22 students have died during Ranger training there, though none since an “invisible safety net” was put in place after four students died of hypothermia while maneuvering through chest-deep water in February 1995.

The course now includes field ambulances that are posted minutes away, evacuation helicopters and numerous rescue boats that are kept on standby, according to an information paper published by the Army. Before students enter water, divers also check on conditions, and “an elaborate system to monitor weather and water conditions and depths exists at every step in the exercise,” it said.

Maj. Gen. A. Scott Miller, the commanding general of the Maneuver Center for Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga., said in a statement released Friday that he observed the students during the Mountain Phase as they were close to completing an exhausting 10-day field training exercise.

Day Nine of it “develops all of the qualities we are looking for in our future Rangers: grit, refusal to quit, tactical competence, and perhaps most importantly, teamwork while under extreme individual conditions,” Miller’s statement said. “It is impressive to observe the students’ problem solving in this environment, and equally impressive to watch our Ranger Instructors coach, teach and mentor in an absolutely professional manner.”