Air crews made several passes without letting any students out due to breezy conditions deemed unsafe for jumping. But eventually, the students’ green chutes dotted the early evening Thursday sky. They floated down into the open fields of Eglin with 70 pounds of equipment, food and water before disappearing into thick brush, beginning a 10-day exercise that ends this Saturday and is the last major field event in the Army’s famously difficult Ranger School.
History is in the balance: For the first time, two female students advanced to the third and final phase of the notoriously exhausting course in the swamps of Florida and are within reach of graduating. If they pass, they will become the first Ranger-qualified women in the history of the U.S. military and will be celebrated at an Aug. 21 graduation ceremony at Fort Benning, Ga., that is expected to draw not only family and friends, but hundreds of other well-wishers and media from across the country.
If they graduate, the Army must confront a separate, but related, decision: Whether to allow women to try out for the elite 75th Ranger Regiment. The highly trained Special Operations unit carries out raids and other difficult missions and includes about 3,600 soldiers, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. It remains completely closed to women, even though some of the jobs in it, ranging from parachute rigger to intelligence analyst, are open in other parts of the Army.
The women were allowed into Ranger School this year as part of the military’s ongoing assessment of how to integrate women into combat roles. In 2013, Pentagon leaders decided to rescind the long-standing policy banning women from serving in combat-arms jobs like infantryman. Thus far, the Army has said that any woman who graduates will be allowed to wear the prestigious Ranger Tab, but won’t be allowed to serve in the Ranger Regiment. The decoration is highly respected across the military and considered a necessity to advance in many Army careers.
Other elite forces, including the Navy SEALs and Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, also are grappling with whether they will incorporate more women in the future, and how. If the services want to keep any position closed, they must seek an exception to the new policy from the Pentagon in coming months.
Critics of integrating the military’s most elite units with women have so far been able to say that no woman has demonstrated she can keep up with men by passing Ranger School, a physical and mental crucible that is considered one of the military’s most difficult courses and dates back to the 1950s. It includes phases at Fort Benning, on the mountains of northern Georgia and in the coastal Florida Panhandle swamps in and around Eglin. A woman completing the course would weaken the argument against gender integration in the military.
The Army allowed a handful of journalists to observe three days of Ranger School at Eglin on the Florida Panhandle last week, an effort to demystify how it is evaluating soldiers and underscore that the female students there are being treated no differently than the men. The decision has prompted criticism from some graduates of the course, but Col. David Fivecoat, commander of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade that oversees the school, said doing so showed transparency.
Fivecoat said he is aware of the scrutiny Ranger School faces, but thinks opening it to women is reasonable considering that women regularly served alongside men who were in combat units over the last decade. He recalled leading an infantry battalion with the 101st Airborne Division of Fort Campbell, Ky., in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, and sending at least two female soldiers to virtually all of his bases so that they were available to search women and children.
“I wanted that capability in country, and this to me seems like a logical step,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you want that woman that you’re going to put out there to provide that capability to be Ranger-trained?”
About 4,000 students attempt Ranger School each year, with about 1,600 — 40 percent — eventually graduating. They include soldiers who will serve in the Ranger Regiment, but also many others who serve in conventional infantry units as well as military policemen, helicopter pilots and some members from the other U.S. armed services. Many Ranger School graduates will never serve in the Ranger Regiment.
New soldiers who are recruited for the Ranger Regiment typically take the eight-week Ranger Assessment and Selection Program course after entering the Army, but also wait for a chance to go to Ranger School and graduate from it before assuming positions of leadership. If they do not, they are eventually swapped to another unit, said Lt. Col. Bart Hensler, commander of the 6th Ranger Training Battalion that trains Ranger students at Eglin.
The Ranger Regiment also requires its leaders — new company commanders, for example — to graduate from Ranger School before assuming their positions, Army officials said. Additional training also is required to remain in the Ranger battalions.
Twenty women qualified for the Ranger School class that began in April, joining 380 men. Ninety-five men already have graduated, including 37 who completed each of the three phases on the first try. More than half of all the students from the April class — 257 men and 17 women — already have been dropped.
Depending on his or her performance, a Ranger student can be “recycled” and sent back to the beginning of a phase multiple times. The three remaining women left in the course now were recycled twice during the first “Darby Phase” that takes place at Fort Benning, and then granted a “Day 1 recycle” that allows them to try again, but only if they started over at the beginning with a difficult four-day physical fitness session again, too. They did so and passed. All are graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., but the Army declines to identify them, citing their right to privacy.
Once in the Mountain Phase, two of the three women advanced on the first try. But they still face another challenge in addition to the requirements of Florida: exhaustion. By the next Ranger School graduation ceremony, they and 28 men who started Ranger School alongside them will have endured through more than 120 days of training. That’s considered a significant hardship: If a student passes each phase on the first try, the course is 61 days long, or half as long as the women and a few dozen of their peers now have been in training.
The final field exercise at Eglin last week began with Operation Pegasus, a combined operation in which students who are airborne-qualified jumped from C-130s, and those who are not climbed aboard 11 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters as part of a simulated air assault on the drop zone. One of the two women and 81 of the 165 men jumped from the C-130s.
Surprises can still occur that prevent a student from graduating. During the parachuting, for example, the rucksacks for two students disconnected from them and screamed to the ground from more than 300 feet high. A deep thump echoed across the drop zone as the second one crashed. Unless the equipment was deemed faulty, the student responsible will be held back at Ranger School.
“As soon as it dropped, he pretty much knew his fate,” said Maj. Eric Nylander, the executive officer of the battalion training Ranger students at Eglin.
The students will live and train outdoors for the remainder of the 10-day field exercise. Many of them are likely nursing injuries and other physical problems, but must press on anyway to graduate. Occasionally, some simply give up, said Capt. George Calhoun, a Ranger instructor who previously led an infantry platoon in Afghanistan. He recalled one student who simply refused to leave the swamp one day after reaching a breaking point.
“Some of them say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ And some just stop. They quit by their action,” Calhoun said.
After the students parachuted into Eglin last week, they fanned out into the woods near the drop zone. Their mission included searching for a variety of locations on the base containing materials they might search for in an overseas mission, including a mortar launcher and chemicals used in improvised explosive devices.
Fivecoat said he wants to do whatever is possible to make sure that Ranger School is neither any harder nor any easier for the female students. After the initial phase with women was held at Fort Benning, two of the instructors based there visited others in northern Georgia and in Florida for a meeting without senior Ranger School leaders to discuss what worked and what needed improvement. Fivecoat said he wanted them to speak candidly.
“I’m trying to make sure they have every opportunity to succeed or fail,” Fivecoat said of the female students. “I’m not naive enough to tell you that there aren’t folks out here that aren’t real big fans of it, but that’s our leadership issue that we dealt with.”
The graduation ceremony, he acknowledged, will be closely watched if women complete the course.
“Like any military organization, we’re doing prudent planning to prepare for that eventuality,” he said. “We think it’s going to be a big deal, and we think there will be a lot of media.” He later added: “It’s going to be a long week.”
This article has been updated to include more context about what it takes for a soldier to join the Ranger Regiment.