Sometimes when the going got tough at Ranger School, one of the women who graduated in August recently told an audience of West Point cadets, she would draw inner strength by thinking about the first marathon she ever ran. Other times, according to cadets who heard her speak, she said the exhaustion would be too much, as on a late night patrol when, confused by a sudden stop, she found herself talking to a bush.
In a series of informal meetings with cadets earlier this month, recent Ranger graduates Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver met with cadets to share lessons and anecdotes from their time at the Army’s most grueling infantry course. Both West Point graduates, the two were met as returning heroes, particularly by female cadets, many of whom tracked the two women’s progress through the Ranger School’s training phases as a proxy for their own ambitions to one day attend the course. The Ranger graduates held a general question and answer session for students in a school auditorium and Griest visited a weight training session of the women’s lacrosse team.
“They’re kind of our idols,” said Erin Jollota, a West Point junior and lacrosse team captain. “When [Griest] showed up to our [weight lifting], about half the girls on our team went crazy.”
Griest and Haver were joined Friday by a third female Ranger School graduate: Maj. Lisa Jaster, who also graduated from West Point in 2000.
The newly minted Rangers and the lacrosse team, which will move from club status to NCAA Division I this spring, both trace their existence to the Pentagon’s 2013 decision to scrap the combat exclusion rule keeping women out of direct combat branches like infantry and armor. As the Army began to face the likelihood of a future need for combat-ready female officers—a final plan is due in January—West Point elevated both the women’s lacrosse and rugby clubs to varsity status as part of a broad push to recruit more women to the Academy in Griest and Haver’s mold.
Taylor England, a sophomore lacrosse midfielder, was particularly excited to meet Griest and Haver. Assuming the Army soon opens infantry roles to women, said England, “we just got handed literally the biggest opportunity we are going to see in our Army careers. It’s your job to take it or leave it. Some girls don’t want that gift, but for the ones that do, we literally just got the biggest Christmas present ever.”
England’s class is in line to be one of the first allowed to directly enter the infantry, a lifelong dream for England. As far back as she can remember, she always wanted to be a soldier.
“I literally told my mom that when I was five,” she said. A decade later, as the valedictorian of her high school in Cincinnati, OH, the goal remained the same. “If I didn’t come here, I was going to enlist.”
Still, when England arrived at West Point in 2014, it was unclear if she or any other woman would ever have a chance to directly lead combat operations with frontline infantry soldiers.
“I always heard girls go into some technical supportive role, and I was like, that’s not me. I want to be in the fight,” she said. “I always had this drive to be in the infantry.”
As she waited for the decision from the Army on opening infantry to women, she knew Haver and Griest’s success at Ranger school might decide her own future.
“It was a weekly check on how they were doing,” she said. “When I heard they got recycled, I was like, maybe [women] can’t make it. But people get dropped for a lot of dumb stuff, and I just thought they’d recycle and get through it.”
England believes that the fact that only three women graduated from an initial pool of 19 is proof that those who did finish did not benefit from lower standards.
“If they have to lower the standards at all, then we shouldn’t be there,” she said. “If someone gets hurt out there on the battlefield, like a 250-pound guy, I’m expected to get them off.”
When Griest surprised the team in the weight room, England was ready with questions.
“Other girls were asking general questions about leadership, but I’d done my homework,” she said. “There are, like, a thousand other Rangers on this campus to ask about leadership. I wanted to ask very specific questions.”
Had participating in West Point’s Sandhurst Competition, a skills contest against foreign military academies, helped Griest prepare? Yes. Overall, had her tactical skills been up to par? No. “She said ‘I realized I had to study and prepare that much harder,’” said England.
One mental trick Griest said she drew on, according to Jollota, was her first marathon experience. Having never run a marathon, she told no one when she signed up for a local race, promising herself that no matter how slow, she would not stop running until it was over.
“She said at Ranger school she thought about that a lot, to just keep running no matter what,” said Jollota.
On the lighter side, Griest related, during one night patrol, “she swore she saw the guy in front call a halt” via hand signal, said Jollota. Griest halted the men behind her, but soon began to wonder why the soldier in front of her wasn’t moving. “She leaned over to ask ‘why are we halting, it’s been a while’ and she realized she was talking to a bush.
“She’d just gotten the rest of the platoon completely lost.”
Griest quickly caught up. Such mishaps are common on grueling patrols and many Ranger graduates say an ability to recover from fatigue-driven mistakes is one of the school’s key lessons.
In all, Griest met with the team for roughly an hour, said Jollota.
But while the lacrosse team was star struck to meet Griest and Haver, the school’s administration has spent of much of the last three years and considerable resources recruiting women in their mold.
In 2013, as the Pentagon began to examine removing the combat exclusion rule, newly appointed West Point superintendent Lt. Gen Robert L. Caslen ordered the school to increase female enrollment above 20 percent. The percentage of women enrolled at the school had hovered around 17 percent for over a decade, said Col. Deborah McDonald, the schools admissions director, below similar figures at the Naval, Air Force and Coast Guard Academies and not far off the 10 percent that made up West Point’s first co-ed class in 1976.
In response, McDonald’s office rolled out the school’s first marketing materials aimed at women.
“When we look at the marketing research, women applying to college are interested in the academic and scholarship attributes, and also the challenge,” said McDonald. New brochures included images of female cadets and emphasized the school’s strong academics rankings, along with its military heritage and challenges. “We’ve tailored our message to the 17 to 22-year-old population.”
The school also increased regional recruiting events for female athletes and girls interested in STEM subjects, along with inviting potential cadets to on-campus summer leadership camps.
But what really moved the needle, said McDonald, was the lacrosse team.
“We were inundated with phone calls from not only prospective candidates but their parents, friends, teachers, influencers and schools,” said McDonald. “A persistent theme was ‘my daughter was always interested in West Point but wanted to play lacrosse in college.’ There really was a spike when we made that announcement.”
In October of 2011, said McDonald, her office had received applications from 2,000 women for that year’s class. As of this week, 3,400 have applied. Both of West Point’s last two classes have been roughly 22% women and the most recent crop of freshman that reported in July enrolled 278 women, a record. That number included 21 recruited lacrosse players, at least half of whom, team officials say, would not have considered West Point without the sport.
And those gains came before Haver and Griest graduated. McDonald’s staff is already using the widely circulated images of the women in Ranger training, including Griest buddy-carrying a fellow trainee with a knife in her hand.
“We haven’t done our marketing brochures including those pictures yet, but in our briefings we’ve been giving to candidates as we travel around the country, we have had their cadet pictures superimposed over their Ranger pictures,” McDonald said.
Matt White is a writer in Chapel Hill, N.C. He is a former pararescueman in the U.S. Air Force and Alaska Air National Guard. You can follow him on Twitter: @pjmatt.