Army Ranger candidates Lt. Shaye Haver and Cpt. Kristen Griest want to see more women in combat units and prove that they can keep up. (AP)

— The first female graduates of the Army’s Ranger School offered their initial public comments Thursday on their experiences breaking through that gender barrier, citing a mix of elation and exhaustion after an ordeal that one described as “the hardest days of my life.”

But even as the two prepared to receive the Army’s prestigious Ranger tab, leaders of the elite training program sought to quell a quiet backlash among alumni and veterans convinced that the women were given unique breaks.

Kristen Griest, 26, and Shaye Haver, 25, took questions for about an hour from reporters at Fort Benning after enduring four months of training that involved parachuting, mountaineering and grueling tests of physical endurance.

Both said they had doubts that they could graduate, and felt pressure to prove to their male counterparts that they could perform.

“I think I had like three of the hardest days of my life each week at Ranger School,” Griest said. “Every day I was like, ‘No, this is the hardest day of my life.’ ”

Griest, who will be officially promoted to captain on Friday, is a 2011 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and a military police officer. Haver, a first lieutenant, is a 2013 graduate of West Point and an Apache helicopter pilot.

Haver, a soccer star in high school in Texas, said the women were separated during Ranger training and did not turn to each other for support. She described her pursuit of the Ranger designation as a personal challenge, but said she also knew there were broader implications.

“I was thinking of future generations of women, so I had that pressure on myself,” she said. “Other than that, it was just not letting people down, the people who were supporting me.”

The women were among 20 female soldiers who qualified to take the first gender-integrated Ranger School course beginning April 20, and the only ones so far to reach the finish line, although a third is still eligible.

Both failed the difficult first phase of the course twice but were allowed to start over — a so-called “Day 1 recycle” — in an unusual accommodation that has prompted sniping online from critics who claim the women received special consideration that men rarely get.

The persistent strain of criticism, which began after women were admitted to the Ranger School but intensified as it became clear that at least two would finish, led leaders of the program to take the unusual step of issuing a defiant response on a Ranger-affiliated Facebook page.

The commanding officer at Fort Benning, Maj. Gen. A. Scott Miller, denied that he had granted any favors to the women or otherwise sought to influence the outcome. Instead, he cited the female soldiers’ success as proof that women can compete even in the military’s most arduous settings.

“I think we’ve shown that it’s not exclusively a male domain here,” said Miller, who served in the elite 75th Ranger Regiment.

Among the rumors faced by leaders of the Ranger School this week were that the students in the latest course had been given more sleep than usual, that President Obama planned to attend Friday’s graduation ceremony and that Miller had accompanied the candidates on training patrols.

All were cited on social media and in blogs as evidence that instructors were under pressure to ensure that the women passed. But officials said the claims were wrong.

“We’ve shown that two women can make it through,” Miller said, acknowledging that the decision to admit women sparked controversy and led to heightened scrutiny of the latest iteration of the Ranger course.

“This was an emotional event,” Miller said. “And when you have an emotional event, sometimes it brings out the best and sometimes it brings out the worst in us.”

The stakes go beyond the reaction within the Army’s Ranger community. The decision to admit women was part of a broader effort to evaluate female soldiers’ abilities as the various armed services are pushed by Pentagon leaders to allow women to serve in combat units and roles.

In a measure of the exasperation among leaders of the program, Maj. Jim Hathaway, the No. 2 officer in the brigade overseeing Ranger School, wrote a lengthy post on Facebook on Wednesday saying he suspects some graduates will never accept the women.

“We could have invited each of you to guest walk the entire course, and you would still not believe,” he wrote. “We could have video recorded every patrol and you would still say that we ‘gave’ it away. Nothing we say will change your opinion.”

Haver said that she and Griest came to Ranger School aware of “the haters and the naysayers,” but hoped that “we were kind of winning hearts and minds as we went.”

“That was more important to us — being good teammates with our Ranger buddies that we’re graduating with tomorrow — than making a statement,” Haver said.