Each weekday morning, when I drop off my baby daughter at the West Point daycare facility, I imagine what her future may be. Will she become one of the dedicated stay-at-home Army spouses who work caring for their children? Might she choose a career in the civilian sector and do morning drop-off in a sharp Ann Taylor suit, or in jeans, Vans, and an old T-shirt, like mine? Or will she decide to become a soldier herself, like the uniformed moms I see hustling from their minivans to the double-locked doors at the Child Development Center, kids balanced on hip or cradled in their camouflaged arms?
There’s something striking about the sight of a military mother in combat uniform, babe in tow: The little one kitted out with a SkipHop backpack and Stride Rites, Mom with her hair pinned above her collar, in line with Army regulations, her rank velcroed to her chest, her latest unit patch on her right shoulder, the United States Military Academy crest on her left. Since arriving at West Point when my husband was assigned here in 2003, I had no hope of ever seeing the curved Ranger tab riding above a woman’s unit patch, because the Army’s elite training course was off-limits to female soldiers. But that has changed. On Friday, Captain Kristen Griest, 26, and First Lieutenant Shaye Haver, 25, became the first female graduates of the Army’s elite Ranger School, making military history in the process.
Around the Army, the ultimate compliment you can pay a guy is to call him a stud. (No joke. S-T-U-D.) In an environment in which essential manliness is already at peak, Rangers are considered Alpha-Studs, the Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia, a veritable Fortress of Studliness surrounded (metaphorically) by 40-foot walls and a testosterone moat filled with alligator-shaped mines and radioactive sharks shooting laserbeams from their heads. Since its inception in 1952, participation in the arduous Ranger course has been strictly limited to male soldiers, so two female graduates is a significant knock against what Major Jacqueline Lawson Escobar calls “The Kevlar Ceiling.”
Griest and Haver stand among a test group of women who attended the first coed course, which started this past April with 381 men and 19 women. As part of the grueling course, enrollees are expected to endure hours of punishing exercises that include negotiating obstacle courses—on both back and belly—covered by knee-high barbed wire, exposure to extreme heat and cold, food and sleep deprivation, brutal hand-to-hand combat tests, drops into cold water while wearing full gear, lengthy forced marches, and rappelling 100 feet while wearing an 80-pound pack. Griest, West Point class of 2011, is an AH-64 Apache pilot with the 4th Infantry Division, hailing from Orange, Connecticut. Haver, West Point class of 2012, is a military police officer from Copperas Cove, Texas. Known as impressive by military academy professors acquainted with them, both women nonetheless exhibit the humility and reserve typified by those in the armed forces: “It’s awesome to be part of the history of Ranger School in general, and graduating with these guys next to me, and the 90-plus other Ranger students will probably be the highlight of my life,” said Haver at a press conference last week. “I’m just happy to be done with the course,” said Griest. “I came here to be a better leader and improve myself, and I feel like I did that.” Only 92 men of the 381 admitted graduated alongside Geist and Haver.
Though soldiers assiduously avoid anything that draws attention to them personally, some female soldiers can’t help but view the occasion through the lens of their own careers. “I’m just completely overwhelmed,” says Colonel Diane Ryan, psychology professor and deputy department head of West Point’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership. “Ranger School is considered the best leadership experience in the Army, and when I was a company commander it was such a big deal to be tabbed. I always had this nagging in the back of my mind that because I didn’t have a Ranger tab, maybe I wasn’t as good as everybody else.” Ryan regards this as a kind of Moon Landing Moment: One grueling training course for two female soldiers, one giant leap for womankind.
And a giant leap forward for the military overall. “This is a great day for the Army, the DoD, and the United States of America” says Bridgadier General (Ret.) Tom Kolditz, executive director of the Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University, a champion of the integration experiment. “The graduation of these two Army Rangers is not only important for the Army and Department of Defense, but marks a critical milestone for equal rights across the spectrum of diversity. Their stunning success creates a tipping point. These women teamed with the toughest guys on the planet to show that it’s not who you are that matters, but how you perform.”
Here is the joke-of-the-moment that’s no joke: What do you call a woman who graduated from Ranger school?
After I put my daughter down in her crib last night, I exchanged excited emails with my friend and fellow military spouse Rebekah Sanderlin, whose husband is a Ranger. “I’ve never been in the military,” she wrote, “but there have been several times when I’ve been the only woman trying to do something that the men around me didn’t want me to do. I’ve said from the start that the women in Ranger school faced a tougher challenge than the men there— for reasons that have nothing to do with biology—but because of the additional psychological battle they had to fight. They went there knowing that there were thousands of their fellow soldiers, past and present, who hoped they’d fail and were actively cheering for their demise. Now, factor in that biology does indeed favor men over women in many of the events and it becomes clear that those two soldiers accomplished something truly extraordinary. I have nothing but respect for them—and tons of it!”
Yes, there were, and still are, scores of men, both in and outside of the military, who oppose the admission of women to Ranger School, which is among the latest efforts toward creating a more gender-equitable Army. Their protestations—online, on the Op-Ed page—remind me of the days when the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was emerging as an issue, and a petition opposing repeal was signed by a thousand retired generals (yes, a thousand), to no effect. I wonder what it’s like to engage in all that naysaying and handwringing, only to end up on the wrong side of history. I wonder, and then I go back to my happy dance.
It’s important to note, though, that Greist and Haver have received an outpouring of support from men as well, particularly within the military community, including the Ranger School itself. “In addition to recognizing these incredibly heroic women,” says Kolditz, “I am in awe of the disciplined, professional Ranger School cadre who maintained their values and objectivity in the face of tremendous pressure from those whose insecurities manifest as exclusivity.”
Military controversy is rarely hashed out in official capacity on social media, for several reasons, but now and then a social media showing conveys what a stringently vetted Public Affairs Office press release cannot. Recently, Major Jim Hathaway, the officer second-in-command at the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade overseeing Ranger School took to Facebook to deliver a strong message to detractors who implied, or stated outright, that Greist and Haver were given special treatment. A lengthy post equivalent to a nine-point mic drop, it concludes thusly:
“No matter what we at Ranger School say, the non-believers will still be non-believers. We could have invited each of you to guest walk the entire course, and you would still not believe, we could have video recorded every patrol and you would still say that we ‘gave’ it away. Nothing we say will change your opinion. I and the rest of our cadre are proud of the conduct of our soldiers, NCOs and officers, they took the mission assigned and performed to the Ranger Standard.”
Over at the popular RangerUP site, Ranger and West Point alum Nick Palmisciano delivered his own course correction to the haters that quickly went viral. “…the hate being leveled at these Rangers is unacceptable. We want leaders who push themselves beyond their limits. We want leaders who want to excel and develop every way they can. Whether the Army integrates (combat) units or not, that doesn’t change the fact that these ladies are hard as f**k and are the absolute best America has to offer. They literally have no quit in them.”
Meanwhile, closer to home, my dear friend Vicky, has a view that speaks right to my maternal heart. “I would like to say that I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of two people I don’t know. Having been involved with West Point for almost 30 years, it’s astounding to see such a sea of change in attitude. When my husband Shaun was a cadet (Class of 1987) women were still something of an oddity at West Point. To go from that to watching our daughter graduate (Class of 2010), and reading about all of the folks defending these two gals, makes my heart very happy. Yay for us!”
Yay for us, indeed.
The Ranger tab is a little black and yellow patch that’s a very big deal. On behalf of my daughter and of baby girls everywhere, we are grateful to you, Greist and Haver, for your successful offensive against the Kevlar ceiling. We, too, are grateful for the efforts of the less celebrated female soldiers — the 17 women who attempted, but did not complete, the harrowing course. We live in a world of broader possibility for women because of their trailblazing commitment and selfless service. As fellow tabber Palmisciano says in his piece, “Rangers lead the way, and ladies, you just did.”
Lily Burana is the author of three books, most recently the critically acclaimed I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles. Follow her on Twitter @lilyburana