Two Women On The Final Stage Of Army Ranger Training
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Two female soldiers in the U.S. Army are very close to making history. There were 19 women who started the rigorous training program to become Army Rangers this year. Of those 19 women, only two remain. If they are able to complete the training, not only will they become the first women to join the elite Army special operations unit. Their accomplishment will likely influence Pentagon officials, who are still trying to decide whether to open up all direct combat jobs to women. Anna Mulrine is a staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor. She was down at the Ranger school training recently in Florida to cover this story. And she joins me now. Thanks so much for being with us, Anna.
ANNA MULRINE: Thanks for having me, Rachel.
MARTIN: First off, can you just explain what these two soldiers - and frankly, all the other soldiers, not just the women - what did they have to endure to get to this point in the training?
MULRINE: It's been intense. I mean, this is a 61-day course divided into three phases. So you have kind of the woodlands phase and then the mountains. And then, they finish up in the swamps. So the swamps, as you can imagine - it's pretty miserable. And by the time they get there, as one colonel described it to me, you know, they're in about the worst shape of their lives. They've been run down. They're averaging about zero to four hours of sleep a night.
MULRINE: You know, their food intake is pretty tightly regulated because they want to see how they're going to perform under pretty austere conditions. And oh, the swamps - I mean you just kind of imagine everything that's lurking below these chest-deep waters.
MARTIN: And they're simulating actual missions.
MULRINE: That's right. They're simulating battles. So in essence, you know, they've got to prove that they can conduct an ambush, that they can repel an ambush, that they can keep track of their soldiers, you know, all at the same time.
MARTIN: It's my understanding that the Army invited a handful of reporters down to observe this particular phase of the Ranger training because they want to make sure no one accuses them of taking it easy on the women. Is that right? And what did you observe? Were the women treated exactly the same as their male colleagues?
MULRINE: Yeah, I mean, I think that's exactly why they wanted the reporters to come down. I think their kind of unremitting mantra through this whole process is, listen, our standards are not going to change. I talked to one of these older soldiers who was going through. He went through Ranger school in 1980. You know, and he said, I was convinced that women would water down this tab. And what they're seeing has really, you know, helped them to change their mind. And they all talk about the respect that they've had for these women going through. They're doing the same thing the men do. They're performing these ambushes. They're taking care of their soldiers. They're leading them. And most, you know, importantly, one of the biggest parts of Ranger school is this idea of these peer evaluations. You know, you have to score highly among your peers in order to advance to level after level of this school. And time and again, you know, what we heard while we were down there is that the women have, you know, really impressed their peers as well. And these peer evaluations can be pretty tough. You know, they'll say things like, I wouldn't trust this guy to water my cactus. That was one of the comments I heard. Or, this guy steals food, you know, which is pretty damning when you go through Ranger school.
MULRINE: And so these guys, you know, don't advance if those are the sorts of things they're hearing about them.
MARTIN: And so these women got good peer reviews.
MULRINE: Yeah, they have. And that's what they're saying. They're proving themselves in other ways because these big guys kind of prove their worth by carrying the big guns. You know, they can haul a lot of stuff. You know, not all women can do that. They're physically smaller. They have to find other ways to prove their worth. And that's what these women have been doing. You know, they write these battle orders that are extremely complex. I mean, we saw them kind of in some of the planning stages of doing that, where they have to outline just this, you know, incredibly detailed array of things that can go wrong in a battle and all of the things they want their soldiers to do and to perform. And the women, you know, are the ones who have been kind of helping their platoons to write these really complex battle orders. As, you know, they like to say in the Army, they're proving that they're value added.
MARTIN: What will it mean for the Pentagon if these women succeed?
MULRINE: If they are able to pass - and it's looking pretty good at this point - they'll graduate on Friday. And they will be the first women ever in the history of the U.S. military to wear a Ranger tab. And that's a big deal because only 3 percent of Army soldiers have a tab like this. So it garners them, you know, a pretty fair amount of street cred among their fellow soldiers. What they will not be able to do, however, is to serve as a Ranger. So you kind of see the limitations that are still in place here because yes, they can become Ranger qualified through this school. But they can't serve in the special operations branch of the Rangers known as Ranger Regiment.
MARTIN: So they can become a Ranger. They just can't serve as a Ranger because the Pentagon still hasn't changed that policy.
MULRINE: That's right. It begs the question, why can't they be Rangers if they can go through this, you know, tremendously demanding 61-day school? The Pentagon has right now a de facto ban on women in combat in place. In January, it kind of flips on its head. And it becomes not, women can't serve in combat, but they can unless you give us a good reason why they can't. And that good reason needs to be based on scientific research.
MARTIN: Anna Mulrine, with The Christian Science Monitor. Thanks so much for talking with us.
MULRINE: Oh, thanks, Rachel. It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.