If Ranger School is a litmus test for whether or not a woman belongs in combat arms branches, do the two female graduates of the grueling course who were awarded the coveted Ranger Tab last week help get our Army closer to saying “yes”? How much more scrutiny will it take for the “best athlete” approach to reign supreme when building our military? And what happens when, in traditionally male environments, women emerge as the best athletes?
During pre-Ranger training in January, I spent a 12-mile road march with an infantryman. We talked and bonded a lot during that event. This young soldier saw no gender barrier for anyone, for anything. Together we destroyed a punishing course and for those few hours, a female major with 14 years of service was completely fused with a 19-year-old private first class on his first assignment in the Army. There were more similarities than any differences between us. We wanted to accomplish the mission and we wanted to earn the Ranger tab. We were two soldiers, gutting it out, trying to be the best versions of ourselves.
Later in March, at the Ranger Training Assessment Course — a mandatory event for all female Ranger candidates — I was met with the same attitude and support from the other male students. That particular class held 85 men and 34 women soldiers. No one cared if it was a man or woman helping carry a rucksack or returning fire during patrolling — they simply cared that the mission was accomplished.
The guys I met along the way were not surprised when a woman wanted to come to Ranger School. They grew up in gyms and CrossFit boxes and ran mud races and obstacles races with women alongside them. They get it. In my experience deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and in pre-Ranger training, people were valued for meeting standards and contributing every day in every way possible.
Millennial Americans have grown up in a nation where young children, boys and girls alike, are playing the same sports with little in the way of exclusion. And with more equal access to participation in the same sports, appreciation of athletes’ feats has become increasingly detached from the issue of gender. Thus, the U.S. victory in the Women’s World Cup final in July was the most-watched soccer game in American history, and MMA fighter Ronda Rousey’s title defense earlier this month garnered more pay-per-view purchases than any of the previous eight UFC events this year. Caveating “she’s a great athlete” with “for a girl” is increasingly rare, and complaints that women shouldn’t be competing in this event or that are drowned out by full-throated support for their achievements. This is the concept of “the best athlete,” and it is real. This generational change can be fundamental to how teams win and it’s what I experienced in my attempt to go to Ranger School.
Talent knows talent and the best want the best. If Ranger Instructors endorse a soldier by way of a “go” at Ranger School, trust them. There’s only one standard there: the Ranger standard. Ranger School employs the best athlete approach by allowing only the most worthy candidates who maintain or exceed the standard to graduate. No weak Rangers. Opening the door to let all service members go is a win for the school, the Army, and our nation. The secretary of defense should allow our most qualified and skilled soldiers to serve — no exceptions. (Read more about the No Exceptions effort here).
Today’s warfighters are the products of progress and naturally believe that merit and contribution to the mission are the most important things, much more so than a gender. The best athlete approach and an openness to all options that maximize chances of success are innate in superior warfighters, especially the youngest generation. Plainly put, younger soldiers seem more willing to accept women serving in any position in the Army — and it has never occurred to them that they couldn’t. Most importantly, leaders of our fighting forces still want the best athletes, and changing perceptions make it more likely that they will find women represented among them. But to find them, more doors must be opened. Congratulations Ranger Class 8-15. Rangers Lead The Way!
Ligeia Zeruto is a combat veteran and a major in the U.S. Army Reserves. She provided intelligence support to the special operations community, joint task forces and intelligence agencies during deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. She was a medical drop from the pre-Ranger training for Ranger School and is in the process of applying for the November course offering.
Photo credit: U.S. Army