35 Years, Two Rangers, and the End of the Brass Ceiling
We had a front row seat to history on August 21, when we witnessed two West Point graduates become the first women ever to graduate from the Army’s grueling 62-day Ranger School. Captain Kristen Griest and Lieutenant Shaye Haver pinned on their hard-won black and gold Ranger tabs at Fort Benning in front of a capacity crowd marked by an abundance of female West Pointers. Their milestone achievement has forever changed the debate about whether women are suited for ground combat roles and may finally break the brass ceiling that has long limited opportunities for women in the military.
It is not surprising that the first two women to successfully complete Ranger School graduated from the U.S. Military Academy. Griest, a military police officer, is a member of the class of 2011, and Haver, an Apache pilot, graduated in 2013. Both stood on the shoulders of the first women who joined West Point’s long gray line, and they faced the same sort of intense skepticism and scrutiny in breaking new ground for women as did their academy forbearers.
Congress directed all the service academies to admit qualified women in 1975. The first women entered the academies in the summer of 1976, and the first female graduates received their diplomas in 1980. This year marks the 35th anniversary of that monumental accomplishment, which cracked the military’s brass ceiling by assuring that the academies that produced such historic military leaders as Eisenhower, MacArthur, Patton, and Nimitz now included women as well.
Yet at the time, many service academy graduates were intensely skeptical of the decision to admit women. Some felt that standards had been lowered to bring in women, and others simply believed that women had no business in jobs that had been previously held by men. One of us graduated from West Point in 1976, the last class to finish four years when the Corps of Cadets included no women. He did not meet a female West Point graduate until 1986, during a staff tour in Washington. Prepared to be intensely skeptical, he walked away so impressed that his entire outlook on female West Pointers changed overnight. (The female officer was Anne Macdonald, who was part of that historic class of 1980; she went on to be the Army’s first woman to command an aviation brigade and retired in 2011 as a Brigadier General.) Sometime later, he heard a grizzled infantry three-star general express grudging admiration about how women West Point graduates had impressed the entire military leadership during their first decade in service.
In the past 35 years, women service academy graduates have been top performers throughout the military, often piercing all-male organizations and shattering long-held notions about which roles in the military women could successfully fill. The first female graduates from the early 1980s now populate the uppermost ranks of military leadership. Admiral Michelle Howard, for example, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1982 and became the Navy’s first female four-star admiral in 2014. She now serves as the Vice Chief of Naval Operations. General Janet Wolfenbarger was one of the first women to graduate from the U.S Air Force Academy in 1980. She became the first female four-star Air Force general in 2012 and commanded the Air Force Material Command until her retirement earlier this summer. Many more women are following behind them.
Despite these achievements, the ultimate bar to women’s advancement in the military has always been their exclusion from the ground combat arms — infantry, armor, artillery, and special operations forces (including Navy SEALs and the Army’s Green Berets). For the Army and Marine Corps in particular, senior leaders come almost exclusively from these specialties, all of which have traditionally been closed to women.
That bar is set to fall on January 1, when the ground combat exclusion policy will expire and all military specialties will be open to women for the very first time. The services have until October 1 to submit any requests for exception to policy — to ask for exemptions that would permit keeping certain specialties or units closed to women. After last month’s Ranger School graduation, that will be an extraordinarily difficult argument to make.
Two women Rangers clearly overcoming the arduous physical demands long touted as barriers to women serving in ground combat roles will effectively end the debate as to whether women are up to the physical and mental demands that duty in infantry, armor, or special operations requires. Most men in those combat specialties are not Ranger school graduates — and, frankly, many could not make it through the notoriously rigorous demands of the school, which markedly exceed the requirements of serving in ground combat positions. In the past few years, only 42 percent of the men who started Ranger School have graduated.
But the success of Griest and Haver was not just about mastering the physical strength required to do dozens of pushups or “ruck up” with heavy weapons, radios, and rucksacks night after night across rugged mountains or through hip-deep swamps. It was about women as exceptional teammates. As the press conference the day before August’s Ranger School graduation made clear, these women had made themselves indispensible components of their teams. They were leaders and strong Ranger buddies. They not only carried their loads, but then volunteered to take on even heavier loads from men in their platoons who were utterly spent — and who could find no other volunteers among their male colleagues. Their peer evaluations from squad mates confirmed the value they brought to their small teams and the immense regard in which they were held by their male peers. They were highly valued team members who consistently put the group’s welfare over their own.
Last week, the Army announced that Ranger School is now permanently open to men and women of all specialties. How many more women will graduate from Ranger School and when that will happen remains unknown. But the premise that women can compete successfully against physical and endurance standards of the Army’s toughest small-unit leadership course — solely the province of men since 1951 — is now indisputable. Upcoming Ranger classes will soon pit their male and female students up against winter’s onslaught of rain and cold in place of the summer’s brutal heat and sun. It is possible that few or none of the women who volunteer for the next few classes will make it through successfully. But there will certainly be more female Rangers in the years if not months to come as more women start training earlier and earlier to follow in the successful footsteps of Rangers Griest and Haver. The pipeline of women now wanting to attend will stretch for years, including some just now starting West Point or joining the Army — and younger girls who dream of doing so someday.
The October 1 deadline for the services to request exceptions to keep certain ground combat specialties closed to women is fast approaching. Griest and Haver have just demonstrated that it is no longer possible to make that case on its objective merits. Recent reporting suggests that the Army, Navy, and Air Force are unlikely to request any exceptions to keep women out of their ground combat forces, including special operations units.
The only apparent outlier is the Marine Corps, which is struggling with deep-seated institutional and cultural problems in allowing women to serve in its infantry formations. An argument that insists that Marine infantry must remain closed to women within a joint force that allows women to qualify as SEALs, Rangers, and Army infantry soldiers will be a very hard sell, as recent statements by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus have already indicated. If the Marines do request any exceptions, they should be rejected based upon on their now-obvious lack of credible merit.
The decision to open all military specialties to women is not simply or even primarily an equity issue. Integrating women into all military specialties will ensure that the U.S. military becomes a stronger and more capable organization. The past 35 years have demonstrated that women add immense talent and value to every military organization in which they serve, from four-star generals to lance corporals. As the United States hurtles into an unpredictable world of fast-changing conflicts, bringing every ounce of skilled talent to bear on winning those wars with the least cost in blood and treasure must be an essential component of American strategy. Future wars will be won by the side possessing the most innovative brainpower and the most skilled teams of talent — not just those with the biggest biceps.
Griest and Haver may have finally broken the brass ceiling that the first female service academy graduates cracked 35 years ago. Much like their West Point sisters of the class of 1980, they have clearly demonstrated that women can successfully accomplish even the toughest physical and mental tasks. And their remarkable individual achievements have made it far more likely that the military will remove the last formal barriers to women’s full advancement — a long-awaited decision that will inexorably strengthen the U.S. military and the nation’s future security.
Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday.