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Two Women Become The First To Complete U.S. Army Ranger Course

Aug 18, 2015
Originally published on August 18, 2015 9:13 pm
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Two West Point graduates, both in their 20s, have achieved a first. They successfully completed the tough and exhausting Army Ranger course, and they're women. They spent two months patrolling, climbing mountains, trudging through swamps with little food or sleep. They'll graduate Friday. NPR's Tom Bowman tells us about what this milestone means for female service members and the upcoming decision about women soldiers in ground combat jobs.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: When Emily Miller was a cadet at West Point a decade ago, the Ranger course was talked about in almost reverent tones.

EMILY MILLER: Ranger School was the ultimate. It was this crucible. It was this huge moment in an officer's career. It was - everybody wanted to be able to go to Ranger School.

BOWMAN: Not everyone could. Ranger School was closed to women - that is until this spring when the Army let 19 women begin the training at Fort Benning, Ga. Two of the women made it all the way through, and on Friday, they'll graduate alongside hundreds of men, allowed to wear the coveted black and gold Ranger tab on their shoulders.

MILLER: This is huge. I honestly never thought I would see the day.

BOWMAN: But the milestone reached by the two women - the Army has not yet released their names - still leaves them in limbo. They graduated from the premier infantry school, but they're still barred from infantry jobs. The Army hasn't decided whether women can serve on the front lines. Outgoing Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, was noncommittal last week.

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GENERAL RAY ODIERNO: We have not made any final decisions on infantry or armor yet, but I think those are coming very shortly.

BOWMAN: But he hinted that the Army may open up those jobs, as long as women meet the standards.

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ODIERNO: We've integrated women into all our formations. And again, it is about can they meet the standard or not? And if they can, we lean towards the fact it would probably be good if we allowed them to serve.

BOWMAN: That decision will be made sometime this fall. The Army Marines could request that the ground combat jobs remain closed, but Pentagon officials say they'll have to make a pretty solid argument. And Emily Miller, now a retired Army captain and recent graduate of the Harvard Business School, says the two female Ranger graduates may puncture that argument.

MILLER: If the women are strong enough to endure Ranger School, I think it's going to be very hard to say that they cannot serve in infantry or armor roles going forward.

BOWMAN: The Marines could face a similar situation. Dozens of female Marines took part in an experiment to see if they could handle ground combat jobs. Among them is Lance Cpl. Brittany Dunklee. NPR followed Dunklee and other women during their months of training in North Carolina and California. Dunklee now drives a Marine truck. She's not been in combat, but she wants to be a crew member on an armored vehicle.

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LANCE CORPORAL BRITTANY DUNKLEE: I've done it. So why can I not do it? If I can - physically can do it, why can't I?

BOWMAN: Emily Miller says many women have already served in combat. She deployed with an Army Ranger Regiment in Afghanistan, carrying an assault rifle and a pack, flying in by helicopter to interview women villagers, at one point coming under fire.

MILLER: We were definitely in combat.

BOWMAN: That's not the same as an infantry job - searching out the enemy, killing or capturing them. Among those opposed to women in those ground combat jobs is retired admiral Eric Olson. He headed the Special Operations Command, which oversees the Green Berets, Navy SEALs and the Army's Ranger Regiment. And he had this to say on Capitol Hill in April, just as the first women started Ranger training.

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ERIC OLSON: Men, in virtually every society and every species, are reluctant to trust their lives to women in the same way they do to men. They're less likely to commit women to their death or to capture than they are to commit another man.

BOWMAN: Now it's up to the men who run the Army and Marine Corps. Are they willing to trust women in ground combat jobs? Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.