Five years into the Global War on Terror, a 17-year-old girl was ready to serve her country, having worried that the war might be over before she had a chance to get into the fight.
“I was trying to enlist in the infantry, and realized that wasn’t possible,” she told an audience Monday at the Army Women’s Foundation Summit on Capitol Hill.
Griest and her Ranger school history-making counterpart Capt. Shaye Haver recounted their roads to becoming some of the Army’s first female infantry officers, from the chance decisions and hard work that got them there, to the online backlash when they received their tabs and making the move to serve as infantry officers.
“So West Point was an opportunity that I saw, if I just performed well and did everything I could to set conditions to join the infantry whenever it did open – and West Point seemed like the place to do that,” Griest said.
Haver, an Army brat with an aviation dream, also went the West Point route, but might have never found herself in that first integrated Ranger school course if it hadn’t been for a battalion commander at Fort Carson, Colorado, who talked up her PT stud status to the 4th Infantry Division’s deputy commanding general.
“And his first question to me was if I wanted to go to Ranger school,” Haver said. “And I was shocked, I had never thought about it before.”
Griest had been waiting for her chance for years. While at West Point, where she eventually selected into military police, she joined an infantry mentorship group, where the colonel who ran it put them through PT tests and shared their scores over email.
“I was sure I was going to be dead last – all these infantry, Ranger-bound men at West Point,” she said. “And it showed me that I wasn’t. I was sometimes in the top third, depending on the event.”
And then it hit her.
“These guys are all going to [the Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course],” she said. “The only reason I can’t is because I’m not allowed to, apparently.”
But that colonel convinced her that a policy barrier was no reason to give up.
“He really flipped the switch for me, in terms of thinking I was just this woman trying to do these things, and everybody expecting me to fail,” Griest. “Whereas he was like, ‘No, I expect you to do these things and I expect you to succeed.’ If I didn’t want to go to Ranger school, I was wrong.”
Following a 2013 deployment to Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division, she got the call from a mentor that Ranger school was opening a pilot for an integrated class, and selections were coming up.
“They did an assessment real quick and I found out that I was doing just as well as the guys, and I ended up getting a slot to go,” Haver said. “And I really would have never have even tried if it wasn’t for my leadership telling me that I could have done it and that I should try.”
After the tab
You likely already know what happened next.
But in summer 2015, when Griest and Haver became the first women to complete the Army’s legendary training, there wasn’t really a way forward for them.
The defense secretary had not yet lifted the ban on women serving in direct-combat units, and though the Army was discussing how it would integrate women, it would be a full year and a half before the first female infantry officers completed all of their training and began reporting to the 82nd Airborne and 1st Cavalry divisions.
Haver returned to the 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, but after so many months away, she was too far behind on her UH-64 Apache qualifications to join the brigade’s upcoming deployment.
So she went back to Fort Benning, to the Maneuver Captain’s Career Course, where Griest had been biding her time until the infantry opened its doors.
“After that, once again, I was just trying to set myself up for success if they let women into the infantry,” Griest said. “And then half-way through the course, the policy changed, and I was able to transfer over. So by the time I graduated, I was an infantry officer.”
Haver spent her time away from helicopters mulling a huge life change.
“I took all of those 10 months deliberately to decide if I was going to stay in aviation, which was my dream, or if I was going to switch to the infantry,” she said.
Meanwhile, Griest still wasn’t clear to lead an infantry company, as the Army worked through the initial phases of its “Leaders First” plan.
“I went to Jumpmaster [school],” Griest said. “I was an instructor at Ranger school for like, six months, because I don’t think they knew what to do with me, but it was an awesome experience.”
Meanwhile, both women felt alone in a career branch that wasn’t exactly ready for them.
“Something that I wasn’t expecting to be as bad as it was, was just the backlash, like on social media,” Griest said.
The women faced online death threats, and as a result, the service has been much more tight-lipped about sharing the stories of the female noncommissioned officers who transferred into the infantry, as well as the new privates who began reporting in 2017.
“One of my challenges was the isolation, trying to keep a small signature,” Haver said. “Make sure that I’m not inconveniencing anyone else by my presence.”
She would find somewhere else to shower if a facility didn’t have a designated area for women, she said, in order to not force the men to account for her.
“What I realized was, I wasn’t helping the process, I was inhibiting it, because then we’re not working through the actual challenges,” she said. “I had to realize that my accommodation wasn’t exactly helping the process.”
Meanwhile, Griest tried to shoulder the entire weight of her fellow female infantrymen.
“Realizing that every unit I go to, to them I am what women in combat arms looks like,” she said. “And any mistake I make suddenly completely discredits all of the women that are going to come after me.”
While she felt accepted by her fellow instructors at Ranger school, in her out-processing interview, she came clean with her company commander.
“I told him about how everything I do is going to impact women who come after me,” she said. “He just looked at me like I was crazy. He was like, ‘Why would you do that to yourself? ... You’re not going t represent every woman – you can’t. No one can do that.’ “
Haver did eventually choose to go infantry, doubling down by choosing to go to jump school and serve in the physically demanding and ever-challenging 82nd Airborne Division.
“It’s a competition every single day. It’s a very physical place to be,” she said. “Not that any other unit isn’t … but that’s something that the 82nd prides itself on.”
Griest arrived first, taking a position on a battalion staff while she waited for a company command to open up.
She anticipated a cold reception, but luckily, a fellow Captain’s Career Course student and role model had reported to the unit six months earlier.
“So as soon as I showed up he is like, ‘Kris, hey, welcome.’ Completely welcoming in front of everybody, completely accepted me,” she said. “And he was the type of leader, it’s like, everybody follows what he does. So that immediately set the tone in the S-3 shop.”
Griest took command of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 505th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team in April, she said.
At the same time, Haver was getting her feet wet on that brigade’s staff.
“I was able to not only interact with other captains on staff, but I was able to interact with senior leaders throughout the battalions, and I was given hard jobs right away,” she said.
Then it was down to a battalion staff, where she stepped right into an operations officer role, planning an air assault mission.
“The entire time I’m doing it, I’m like, ‘Are you sure you want me to be the one doing this plan?’ But it was expected,” she said. “My chain of command didn’t think it was weird. I was the only one who thought someone might have a problem with it.”
While she knew she was a unicorn in the unit, she had to remind herself that to many, she was just another junior officer rotating in.
“Just because it kind of is the new hotness right now, it’s not the new hotness for everyone,” she said.
And, like it always had, both women’s ability to destroy men on a PT test lent them a credibility that no one in a physically competitive unit would question.
“As soon as you take an [Army Physical Fitness Test], the conversation stops. If you beat everybody on the APFT, they cannot say anything to you,” Griest said. “And a lot of guys came up to me afterward and said, ‘You know, ma’am, I wasn’t sure about this, but you smoked me on the APFT, so I guess I can’t say anything.’ “
“When we’re willing and we do the same things with them every day, that’s what they want to see,” Haver said.
She is due to take company command next month.
“And I never hold it against anybody. I like hearing stuff like that. If people come up to me and say, ‘You know, I really wasn’t about this, or I didn’t think this was a good idea – I was dead against this, but I’ve changed my mind’ — or even if they haven’t changed their mind yet, I still see that as an opportunity to change their mind,” Griest said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.