Commentary

Meet the quiet trailblazers

As of April 2020, 50 women have graduated from the Army’s Ranger School. The most recent graduation included five women. Many of the women have been notable firsts whose accomplishments have garnered little notice and less celebration.

The March 6 Ranger School graduation included the first woman to graduate at the top of the Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course. There were 207 lieutenants in her class, including six women. Two of the six women graduated on the Commandant’s List, with the No. 1 spot going to a woman. Notably, the six women graduates included a woman from the Greek military. The U.S. has long trained military officers from partner nations, but until 2016 the U.S. military barred all women from training for infantry, armor and Special Forces occupations and from attending Ranger School.

When the Army opened Ranger School to women in 2015 on a trial basis, many naysayers said that women would never graduate. When Kristen Griest, Shaye Haver and Lisa Jaster slogged their way through the course, they defied the naysayers and proved that women not only could hack it, but that they wanted these jobs. Griest and Haver went on to become infantry officers and have successfully commanded infantry companies; women are in command of infantry and armor companies today.

Many continue to denigrate their accomplishments, claiming women have not met the same standards as the men despite Army leaders and their own classmates saying that they have. When the first group of women graduated, the naysays said they had been given the benefit of “special” training and the very best conditions and that no woman would ever make it through Ranger School in the winter. The Ranger tabs that recent Ranger School graduates wear have an unofficial white thread border indicating they are winter Ranger graduates.

In August 2015, 1st Lt. Shaye Haver, center, and Capt. Kristen Griest, right, are shown with other West Point alumni after an Army Ranger school graduation ceremony at Fort Benning, Ga. Haver and Griest became the first female graduates of the Army's rigorous Ranger School. (John Bazemore/AP)
In August 2015, 1st Lt. Shaye Haver, center, and Capt. Kristen Griest, right, are shown with other West Point alumni after an Army Ranger school graduation ceremony at Fort Benning, Ga. Haver and Griest became the first female graduates of the Army's rigorous Ranger School. (John Bazemore/AP)

Not surprisingly, the No. 1 infantry officer course graduate moved straight through winter Ranger School, never recycling any phase of the course. When asked what was the hardest part of Ranger School, she said, “I think the most difficult part of the school was the ever-present fear of failing my squad.” Like the very best soldiers, this officer was, and remains, devoted to her “band of brothers and sisters."

The last five years have seen many firsts for women and Ranger School. Capt. Emily Lilly is the oldest woman, at 39, and the first National Guard woman to graduate from Ranger School. She said she always wanted to make her children proud of her and both of them were at her graduation.

In 2018, Melissa Vargas was the first Latina woman to graduate. Melissa is a first-generation Mexican American and a West Point graduate. She said attending West Point was a relief. While other cadets saw it as a struggle, she was relieved not to have to worry about how to pay for her education or how to help support her family. She was grateful for the simple things, like three meals a day.

In 2018, Staff Sgt. Amanda Kelly was the first enlisted woman to graduate from Ranger School. She was followed by Sgt. 1st Class Janina Simmons, who is the first African American woman to graduate Ranger School. Simmons completed the course in a record 62 days, never recycling any phase of the course as many students do.

A few women have gone on to become Rangers in the 75th Ranger Regiment. Capt. Shaina Coss is the first woman to lead an infantry platoon in the 75th. She deployed with the regiment to Afghanistan in 2019. Like many members of the military, Coss, a West Point graduate, follows in her father’s footsteps, a retired infantry colonel and former Ranger.

Sgt. Danielle Farber, Pennsylvania National Guard, and Staff Sgt. Jessica Smiley, South Carolina National Guard, graduate U.S. Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga, Dec. 13, 2019. (Sgt. Brian Calhoun/Army)
Sgt. Danielle Farber, Pennsylvania National Guard, and Staff Sgt. Jessica Smiley, South Carolina National Guard, graduate U.S. Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga, Dec. 13, 2019. (Sgt. Brian Calhoun/Army)

Much is made of what women should, could, or would want to do relative to combat occupations. These women have defied all of the naysayers. Not only do many women, like men, want combat jobs but they are excelling in these roles. Notably, not a single woman has ever been dropped from Ranger School for “lack of motivation” or quitting, as happens with men in every class.

Captain Lilly sports a tattoo that sums up women’s limitations in the military: “The question is not who will let me, but who will stop me."

Ellen Haring is a retired Army colonel and West Point graduate. She conducts research for the Service Women’s Action Network and for Women in International Security.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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