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Will the first women to finish Ranger School change what’s off limits in the military?

August 18, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
For the first time, two women have completed the Army’s rigorous Ranger School training program. But unlike their fellow male graduates, they will not yet be allowed to serve in elite Ranger units, due to the Pentagon’s current ban on women in combat. Judy Woodruff talks to Gayle Tzemach Lemmon of the Council on Foreign Relations and retired Col. Ellen Haring of Women in International Security.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, we turn now to the United States armed forces, and a new barrier broken by two young women.

Long marches, rigorous drills, 62 days that push you to the limit and beyond. The Army Ranger training program in Fort Benning, Georgia, tests the ability to overcome fatigue, hunger and stress during combat. Now, for the first time, two women, both of them officers and West Point graduates, have made the grade.

Just last week, Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno praised their effort, as he formally retired.

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army: They have impressed all they have come in contact with. They are clearly motivated. And, frankly, that’s what we want out of our soldiers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Army has not yet released their names. On graduation Friday, they will be awarded the prestigious Ranger tab to wear on their uniforms. But unlike the 94 male graduates, they will not yet be allowed to serve in elite Ranger units.

The Pentagon still bans women from serving in combat. However, that could soon change. In January of 2013, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered all of the services to study the issue.

LEON PANETTA, Former Secretary of Defense: We’re not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job. If they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have right to serve, regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The military has until January to open all combat jobs to women or explain why any must remain closed.

For more on the military’s plans to expand the number of combat jobs to women, I’m joined by retired Colonel Ellen Haring. She’s a 30-year veteran of the Army. In 2012, she sued to remove barriers to women serving in the military. She’s now a senior fellow at the organization Women in International Security. And Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a journalist and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is also the author of the book “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.”

And we welcome you both to the program.

Colonel Haring, to you first.

Just how significant is it that these two women, first two women, are coming out of Ranger training school successfully?

COL. ELLEN HARING (RET.), U.S. Army: Well, I think it’s enormous. And I have got to tell you that the West Point community, at least the West Point women, have been just — I can’t even describe the level of enthusiasm and excitement that has been pouring out of the women graduate community right now.

Look at our Facebook site, and everybody has just pictures of the Rangers school and what this means to us.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, you have been with — you have been reporting on this Ranger program for a number of months. How is everyone involved in the program viewing this?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, I think for leadership, you know, the issue was, we want to keep the standard the same, and we want the prove to people that nothing will be changed. We’re only giving women a chance to meet that same standard.

And what you heard from everybody the moment you would reach Fort Benning in Georgia was, we don’t want a different standard, from all of these women. So, I think what you see today is that a lot of women in the Army who had watched very carefully to see how these women would do are just incredibly proud.

And one of the women who is an observer who was part of the Ranger School said to me, you know, this just shows how much we can do if given the opportunity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Colonel Haring, just how hard is this program? How different is this from regular training that anybody, any man or woman, would go through in the Army?

COL. ELLEN HARING: So, only approximately — well, actually, 3 percent of the Army ever qualifies to be an Army Ranger.

So, I think it’s — just that is a testament to how difficult the program is. Less than half of the people that attempt the course actually succeed. And by people, it’s always been men, so it’s fewer than half of the men that attempt the court actually are awarded the Ranger tab.

So I think that it’s tremendously difficult. It’s 61 days long. It’s multiple different areas of the country that they train in. And eventually, if they’re successful, they’re awarded the Ranger tab. Of course, now it’s two women who will also be wearing that Ranger tab.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Gayle Lemmon, from observing it, why is it so hard to get through this? Why do so few people make it through?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: I think it’s the ultimate test of your grit and your endurance and how bad you want it.

It’s 61 days if you make it straight through, but well over a third of men do not do that. And these women also have not — they have now been in the program for more than 100 days. So, I mean, this is a huge test of your physical ability, of your mental power, and of your real grit to want to go on.

And I interviewed a Ranger who was part of leading Ranger School, and he said, you know, some people were arguing this is part of an agenda, but once you see these women in action, you see how badly they want that tab, and how hard they worked to do it. They have changed hearts and minds.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Colonel Haring, I want to come back to what you said initially, that this is a big deal.

And yet, as we just reported, these women will not be able to serve as Rangers. They will have the badge, but they still can’t serve. So why — how much does it matter in that regard?

COL. ELLEN HARING: Well, I think that is really important and significant, and we need to — well, we really need to push the Army to go forward with this, because I think this is just one step towards the eventual opening of the 75th Ranger Regiment.

I would — I can’t imagine that the Army would continue to deny women the opportunity to serve in the regiment if they’re qualified as Rangers. I mean, it’s opening an entirely additional demographic to the Army. If only 3 percent of men get through, and now you have got this additional demographic with a percentage of women, that gives you just that much greater of a pool of Ranger-qualified candidates to select from.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gayle Lemmon, you have been reporting on this, as we said, for some time. How much bearing do you believe this achievement by these two women will have on the military’s decision coming up?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Yes, I think this is one more step, as Ellen said, right?

It’s much harder to talk about something in the abstract when it’s now moved into concrete reality. There have been so many conversations about, can women meet the standard, will they, what do we have to do? And now that they have met it, it moves from abstraction to practical reality. And so it gets much harder — as General Odierno, as Colonel Fivecoat, as other folks who have been leading this effort talk about, it’s much harder to say you can’t have that opportunity when you have already shown you can meet the standard of excellence.

And, you know, I think one other point is that women have been out there alongside Rangers and C.O.s. You know, “Ashley’s War” was about a team of women recruited for night raids in 2011 to go on these kinds of combat operations. So, this isn’t entirely new for the Army either.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Colonel Haring, I mean, let’s talk about that. What exactly is it that women would be doing in combat that they can’t do now? What is restricted that you and others would argue the barriers need to come down so they can do that?

COL. ELLEN HARING: So, there’s still 220,000 positions closed to women. Basically, all infantry in both the Army and the Marine Corps is closed to women, all armor in both those services, as well as all of the special operations career fields are — continue to be completely closed to women.

So that’s a — it’s a lot of positions. And they have opened about 100,000 positions in the last two-and-a-half years, but that was a third of the positions that were closed. And now we’re here at the end of three years. They have opened a third of the positions, but still two-thirds remain closed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Gayle Lemmon, to be very specific, what’s the difference between what they can do and what they want to do and what you’re arguing and others are arguing they should be able to do?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Well, I mean, what I have been pointing out is that there is a difference between what women have been doing and what they could do, only in the sense that they have been supporting Rangers and SEALs on these kinds of operations, but they couldn’t become Rangers and SEALs in their own right.

And I think part of that was, they had not then had the training. They had not had the opportunity to do things like Ranger School. And so now women are showing, not only can we show that we make a difference on the battlefield, which they did, and that’s really the world that “Ashley’s War” took people into, but they also are showing, give us the chance to meet a very high standard. Don’t lower it, but let us try to rise to it.

And I think that’s where you see the conversation going now, is whether they can be SEALs and Rangers in their own right come January 1.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of that, Colonel Haring, when the military — when it comes down to this decision the military is going to be making, are all the branches pretty much in an equal position to open?

You mentioned before there are some hundreds of thousands of positions closed to women. Are the branches equally open to considering this? How do you see it?

COL. ELLEN HARING: So, I think they take different approaches.

I think the Army has actually been the most open, and they have looked at, how are we going to integrate women, whereas I think that the Special Operations community, as well as the Marines have been more skeptical, and they have said kind of whether — should we still open these positions?

And so I think that the services have definitely approached this differently, as well as Special Operations Command. I think the Marine Corps is very resistant still, and I think the Army is inching forward cautiously, but more aggressively or progressively than the Marine Corps certainly.

And Special Operations, you know, I’m — I haven’t heard much about what they’re doing, with the exception of this one assessment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, quickly, Gayle Lemmon, what are you hearing about what the services are likely to do?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Everybody is watching and waiting to see. There are studies the Special Operations Command commissioned that they’re reviewing now. Everybody is waiting to see whether women will have that chance.

By October 1, there’s a report due to the secretary of defense about what the services are urging the secretary of defense to do. And I think we will know a lot more then. But in the meantime, when you talk to these young women, all they want to do is to serve to the greatest of their capacity. They’re not going out there to prove a point. They’re going out there to serve with purpose.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon and Colonel Ellen Haring, we thank you both.