FORT BENNING, Ga. (Christian Examiner) - Two years after the Pentagon announced it would lift its ban on female service members serving in combat, this week two female soldiers will graduate from the Army's elite Ranger School. The pair will make history as the first women to complete what is considered the Army's premier leadership course and one of the U.S. military's most rigorous and intense training programs.
What happens next for the women, recently identified by the Army as Captain Kristen Griest and First Lt. Shaye Haveronly, as well as for the 17 other women who started with them but did not complete the program - is yet to be determined. According to the New York Times, Griest has served as a military police platoon leader and Haver as a pilot on an Apache helicopter in an aviation brigade.
The Army as well as the other military branches must decide by the end of the year whether to allow women to serve in combat infantry or other off-limit roles.
Current military rules do not allow women to serve as infantry or tank officers or in any kind of infantry command position, positions commonly tasked to those who've earned their Ranger tabs, a group representing less than 3 percent of active-duty soldiers.
That means the women who graduate from Ranger School on Friday, unlike their male counterparts, won't have similar career advancement opportunities such as trying out for the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment, an elite light infantry division.
More than 4,000 officers and enlisted soldiers begin Ranger School every year, but only two out of five actually graduate. The two graduating female soldiers had to endure 20-hour days in an intensive nine-week period that offered physical conditioning but also moved them around various locations such as the mountains of Georgia and the swampy Florida Panhandle.
Critics still ask if female soldiers in combat roles will hurt mission
However, the idea of women serving in combat roles has been met with mixed reactions since the Pentagon started exploring the idea in 2013. That year, Robert Maginnis, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and West Point graduate, told Time Magazine he was concerned standards would be lowered and cited as proof, the 2011 Report of the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, which he said clearly showed personnel policy was being driven by diversity, the "highest priority" of the Obama administration - and not military readiness.
Still, others acknowledge the visibility of women in combat roles has steadily increased since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began over a dozen years ago, serving as helicopter door-gunners and Humvee top-gunners and even in intelligence gathering as part of a SEAL team's top-secret squadron.
The Army Times reported earlier this summer that more than 20,000 combat engineer speciality positions opened to enlisted female service members.
Col. David G. Fivecoat, the commander of the Army's Airborne and Ranger training brigade, told the NYT how on a previous deployment five years ago, he regularly assigned two female service members to his combat maneuver companies for the specific purpose of searching Afghan women and children when necessary, which helped avoid angering the locals.
The Army has stressed how female soldiers are required to meet the same standards as the males, including the initial physical tests — 49 push-ups, 59 sit-ups, six chin-ups, and a five-mile run in no more than 40 minutes -- though they acknowledge the women have taken longer to make it to graduation than most students who complete Ranger School.
A Washington Times article in May reveals that the female officers actually had to retake the course a second time before finally passing. Army officers have also said that it is not unusual for male students to have to redo as many portions of the course as the women have -- and the statistics can be confusing because most of the students are male.
It's the physical demands and genetic differences that critics of the military's attempt at gender-equalizing are most vocal about. In an article at National Review, Mike Fredenburg cited a study by Britain's Tri-Service Review which found "that mixed-gender combat units have 'lower survivability,' a 'reduced lethality rate' and reduced deployability.
"In the combat environment, the differences between men and women in speed, strength, endurance, agility, physical resiliency, and psychological resiliency represents an unbridgeable gap," wrote Fredenburg. "The impact on the battlefield is dramatic."
Fivecoat said women have for years played significant roles in combat, perhaps just not officially.
"We've all been doing this for the last 13, 14 years, out of necessity," he said in the NYT article.
Editor's Note: This article was updated Aug. 20 to reflect new information the Army released identifying the two female Ranger graduates by name.