Female Rangers – How General Odierno Saved the Ranger Program and Army’s Warrior Culture.

Overcoming Cynicism and Giving a Fair Shot at Success and Failure.

Since the August 21st graduation of two women from the Army’s Ranger School there has been an outpouring of commentary on the notoriety of the moment.

Writing this article through the lens of a graduate of the Ranger Course (Class 10-87), I want to join those who are congratulating Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver on their achievements.

What is particularly notable, is the lengths the Army and the Airborne Ranger Training Brigade (ARTB) went through to ensure the women were treated fairly and that the standards were maintained. This balance was particularly important given the rocky history of the integration of women into the military and the cynicism it induced into the male warrior culture. The politically charged social engineering of the military during the Carter, Clinton, and Obama Administrations and championed by Congressional players like Patsy Schroder and Nancy Pelosi was particularly damaging to the reputations of women in the military.

Two examples from the late 1970’s to early 1980’s come to mind: A skewed experiment of women manning a field artillery gun, and the awarding of Special Forces qualification (Green Beret) to Capt. Kathleen Wilder.

The Field Artillery experiment was conducted with a specially selected, physically fit, all female gun crew on 105mm artillery gun. The test was conducted to see if they could maintain a required rate of fire on the gun. Their ability to maintain the standard number of rounds fired per minute was repeatedly used during Equal Opportunity classes at West Point to promote the idea that women were equally as capable as men of performing all combat missions. But the experiment was flawed in that the crew was only required to load and fire the gun. It did not involve moving and setting the gun in place, changing its direction of fire, nor the movement of the ammunition from the cache to the gun. All of these tasks require multiple heavy lifts by multiple crew members.

It the case of Capt. Wilder, she was an intelligence officer who was admitted to the Special Forces Officer Qualification course at Ft Bragg in 1980 after she showed the regulations did not forbid her admission. She was removed from the course along with two other male officers accused of cheating. [1]The men accepted the assessment, but she alleged sexual discrimination and was awarded a certificate of completion and Special Forces (SF) designator well after her class graduated.[2] A review of current blogs and on line forums shows the controversy surrounding her award of the SF qualification continues to this day. The existing perception is not a good one.

Looking back at the development of my own attitudes over the course of my career on the subject of women in the military, these two incidents, combined with many of my own experiences, produced a cynicism (particularly regarding anything influenced by politics) which was very difficult to overcome.

To understand the levels of cynicism on the part of male warriors, it is important to understand a few things about the American warrior culture: Failure, especially failure resulting from weakness, is not tolerated. The attitude that “the chain is only as strong as its weakest link” applies. Everyone is expected to challenge and overcome their weaknesses. Anyone who lacks mental or physical toughness is rejected by their peers. Men who fall out of group runs or road marches are regarded as liabilities who might fail the group. Crying over anything less than the death of a comrade is unacceptable. Our mission is to close with and destroy the enemies of our country. Failure in this endeavor could mean death for our Soldiers, ourselves, and, ultimately, our country.

As a young Soldier, this cynicism was created by the conflict of the politically driven message that there was no difference between men and women in the physical and mental preparedness to perform combat missions and the realities I was seeing in our training. I frequently saw women break down in tears when they could not climb over walls on the obstacle courses or fell out of group runs. I remember female cadets screaming “I want to be Infantry!” in shrill voices in front of formations, only to fall apart mentally and physically after a night on a field exercise. The starkest example was my college judo team. We had the National Women’s Collegiate Grand Champion (all weight classes) on our team. But she could not throw most of the men she practiced with — many of whom were smaller than her and very new to the sport. In the Army at large, I saw women who played on their sexuality to get ahead or get by and saw others quickly play the sexual discrimination or harassment card when they could not make the grade. The worst were those women who got pregnant to avoid deployments. The actions of these women often required multiple deployments by men who had to leave their families again to cover the personnel shortages.

Women were also the greatest factor in weakening this cynicism. I particularly remember several women who clearly proved they were quiet professionals who could hang with the men physically — and in many instances, run circles around them in their developed areas of expertise— and do so without chips on their shoulders. They were very comfortable with the fact that they were women, and maintained their femininity and did not try to act like men. Among the men, they acted like they were with their brothers. These women only wanted to be measured by the same standard and did not whine if they came up short. They doubled down and gave it their all to make the grade. I had, and continue to have, such great respect for these women, not because of what the military EO classes said about them, but because their character and performance demanded such respect. While Capt. Griest and Lt. Haver are clearly examples of such women, their accomplishment has to shine through the years of built of cynicism to be appreciated.

In examining how the admission of women to Ranger training has been executed, it appears that the man who directed it clearly understood the dynamics of the cynicism caused by improperly forced integration. General Raymond Odierno, the Chief of Staff of the Army who directed the implementation, graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1976, one month before women were first admitted. He would have heard the all the behind the scenes horror stories from colleagues in the classes immediately behind his on the integration of women into the Academies. He was a young captain attending the Artillery Advance Course at Ft Sill when the female artillery gun crew test was conducted. He was a field artillery battery commander in the XVIII Airborne Corps at Ft Bragg when Capt Wilder was given her Green Beret. He understood the detrimental cynicism created by politically driven implementations of gender integration which failed to recognize the inherent strengths and weakness of men and women in military service.

Insider reports on the LinkedIn Ranger School forum indicate General Odierno was determined that he would control the implementation of the experiment to ensure the Ranger standards were not denigrated. He recognized that if he did not set into practice a program which ensured the standard while allowing women to compete against it, the political appointees of the Obama Administration would destroy the standard and put unprepared women into Ranger Regiment.

Under General Odierno’s direction, the Department of the Army issued the All Army Activities messages stating his intent:


The wording of the messages and the implementation of the guidance by the Ranger Training Brigade indicates that every effort was made to give the women a fair shot while maintaining the standard. This was an exceptionally fine balance to maintain given the demands for political correctness from the politicians and a military population which has lost its trust for the political leadership and sees its warrior culture under attack by the administration. The women Ranger students needed to be given the opportunity to succeed. If they failed, they needed to fail fairly without the possibility of claiming discrimination. Nor could they be handed a free pass as other Rangers would protest by turning in their Ranger tabs and the program would lose its moral standing. If the women succeeded, they needed to be perceived as having earned their status without the perceptions of special treatment which haunts Captain Wilder’s award of the Special Forces designator.

While deliberations among the Ranger circles will continue until the final reports from their male classmates hit the forums and rumor mills, it looks like the mystique of the tab has been preserved.


Don’t Expect a Large Influx of Women

The graduation of these exceptional women has also produced an expectation, and even demands from many non-military pundits for a huge influx of women into the combat arms specialties of the military. However, this is only about as likely as seeing a massive influx of the players from the Women’s National Basketball Association into the NBA. While there are women players like Brittney Griner who may be good enough to make the roster of some of the NBA teams, it is unlikely that she would make the starting lineup of any one of the teams, much less that of one of the championship teams.

Most of those demanding women graduates serve in the Ranger Regiment do not realize that less than five percent of the male officer graduates of Ranger School ever make it into the Regiment. The vast majority of us spend our careers serving in the rest of the Army throughout the world. This is the career path which Capt Griest (Military Police) or Lt. Haver (Apache pilot) would probably follow if they were men. If they were Infantry Officers, seeing these women serve in the Ranger Regiment would be about the same as seeing WNBA star Brittney Griner on the starting lineup of an NBA championship team (without a political directive requiring it).

That said, given standard officer career tracks, Lt. Haver, has the best chance of making it into the special operations community as an operator. As an aviator, she could find herself slotted with Task Force 160, which is the squadron that flies special operators to the fight and provides aerial fire support to them. But this is more dependent on her flying skills than her Ranger tab. Or, she could find herself in one of the aviation liaison (non-flying) positions of the Ranger Regiment.

While the door has now been opened to women to attend these courses and Obama’s Service Secretaries are joyfully announcing they will open all combat related positions to women, the realities of physical requirements, health, and injuries will keep nearly all of them from entering those career specialties, just as it prevents women players from making the rosters of the NBA.

Let’s review what it took the Army to ensure the possibility of success for these two female Rangers.

For the women to attend the Ranger Course, the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade (ARTB) selected 31 female Soldiers (11 officers and 20 non-commissioned officers) to serve as observers and advisors. Their official purpose was to integrate with the Ranger training staff and assist “with the execution of the assessment, and to help capture “lessons learned” from both men and women training together.” [4]

The female observers were placed to ensure the integrity of the assessment. This worked to ensure the women in the Ranger course were treated equally and were graded against the standard. It provided the women attending the course the absolute confidence that they were getting a “fair shake” while protecting the Army and the ARTB from charges of discrimination should the women fail to meet the standards.

By taking these painstaking measures to ensure absolute fairness and chances for success, General Odierno and the ARTB command accomplished multiple goals. They ensured the women who attended the Ranger Course were treated and assessed by the established standards. The constant presence of female observers ensured there were no incidents of sexual harassment, discrimination, or favoritism. They ensured the women who completed the course were perceived across the Army with the respect that can only come from successfully and fairly completing the standards without unfair command or political influence which would have denigrated their achievement. But the most important goal was to ensure the standards were preserved so that war fighting capabilities and the warrior culture of the Army and its special operators could be maintained. By demonstrating that there are women who are capable of meeting the standards without denigrating the standards, the Army kept the door open to reduce the resources and costs put into making the experiment successful. In other words, instead of having to set aside 160 class slots in future RTAC classes and put on special recruiting call for special Ranger Courses with extra female staff members, the Army can simply require those women who want to attend the course to compete for the slots so that best qualified Ranger candidates are selected. If they make it, they make it. If they don’t, they don’t. Period.

For those policy makers who think it is good politics to push more women into the Ranger program, it is important to consider how many Rangers can be produced with the limited resources.

According the ARTB webpage, Ranger School has a 42% overall graduation rate. Of the 58% who fail, well over half fail during the first weeks during Ranger Assessment and Darby phases. [5] Because the failure rate in the first weeks was so high, the Army instituted the two week pre-Ranger course to physically screen and prepare (troop leading procedures and patrolling) junior enlisted men and cadets for the 62 day Ranger course. The pass and selection rate for the pre-Ranger course was 55%. [6] About half of all Ranger graduates have to recycle at least one of the course phases (Darby, Mountain, and Swamp – the Desert phase has been dropped). The first time pass rate without recycle is approximately 20%.[7]

In writing this, I cannot over stress the importance of the pre-Ranger training. In my Ranger class, those who attended pre-Ranger had a much higher first time success rate in the Darby Phase — I estimate 80%. On the other hand, a very large portion of those who failed the first week were my fellow officers fresh out of the Infantry Officer Basic Course. We did not attend the pre-Ranger course, but were physically screened and received the patrolling training in the basic course. Infantry officers are pretty much expected to attend Ranger School and to be prepared – the issue for many is how badly they want to succeed in the course.

An additional note on those who recycle: Among those who attend Ranger School, there is the deepest respect for those who recycle a phase of the course to complete it. The stress and rigors of the course are extremely high. There is no shame in failing the course. The probability of getting sick, injured, or exhausted to the point of mental and physical incapacitation from food and sleep deprivation is extremely high (9 Ranger students have died during the course). Everyone comes close to being recycled at some point for failure or injury. Anyone who chooses to recycle and endure the hardships all over again, especially when they have an honorable way out, gets big kudos from those who have been there.

To ensure the women Ranger volunteers had the best chances for success, they were required to attend the pre-Ranger screening and training. The success rate for the women in the pre-Ranger course was approximately 19% (55% for men).[8] The Army was only able to fill approximately 100 of the 160 spaces set aside for women to attend the pre-Ranger training (there are normally more men who want to attend than slots available).[9] A total of 19 women were recommended to attend the Ranger course which began in April. Eleven (58%) of those women were dropped from the course in the first week during the Ranger Assessment Phase (44% of men are dropped at this point). Eight started the Darby Phase with none (0%) completing (57% for men). Several women chose to recycle the Darby Phase and all failed again. Three chose to recycle to Day 1 and repeat the Ranger Assessment Phase before attempting the Darby Phase again. All three made it through Darby and started the Mountain Phase. [10] Two of these women went on to graduate. (42 to 44 of every one hundred men graduate.)

While there will be women who will attend future Ranger courses, it is highly unlikely there will a massive influx into the training and much less into the special ops community. As pointed out above, even with the special recruiting drive and a great deal of interest across the ranks, the Army still could not find enough women to enter the training to fill the spaces set aside for them. Those who do enter the training will have only a two to three percent success rate, and only five to ten percent of those who are successful will make the cut for the Ranger Regiment.

In the end, do we want to force the Army to spend the resources and time in which it could produce over 40 Ranger qualified men to produce two more Ranger qualified women? (Of course, I won’t ask this of the Obama Administration which requires the Air Force to purchase “green” jet fuel at $140 per gallon when it could buy regular jet fuel at $3 per gallon.)

Beware of a General Lifting the Combat Arms Exclusions

The graduation of these women is leading to general pronouncements by the political appointees in the Department of Defense to lift all exclusions barring women from ground combat positions. It would be a great mistake to categorically lift these exclusions. The Ranger training experiment has proven that this can be accomplished by exception. The elimination of the combat exclusions will open all women to the draft and potentially force women into direct combat roles, whether they are qualified or not.

America has already achieved the right balance of opportunities for women and the requirement to maintain certain sex-based exclusions to meet our national interests.

Women, such as General Ann Dunwoody, are commanding at the highest levels and serving effectively in many combat, combat related, and intelligence related roles. There are many brave women who are flying combat missions and out on patrols in Military Police, Civil Affairs, and Intelligence roles alongside the Infantry in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East. When working with the Infantry, they are performing roles that men are incapable of in those cultures to gather critical intelligence and provide inroads through healthcare and education to the veiled half of those societies. These women have proven themselves more than capable of defending themselves when attacked. To date, two women have been awarded Silver Stars for bravery under fire while defending their units in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But there are realities of warfare that remain the same as they have throughout history, and there are certain types of units that should and must remain all male. While there are some very physically fit women who can outperform the average man at endurance and strength tests, they are the rare exceptions to the rule. When it comes to the pure applications of “brute force and ignorance” that goes along with closing with and killing other men who are actively trying to kill you, under conditions which require physical exertions that exceed those of any professional sport, men are simply more suited to the occasion. The reality is far different from what Hollywood portrays in the movies.

Imagine if our sense of political correctness required that 20 percent of one NBA team’s starting lineup include women. It would fundamentally change the game. The effects on the capabilities of our ground combat units would be no less than the effects such a move would have on a professional sports team. But the cost would be much higher.

The political realities of implementation are being completely ignored by those advocating the removal of the combat exclusions. The most important is that it will make women subject to the draft. Without the exclusion, there is no legal justification to drafting only men into military service.

This truth of physical strength in martial endeavors applies when carrying 70 to 100 lbs of gear up the side of a mountain at 10,000 feet above sea level to root Al Qaeda members out of caves, when repairing the 3 ton track of an M1 tank in the snow, and to all the tasks related to the movement and operation of a field artillery piece or other heavy armored vehicles. While it is proven that there are women like Captain Griest and Lt. Haver who could help the team in these endeavors, they are the two in ten million exceptions. Forcing un-prepared personnel into these positions invites disaster on multiple levels.

All those arguing for this, need to consider the NBA analogy again. While they might argue that women should be allowed to play in the NBA if they could meet the standards, do they really want to make the argument that an NBA team must make a quota and implement different strength and speed standards for those women who want to play but are not quite as strong and fast as the male players? Do they really want to make the argument that women should be called up and forced to play on that NBA team? Would they then expect that team to win, when it plays against teams which do not have those requirements?

The danger of removing the barrier preventing women from voluntarily serving in the Infantry is there will be no legal protection preventing them from being forced to serve in the Infantry. Is this what America wants?

There is a large portion of this argument being ignored by the pundits and the American public: Is America ready to see its daughters drafted into military service and forced into combat which they are physically and mentally unprepared to face?


William Russell is a retired Infantry Lieutenant Colonel from the United States Army, a graduate of Ranger Class 10-87, and has served in Desert Storm, the Balkans, the Iraq War, and the Pentagon on 9/11. www.williamrussell.net


[1]Fumento, Michael, The Democrats’ Special Forces Fetish, The Weekly Standard, http://www.fumento.com/military/specialops.html, March 5, 2007,

[2] Soldier Says Weekly Standard Defamed Her, Court House News, http://www.courthousenews.com/2008/03/21/Soldier_Says_Weekly_Standard_Defamed_Her.htm, March 21, 2008.

[3] Department of the Army, All Army Activities (ALARACT) Message 222/2014,    http://www.benning.army.mil/infantry/rtb/content/PDF/ALARACT%20222_2014%20-%20FEMALE%20STUDENTS%20FOR%20THE%20UNITED%20STATES%20ARMY.pdf

[4] Lopez, C. Todd, First women to attend Ranger Course, http://www.army.mil/article/141327/First_women_to_attend_Ranger_Course/, January 16, 2015

[5] http://www.benning.army.mil/infantry/rtb/

[6] Tan, Michelle, 19 percent pass rate for women in Ranger prep, The Army Times, http://www.armytimes.com/story/military/careers/army/2015/02/04/pre-ranger-assessment-women/22875325/, 4:58 p.m. EST February 6, 2015

[7] http://www.benning.army.mil/infantry/rtb/

[8] Tan, Michelle, 19 percent pass rate for women in Ranger prep, The Army Times, http://www.armytimes.com/story/military/careers/army/2015/02/04/pre-ranger-assessment-women/22875325/, 4:58 p.m. EST February 6, 2015

[9] Remaining female candidates must restart Ranger training after missing mark in 1st phase, http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2015/05/08/no-women-were-able-to-finish-first-try-at-ranger-school/, Published May 08, 2015

[10] 3 Female Ranger Candidates Begin Training in Mountain Phase, http://www.military.com/daily-news/2015/07/15/3-female-ranger-candidates-begin-training-in-mountain-phase.html, July 7, 2015

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