WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two pioneering women who completed the daunting U.S. Army Ranger school this week said Thursday they hoped their historic achievement would open doors for other females as the Pentagon opens new roles, including elite Navy SEALs, to women.
The feat by Army Captain Kristen Griest and First Lieutenant Shaye Haver followed a re-evaluation of the role of women after their frontline involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and the end of a rule barring them from combat roles in 2013.
“I do hope that with our performance in Ranger School, we have been able to inform that decision as to what they can expect from women in the military - that we can handle things physically, mentally on the same level as men, and we can deal with the same stresses in training that the men can,” said Griest.
The two on Tuesday completed a grueling 62-day course including parachute jumps, helicopter assaults, swamp survival and small unit leadership that earned them a Ranger badge, a prestigious decoration that is held by many senior leaders.
“This is the Army’s toughest training,” said Sue Fulton, a former Army captain who now chairs the advisory Board of Visitors to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“If there were any remaining questions about whether women could serve as combat leaders, those questions have been answered,” she said.
Griest and Haver, who are both in their mid-20s, faced media questions at an event at Fort Benning, Georgia on Thursday, wearing Army fatigues with hair cropped short just like their male peers.
They will formally graduate from the course on Friday, along with 94 men who completed the training, which began with 19 women and 381 men.
It was the first time women had been allowed to participate and rumors abounded during their training that standards had been lowered to accommodate females. But Major General A. Scott Miller, commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, told reporters the women were held to the same tough requirements as the male counterparts.
Despite some initial skepticism over acceptance by the men, Haver said the challenge at Ranger school was not about gender rivalry but rather an individual quest to fit in as a team member.
“The battles that we won were individual. At each event that we succeeded in, we kind of were winning hearts and minds as we went,” she said.
Several of the men graduating noted that any doubts they had quickly evaporated over exhausting and sweaty days during which the women shared their pain equally and gender was not an issue.
Instead, they praised the women for their dependability saying they would happily go to war or share a foxhole with Haver and Griest after observing them during Ranger school.
“These two women have showed themselves that they could serve by my side anytime,” said 2nd Lt Erickson Krogh.
Two years ago, under then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the U.S. services were told to develop gender-neutral standards for all jobs and to report by this September whether any jobs should remain closed to women.
Women serving in traditional noncombat roles had increasingly found themselves in combat positions. Special operations forces in Afghanistan, for example, found they needed women troops accompanying them to interact with Afghan women.
Since 2013, a number of changes have made women eligible for 111,000 jobs from which they had been excluded, while about 220,000 jobs remain closed to them, said Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
The Pentagon will announce in January which additional positions would be opened.
The Air Force opened combat pilot jobs to women in 1983. In the Navy only special warfare operators like Navy SEALs and special warfare boat operators remain men-only.
Navy spokesman Commander William Marks said the service did not plan to seek exceptions that would prevent women from serving in any positions when it reports to Carter in September.
Additional reporting by Letitia Stein and David Adams; Editing by David Storey, Richard Pullin, Alan Crosby