Army could admit female soldiers to Ranger School next spring

After 32 rejections, Lt. Della Smith-Del Rosario might finally get permission to attend the Army’s grueling Ranger School.

She’s been trying to get into the school — one of the military’s most intense proving grounds — for years, but she’s been blocked by a policy barring women from attending the two-month Ranger training course at Georgia’s Fort Benning.

Friday, the Army announced that it’s seeking female candidates for the spring 2015 Ranger School course. By January, the Army will announce whether it will admit female soldiers to the program.

It’s a milestone in the Army’s integration of women into more front-line combat positions that some hope will lead to female soldiers gaining more opportunities to serve in elite Special Operations units, such as the Army Rangers.

“I want the opportunity to bring what I have to offer to the Rangers,” said Smith-Del Rosario, a military intelligence officer on assignment in Kuwait.

Friday’s announcement follows a January 2013 decision to open traditionally all-male military positions to women unless officials present a compelling reason to prohibit female troops from a particular assignment.

Since then, the Army has opened six career specialties and 55,000 positions to women, according to an Army “stand to” message to troops about the pending Ranger School decision. Infantry and front-line positions in Special Operations remain all male, for the timebeing.

The Army is gauging interest in combat postings among its female solders through a survey carried out last year by its Training and Doctrine Command.

About 20 percent of female respondents indicated moderate or high interest in serving in combat assignments, such as infantry or special operations. About 8 percent reported having a high interest in those fields.

“The Army’s goal is to better managing the talent, competence and performance of all soldiers, ensuring they have the opportunities to maximize their potential, capabilities and contributions,” the “stand to” message said.

But the possibility of assigning women to Special Operations teams has been one of the most hotly debated aspects of the Pentagon’s gender-integration plan even as female soldiers have been taking on new responsibilities in combat units.

Most often, critics voice concerns that female troops will not be able to meet the physical demands of prolonged combat with Special Forces teams. The most physically demanding military training course open to women is the Marine Infantry Officer Candidate School. As of March, 14 women had attempted the course since the fall of 2012, but none had passed, according to The Washington Post.

“In my opinion, it is a waste of time and my money to send women to Ranger School,” said LeRoy Graw, a retired lieutenant colonel who served during the Gulf War. Graw of Lakewood completed Ranger School in 1964 after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy. He does not believe the Army should commission women as infantry officers, and so he thinks Ranger School would be a waste of the Army’s resources.

Others cite fears that gender integration could disrupt the unity of small 12-solder teams in dangerous places if restrictions are lifted on women serving in Special Operations teams.

Supporters counter that a woman soldier one day will break the mold, and she should not be held back.

“As of today, no one has been able to produce convincing, or even thought-provoking hard evidence that would ban soldiers and Marines with two X chromosomes from the infantry,” wrote Shelly Goode-Burgoyne, a former Army officer, in a Sept. 10 blog post. She’s eager to see a woman succeed at Ranger School.

Ranger School is a mandatory precursor to postings in the Army’s prestigious 75th Ranger Regiment. It’s also springboard to promotions in other units. It peaks with an extended mission in Florida swampland in which candidates work together in small combat operations while veteran Rangers stress them.

Soldiers who pass the demanding program are considered “Ranger qualified.” They wear a Ranger tab on their uniforms, which stands out as a symbol of having accomplished one of the Army most severe training courses.

If a woman soldier is selected, she’ll have to take a pregnancy test, according to the Army order inviting female candidates to apply for the school. She’ll also have to demonstrate that she can do 49 pushups, 59 sit-ups, six chin-ups and complete a five-mile run in 40 minutes. She’ll also have to finish a 12-mile march in less than three hours.

“If a female thinks she’s physically strong enough to get through the school to get the tab, she should be able to go,” said Staff Sgt. Marscha Boydston, a supply specialist in Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s I Corps.

Boydston, 39, is married to a Special Operations soldier. She said she wouldn’t pursue a Ranger tab, but she’d think highly of woman who was willing to attempt the course.

In recent years, women have been gaining new footholds in the military’s Special Operations community. Thousands of women serve in units that support and supply Special Operations teams.

Many more have served alongside Special Operations teams in Afghanistan on so-called female engagement teams. They accompany all-male teams of special operators and work to gather intelligence that men could not by obtain by speaking with women in a traditional Muslim society.

“I jumped on the opportunity because empowerment for women is a big deal for every woman,” said Smith-Del Rosario, who served on a female engagement team in Afghanistan four years ago. “There’s a special place in hell for women that don’t help other women.”

Several female soldiers have been killed in action while serving on those dangerous missions with special operators.

One was Lt. Ashley White, who was killed with two Rangers from JBLM, on a mission in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province on Oct. 22, 2011. Another was Capt. Jennifer Moreno, a nurse from Madigan Army Medical Center, who died with three solders on another Ranger-led mission in Kandahar on Oct. 5, 2013.

Smith-Del Rosario, who joined the Army in 1999 as an enlisted soldier from Overland Park, Kan., said she submits an application to Ranger School every month. She gets letters of support from her commanders, including a colonel who led a brigade.

Inevitably, her requests come back denied.

“They were like, ‘Oh, you’re a female.’”

She’s in Kuwait on a joint-forces team monitoring events in Iraq. She’s on a track to attend an Army leadership course and then move on to a posting in South Korea.

She’d gladly take a detour to prove herself at Ranger School.

“In any team, everyone must earn their way; I will earn my tab if given the opportunity,” she said.