While everyone serving in the military faces difficulties, the issues facing female soldiers are particularly acute. Two of the US Army's first Rangers — Capt. Kristen Griest and Capt. Shaye Haver — have spoken out about the problems they had in getting recruited, working their way up to becoming officers and getting the go-ahead to serve in combat roles. Griest and Haver were speaking at the Army Women's Summit on Capitol Hill.
When Griest first applied to join the Army women were not allowed to serve in direct combat. She told the audience, "I was trying to enlist in the infantry, and realized that wasn't possible." A decade later and Griest and Haver became the first graduates of an intergrated Ranger school course at the West Point military academy. Griest had seen the possibility for West Point to open doors for her, saying:
"West Point was an opportunity that I saw, if I just performed well and did everything I could to set conditions to join the infantry whenever it did open — and West Point seemed like the place to do that."
Haver's journey was different, having never considered the West Point route until a battalion commander at Fort Carson talked up her potential to the deputy commanding general of the 4th Infantry Division.
She described how:
"His first question to me was if I wanted to go to Ranger school. And I was shocked, I had never thought about it before."
"I was sure I was going to be dead last — all these infantry, Ranger-bound men at West Point. And it showed me that I wasn't. I was sometimes in the top third, depending on the event."
The colonel encouraged her to push back against the policy barriers preventing her from participating in West Point's Basic Officer Leader Course.
"He really flipped the switch for me, in terms of thinking I was just this woman trying to do these things, and everybody expecting me to fail. Whereas he was like, 'No, I expect you to do these things and I expect you to succeed'."
In the summer of 2015 Griest and Haver became the first women to complete this training. Then defense secretary Ash Carter called them up to to congratulate them on becoming the first women to earn the Ranger tab, generating considerable media coverage. This in turn provoked noisy and aggressive opposition on social media from those who think women should not serve in the military.
Currently 2 female Army Rangers, first female seal currently in training. Get over it.— I'll ride with you📎 (@mrshellwinger) July 27, 2017
"Something that I wasn't expecting to be as bad as it was, was just the backlash, like on social media."
Both women faced online death threats and consequently the Army has beenmuch more circumspect about promoting stories of female officers in the infantry. Haver commented:
"One of my challenges was the isolation, trying to keep a small signature. Make sure that I'm not inconveniencing anyone else by my presence."
Meanwhile, the added attention created a new kind of pressure for Griest, as a representative of the new female soldiers serving on the front lines. She said:
"Realizing that every unit I go to, to them I am what women in combat arms looks like, and any mistake I make suddenly completely discredits all of the women that are going to come after me."
However, Griest also related how it was not media coverage or social media comments that determined whether she was accepted and respected by her male counterparts, but her physical capabilities as a soldier:
"As soon as you take an APFT (Army Physical Fitness Test), the conversation stops. If you beat everybody on the APFT, they cannot say anything to you. And a lot of guys came up to me afterward and said, 'You know, ma'am, I wasn't sure about this, but you smoked me on the APFT, so I guess I can't say anything'."
If they can't meet the physical requirements, then that is that. However, there are female Army Rangers, now, who met every requirement, so it's possible. Don't write them all off.— 🍀 Lucky Fun Joy 💋 (@joy_afi) December 16, 2017
While some female soldiers might find such comments irksome, Griest takes them in good spirits, commenting:
"I never hold it against anybody. I like hearing stuff like that. If people come up to me and say, 'You know, I really wasn't about this, or I didn't think this was a good idea — I was dead against this, but I've changed my mind' — or even if they haven't changed their mind yet, I still see that as an opportunity to change their mind."
Though Griest and Haver graduated from the West Point class in 2015, it wasn't until the following year that the Army lifted their ban on women serving in direct-combat units. Since then more than 600 women have joined infantry and armor units, as Gen. James Mc Conville told the Army Women's Summit:
"Every single infantry, armor and artillery battalion in every single active-duty brigade combat team has women assigned."