In some ways, the rise of female combat officers is even more historic than the graduation last fall of three women from Ranger School, the Army’s premier leadership course that tests the physical mettle and mental strength of those who attempt it. While their achievement showed that some women could meet one of the military’s most rigorous and demanding tests and meet precisely the same standards as male soldiers, their Ranger School graduation actually guaranteed them little from the Army in terms of future assignments. At the time they graduated, prior to Carter’s changing the combat policy, the 75th Ranger Regiment remained closed to women. They wore the Ranger tab, but could not yet attempt Ranger Assessment and Selection Program.
Now the military—influenced, no doubt, by the performance of women on the front lines of war, in roles ranging from pilots to medics to cultural-support team members and engineers since 9/11, and by these first women Ranger graduates—is on the verge of assigning women to lead young men “outside the wire,” beyond the relative safety of their bases. They will take on the same risks and responsibilities as male officers and, consequently, the same opportunities for promotion. In future years some of these women may make it to company commander, leading 200 combat troops at a time, and perhaps some years after that, some will become battalion commanders, responsible for as many as 1,000 combat troops.
And perhaps they may one day find themselves in line to reach the brass ring as chief of staff of the Army or even chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, roles traditionally filled by those who led combat units—all men, until now.
Yet even when women were still officially banned from ground combat, they were going out alongside infantry soldiers and special-operations forces. Colonel David Fivecoat served three combat tours in Iraq, led a battalion in Afghanistan, and later oversaw the Ranger training program that included the three female graduates. At the National Infantry Museum, he introduced a book I wrote about an all-women special-operations team recruited for Ranger and SEAL missions back in 2011, and he spoke of “the charade many of us played with the direct ground combat rule. As a battalion commander in Afghanistan ... I put two women to work side-by-side with each and every Rifle Company. Women ... made real contributions in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Now that the charade is over, the image of who leads the United States in war is about to evolve before the eyes of an entire nation. No doubt this shift will shock the system, at least initially, for those who enlist in the Army every year and form the backbone of the military's largest service, and for the nation in whose name they serve. (The fact that women graduated from Ranger School alone generated a great deal of online heat in and outside of the Ranger community, much of it targeting Fivecoat; Ranger school instructors—some of whom served 13 special-operations deployments—have spoken to me about losing friends who feel certain the women received special treatment.)