FORT BENNING, Ga. (AP) — The first female soldiers to complete the Army's rigorous Ranger School pinned on their black-and-gold Ranger tab at a graduation ceremony Friday, capping their history-making week and putting a spotlight on the debate over women in combat.
At a ceremony on the shore of "Victory Pond" at Fort Benning, First Lt. Shaye Haver of Copperas Cove, Texas, and Capt. Kristen Griest of Orange, Connecticut, graduated alongside 94 male soldiers.
The women drew national attention for finishing the nine-week program designed to test young soldiers' leadership abilities as the Pentagon approaches decisions on opening all combat positions to women who meet military standards.
Their success casts new attention on the obstacles that remain to women who aspire to join all-male combat units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment. Although Haver and Griest are now Ranger-qualified, no women are eligible for the elite regiment, although officials say it is among special operations units likely to be opened to women eventually.
Griest, 26, is a military police officer and has served one tour in Afghanistan. Haver, 25, is a pilot of Apache helicopters. Both are graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Of 19 women who began the Ranger course, Haver and Griest are the only two to finish so far; one is repeating a prior phase of training in hopes of graduating soon.
Addressing the graduates, Maj. Gen. Scott Miller said no one should doubt that all 96 graduates met Ranger standards, regardless of their sex, and he congratulated them on proving their mettle.
"You'll leave Victory Pond today with a small piece of cloth on your shoulder, but more importantly you carry the title of Ranger from here on out," he said. Miller is commander of all Army infantry and armor training and education, including the Ranger School.
The Army opened Ranger School to women for the first time this year as service leaders weighed opening more combat jobs to women. How far the military is willing to go toward ending restrictions on women will be evident soon.
Gen. Mark Milley, the Army's new chief of staff who flew to Benning to attend the graduation ceremony, told The Associated Press he is proud of all the Rangers who completed the course and appreciates the importance of the pioneering performance of Haver and Griest.
"It's a really big deal" for them and for the Army, he said.
Milley said he has not decided whether to recommend that all Army positions be opened to women.
Yet "I believe the Army can adapt," he said. "It has and will continue to adapt."
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday he will decide by December whether to accept any recommended exceptions to an order, signed by one of his predecessors, Leon Panetta, nearly three years ago that said all positions must be open to qualified women unless service leaders can justify keeping any closed. Any recommended exceptions are due to Carter in October.
Griest told reporters Thursday she hopes her success shows that women "can deal with the same stresses and training that men can."
Some current and former military members feel strongly that the Pentagon is going too far to accommodate women.
James Lechner, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former Ranger, said he questions whether the Ranger course adequately tested the female candidates under combat-simulated conditions and whether it makes sense to open all combat units to women.
"American women certainly serve with honor and distinction, provide some capabilities that males may not be able to provide," Lechner said in a telephone interview. "But when you talk about your fighting units, your combat arms units, especially the infantry ... you don't need to just have the minimum standards. You need to have as good as you possibly can get."
Janine Davidson, a defense policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Air Force cargo plane pilot, said the success of Griest and Haver and the prospect of the Army fully integrating women into its ground combat force is "policy catching up with reality," given the extensive combat experience women had in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also reflects generational change, she said, which she has heard in conversations with high school students.
"They actually are shocked when they learn that women aren't already doing this kind of stuff — the idea that they themselves would not be allowed to do it," Davidson said this week.
Rangers call themselves "masters of special light infantry operations" such as seizing key terrain and infiltrating hostile territory by land, sea or air. They are an arm of Army Special Operations Command and U.S. Special Operations Command.
The Ranger School, which began during the Korean War as the Ranger Training Command, fails most who enter. For the period between 2010 and 2014, 58 percent of candidates washed out — most of those within the first four days, a phase that includes tests of physical stamina, a land navigation course and a 12-mile foot march, according to the Ranger training website.
Ranger history dates to the Revolutionary War and includes prominent roles in the War of 1812 and the Civil War. In the June 6, 1944, D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy, Rangers famously scaled the sheer cliffs of Pointe Du Hoc overlooking Omaha Beach.
Associated Press broadcast correspondent Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.