WASHINGTON (AP) — The Army will allow as many as 60 women to participate in the next Ranger course, allowing women for the first time to compete in the grueling two-month combat school. It is considered one of the first steps into the military special operations field.
Army Secretary John McHugh approved the change that would allow women in the course beginning in late April. His decision marks the latest move in the Pentagon's push to open as many combat jobs possible to women. Currently about 900 of the military's approximately 1,000 occupations are open to women, but the toughest ones remain closed to them, including infantry, armor and special operation jobs.
While completing the leadership course would let women wear the coveted Ranger tab, it does not let them become members of the Ranger regiment. Currently only men can be in the 75th Ranger Regiment — the special operations forces unit based at Fort Benning, Georgia. Joining the regiment requires additional schooling that is physically, emotionally and mentally challenging.
Women and men preparing for the Ranger course will be able to participate in a 16-day training and assessment school that would train women on some of the infantry and combat skills that they would not already have. Infantry jobs are not currently open to women.
The Ranger school includes three phases. The first 20 days focus on military skills and endurance. The second is a mountain phase that includes more small-unit operations and survival techniques and the final, so-called swamp phase takes place in Florida and includes airborne assault, amphibious operations and extreme mental and physical stress.
Juliet Beyler, the Pentagon's director of officer and enlisted personnel management, said Thursday that opening the Ranger school to women was the "next logical step," as the department continues its review of all jobs across the military to see if they can be open to women. And, as the year goes on, she said each step will inform the next, so the experiences of the women in the Ranger school will be examined and used as examples as other job openings are considered.
She noted that some women are already serving in a few specific jobs linked to units of special operations forces. Mainly those are women in logistics, administrative or psychological operations posts at the headquarters level.
But one woman is now a member of the elite 160th special operations aviation regiment, known as the Night Stalkers.
The Night Stalkers may be best known for flying the helicopters that took Navy SEALS into Osama bin Laden's compound in 2011.
That unit was also the one most often named by Army women as the combat job they'd like. While less than 8 percent of the women who responded to a survey last year said they'd want a combat job, more than 30 percent of those who did, named the Night Stalkers as their top choice.
The 160th is a specialized unit used to fly forces fast, low and deep behind enemy lines under cover of darkness. About 17 women worked in the unit in administrative, intelligence and logistics posts, as of last year.
Also, there have long been women aviators and aircrew in the conventional Army, just not on the special operations teams.
By January 2016, the military must open all combat jobs to women or explain why any must remain closed.
The Pentagon lifted its ban on women in combat jobs in 2012, but gave the military services time to gradually and systematically integrate women into the male-only front-line positions.
Special operations jobs are some of the last to be addressed, as commanders review the qualifications needed and assess the impact of bringing women in.
Military leaders have made it clear that they will not reduce standards for any jobs in order to let women in.