Women in combat sparking fierce debate within military and beyond

Ranger students tackle the Darby Queen Obstacle Course

Ranger students tackle the Darby Queen obstacle course at Camp Darby, Sunday April 26, 2015. The Army's Ranger School, which has historically been open to males only allowed females to qualify for the Army's most elite training course as part of t
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Ranger students tackle the Darby Queen obstacle course at Camp Darby, Sunday April 26, 2015. The Army's Ranger School, which has historically been open to males only allowed females to qualify for the Army's most elite training course as part of t

The push for American women to join men on the front lines of combat will take another step forward Friday when the third female candidate graduates from Army Ranger School in ceremonies at Fort Benning, Ga.

But the landmark success of the first three women to earn their Ranger tab, along with Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s initiative to increase combat roles for female troops, has set off a new round of gender wars across the country.

When Carter visited U.S. sailors last week at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy, one of the first questions he fielded came from a Marine who asked why the Pentagon wants to place more women in battlefield infantry ranks.

After assuring the Marine that “we’re going to make a data-based decision in all of the services,” Carter said simple math dictates that Pentagon leaders open more combat jobs and other previously closed roles to female troops.

“They’re going to have to recruit from the American population,” he said. “Half the American population is female. So I’d be crazy not to be, so to speak, fishing in that pond for qualified service members. Otherwise, it’s like having a population that’s half the size. So that’s the reason, from a point of view of mission success.”

On Oct. 1, the heads of the five military services gave Carter recommendations on which frontline combat jobs and special forces roles should remain closed to women, if any, along with data justifying the exclusions. Carter has pledged to accept or reject the recommendations, which he has not made public, by the start of next year.

As it is in so many other cultural disputes, the Internet is now a main battleground in a fight over women’s proper roles that, both inside and outside the military, goes back to the nation’s founding and includes the 19th century struggle for female suffrage, as well as the dispute two generations ago over whether women should be allowed to wear pants to work.

Capt. Shaye Haver and Lt. Kristen Griest, alumni of the United States Military Academy at West Point, completed the Ranger School’s rigorous 62-day training program and graduated with 94 male counterparts in August. Maj. Lisa Jaster, an engineer with two children, finished the course earlier this month and will graduate Friday with her male peers.

Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver spoke at a press conference on August 20, 2015 about their journey as the first females to successfully complete Army Ranger school, the U.S. Army's elite training and leadership school. The women refle

News articles about the three women’s historic achievements have prompted dozens or even hundreds of online comments over whether standards were lowered for them and, more broadly, whether women should join infantry and special forces units in war.

Many comments quickly divide along gender lines, with women advocating more opportunities for female troops and men arguing against them.

Some of the exchanges turn nasty.

These are the kinds of objections we have heard for 40 years. For some of us, enough is enough.

Former Army Capt. Sue Fulton, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy

When the Huffington Post reported Aug. 17 that Haver and Griest had become the first women to finish the Ranger School course, Florida reader Jerry Byers opined: “They only passed two (female candidates) because the rest QUIT! Women scream, cry and piss in their bloomers when stressed. Sorry, it is just a fact that women are not men, although some would like to be.”

That comment brought a sharp rebuke from Patty Flaherty, who did not provide a home state.

“Sure, women scream, cry and piss in their bloomers when stressed,” she wrote. “Try pushing a human being out of your body and get back to us, you moron.”

The gender wars also have reached the halls of Congress and West Point.

Rep. Steven Russell, a Ranger School graduate who deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other war zones before his election last November to the House of Representatives from Oklahoma, sent a Sept. 15 letter to Army Secretary John McHugh, demanding the evaluations and related performance documents for Haver and Griest while they were testing to become qualified to join the Rangers.

Within a week, a group of female veterans and West Point graduates filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Russell’s Ranger School files.

One of the women, former Army Capt. Sue Fulton, grouped Russell, 52, with “too many older men (who) have biases about what women are capable of.”

Fulton told Stars and Stripes, the official news outlet of U.S. armed forces: “This is about the fact that these are the kinds of objections we (female service members) have heard for 40 years. For some of us, enough is enough.”

While Carter and other Pentagon leaders stand accused in many online forums of bowing to “political correctness,” the initiative to expand women’s combat roles is a congressional mandate, required by the 2011 Defense Authorization Act.

Not all the opposition to sending more women into combat comes from men.

In a long March essay in Military Review, a deep-think journal published by the Army, Jude Eden, who served as a data communications specialist in the Marine Corps from 2004 to 2008, outlined more than a dozen studies and books spanning four decades that she said prove that female troops cannot meet the same physical and mental standards as male troops.

Women make up 15 percent, or 210,000, of the United States’ 1.4 million active-duty troops.

“We females can train as hard as we like, and we may increase strength, stamina and fitness,” Eden wrote. “Nevertheless, our increased fitness still will not put us on par with that of the men who are training to their utmost, like men in combat units and the Special Forces.”

Eden added: “No matter how widespread feminism becomes, our bones will always be lighter, more vulnerable to breaks and fractures. Our aerobic capacity will still be 20 to 40 percent less, and we will still be less able to bear heavy gear at a hard-pounding run.”

These kinds of debates have left some of the nation’s most elite male soldiers and sailors in a bind, even many who applaud the three female trailblazers who completed the Ranger School course.

Former Army Ranger Capt. Matt Griffin, who served three combat stints in Afghanistan and one in Iraq before leaving the military in 2006, rejected out of hand the claims that Ranger School standards were lowered in order for Haver and Griest to have graduated.

“It would be very tough to water down the standards for those two women in the class with all the men that were there,” Griffin told McClatchy. “If somebody wasn’t held to the same standard, it would quickly get out in the group. There would be some disgruntled men who would stand up and speak out.”

While a few male classmates of Haver and Griest have said testing standards were lowered for the two women, they’ve done so anonymously, and their claims were rebutted by other male classmates speaking on the record.

As much as he admires Haver, Griest and Jaster for their accomplishment, however, Griffin is not certain that they should be allowed to enter the 75th Ranger Regiment.

Carter would have to lift that ban, and his decision would be subject to congressional review. And even if the door is opened, women would have to pass a separate training regimen that current and former Rangers say is even tougher than the one at Ranger School.

“You’ve got America’s top freedom fighters who are alpha males on extremely stressful missions out in the middle of nowhere,” Griffin said. “If there is a man and woman together, there’s inevitably going to be some sort of romantic or sexual tension between them. That will decrease focus and deter from the mission.”

Griffin said that women served admirably with him in Afghanistan and Iraq, but he said they were in separate units attached to his Rangers platoon. One of their main assignments was to interact with Muslim women during U.S. raids, in deference to Islamic prohibitions against direct contact between women and men, especially foreigners.

Retired Lt. Cmdr. Brian Lippe, who served 24 years as a Navy SEAL before leaving the service in 1998, said women should be allowed to become full-fledged Rangers, SEALs, Green Berets and other special forces, but they should have their own testing regimens and then serve in all-female units.

“They should be given a chance, but it would be better for everybody if they created separate programs instead of Washington trying to make them like guys,” he said. “It’s like trying to put girls in the NFL. Yet you can’t deny them the right if we have an equal society.”

Chuck Williams of the Ledger-Enquirer contributed to this report from Columbus, Ga.

James Rosen: 202-383-0014; @jamesmartinrose