AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This is a story of soldiers doing battle. The enemies - hunger, fatigue, even hallucination. The soldiers are women. They're fighting their way through the Army's notoriously difficult Ranger School. They're trying to make history by becoming the first women to graduate from it. It's a test that thousands of men before them have failed, and it's one of several Pentagon experiments to see how to best move women into ground combat roles. Jay Price of member station to WUNC reports from Fort Benning, Ga.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ranger, ranger, striker, striker.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Ranger.
JAY PRICE, BYLINE: That is a zip line, but not the fun kind in your backyard. With sharp-tongued trainers looking on, Ranger School students start from a 70-foot tower. They rocket down into a pond so hard, they can dislocate an arm or leg if they hit the water wrong. The instructors are trying to see who might struggle with heights and water.
MORGAN: Sergeant, Ranger Morgan requesting permission to drop, Sergeant.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Drop.
LIEUTENANT TRACY ROSS: That's my favorite. I enjoy heights (laughter).
PRICE: First Lieutenant Tracy Ross is one of 28 women observers who the Army brought in to help evaluate the training. The Army wouldn't let journalists talk to the students, but Ross knows what they're going through. She had to take all the physical tests the students did, but didn't have to pass them.
ROSS: We're just here to understand what they're going through. So actually going through the events gives us an idea of, you know, how it's going to be like, so we can provide feedback.
PRICE: It's only hours into the 62-day course. By this point, though, nearly a quarter of the 400 students have washed out for good, including three of the 19 women. In a normal year, only about half the men who try are able to finish. Ranger School is vitally important training for anyone who aspires to be an infantry leader. About 90 percent of the Army's senior infantry officers were the coveted, arch-shaped Ranger tab.
COLONEL WILLIAM BUTLER: Some folks argue that Ranger School is the best leadership school in the world, and I won't argue that.
ROSS: Everyone kind of wants a Ranger tab. It's kind of instant credibility.
MAJOR JOHN VICKERY: For enlisted personnel that are Ranger-qualified, a tremendous amount of credibility.
PRICE: That was Colonel William Butler, Lieutenant Ross again and Major John Vickery. They're all helping run the training. Opening the school to women is billed as a one-time experiment. Two years ago, the Defense Department lifted the ban on women serving in small ground combat units. Now each service branch has until the end of the year to figure out how to fit women into those jobs or say why it can't.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Walk across the log.
PRICE: Ranger School is famous for pushing students to their physical and mental limits for weeks on end.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: You can across that log, or you can quit.
PRICE: Most who drop out of Ranger school do so in the first 4 days - days built around a battery of must-pass fitness tests. That means a lot of ups - push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups and up at 3 a.m. to navigate by compass, solo, through bogs and thick underbrush. The first week's ordeal culminates with a 12-mile march under heavy packs that has to be finished in three hours.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Don't you dare touch that fence one more time.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: You're walking right into the...
MAN #6: Walk, Ranger, walk.
PRICE: Ranger training replicates the pressures of combat, and it's kind of a human pressure cooker. Sergeant First Class Travis Pheanis is a long-time Ranger instructor.
SERGEANT FIRST CLASS TRAVIS PHEANIS: We, you know, yell at them to create that stress that they're going to have in combat or whatever because nobody has a quiet conversation in combat.
PRICE: The students are kept moving, kept awake and kept hungry.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Ranger, hurry up.
PRICE: They get about three and a half hours of sleep a day and so little food that even men in great shape typically lose 15 to 20 pounds.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Do you know how many God-fearing Americans want to be walking across that log?
PRICE: But the final phase of the training, after the basic push-ups and sit-ups and the zip line, after working on small unit tactics, after learning to fight in the mountains, the soldiers are sent to a Florida swamp so exhausted that many are no longer sure what's real.
PHEANIS: Everybody hallucinates. I don't think there's one Ranger student that can tell you they didn't have one time where he saw something that was not there. I watched guys go up an escalator in the middle of the swamp, but then I blinked four times and laughed it off. The problem is that some guys take what they're eyes see as the gospel.
PRICE: The decision to let women try Ranger School triggered an outcry from critics, including retired and active-duty Rangers. Some complain women are taking hard-to-get student slots that should go to men, and they say the school's harsh standards would have to be lowered to accommodate female troops. Officials say the standards won't change.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: Hey, Rangers, listen up. When I say name, sound off with here.
PRICE: Here at Fort Benning, the trainers are too busy to dwell on the debate. Major John Vickery runs a navigation test as part of the Ranger course. As a safety measure, it's near a highway, a landmark that lost students can't miss.
What do you think about the idea of women as Rangers?
VICKERY: Let me think about that one for a minute. I think - I think it's fair to give the opportunity to people who are up for the challenge. There are women in special operations who have been in positions of substantial danger, who have been attached to Ranger units and even who have been killed in Ranger units in Afghanistan. And so I think to deny them the same opportunity for training is probably not right.
PRICE: But Major Vickery says passing a training course, no matter how tough, isn't the same as leading a unit in combat.
VICKERY: Putting a woman in a small outpost in Afghanistan with 30 males, I think, may pose some significant challenges that the Army would really have to work through to make sure that that's OK.
PRICE: The Army is gathering lots of data during the experiment, like how many women managed to crank out 49 push-ups in two minutes. But the Army thinks Ranger School will also reveal things that can't be measured, like how women will take on leadership roles under the stress of combat, which Ranger School tries to simulate.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: Rangers, you need to get aggressive. Offensive drill one - go.
PRICE: Three hundred students pair off in a giant dirt and woodchip circle known as the pit. They brandish black plastic daggers. An instructor with a bullhorn coaches them on knife fighting. A female soldier a little more than five feet tall, her expression blank, faces a six-foot man. After the knife practice, instructors urge the students to crawl, jog and lunge in a circle, yelling.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Rangers.
PRICE: And at times, hoisting each other aloft for a buddy carry.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #12: Move with a sense of urgency, Rangers. Buddy carry.
PRICE: One woman staggers along with a nearly 200-pound man draped across her shoulders. Of the 19 women who started the course, eight are still in - a dropout rate not too different from the men's. They still have more than a month ago. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price.
CORNISH: That story is part of our project Back at Base, NPR's collaboration with seven member stations from around the country.
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