About 60 women will be allowed to take the next Army Ranger course assessment, giving female soldiers their first opportunity in the all-male area of special operations forces — even though they will not become members of the regiment and will not serve as Rangers in combat.
Under current, still evolving military policy, only men can serve as part of the 75th Ranger Regiment — the special operations forces unit based at Ft. Benning, Ga. However, women who graduate from the course, set to begin in April, will be allowed to wear the vaunted tab of Army Ranger.
"Secretary of the Army John McHugh approved the participation of both men and women in the spring 2015 Ranger course assessment," the Pentagon announced Thursday. "The course has approximately 60 women scheduled to participate. Those who meet the standards and graduate from the course will receive a certificate and be awarded the Ranger tab."
Though it is somewhat of an experiment, the course is considered an important step as the U.S. military moves to combine men and women into combat units. The Pentagon lifted its ban on women in combat in 2012 but gave the military services time to integrate.
By January 2016, the military must open all combat jobs to women or seek an exception. It remains uncertain what the military will do with some infantry units, especially those with elite teams such as the Rangers.
"This is a very exciting development because it is the first time women have breached the walls of this all-male elite training course," said Ariela Migdal, senior staff attorney for the Women's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's great that they are being let in at all, but the next question is, will they be allowed to join?"
In November 2012, the ACLU, acting on behalf of four military women and the Service Women's Action Network, a group that works for equality in the military, filed suit to allow women to serve in combat. The suit is pending as the military launches various programs to see which units can be integrated and what exceptions will be sought.
Though the military policy was to ban women from combat, they were no strangers to the recent theaters of war. Although women were assigned to noncombat units, more than 800 were wounded during the active phases of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and at least 130 women were killed.
"There was a need for the policy to reflect what was actually happening," said Greg Jacob, a former infantry captain who is policy director of the Service Women's Action Network. "Over 14 years, we've seen women employed in tactical roles. In the past, breaking that was breaking the law. There was a need for the policy to catch up with what was happening on the ground."
Jacob said it was crucial for gender integration to take place, including in the infantry and in elite units. Some of the women who have served in combat may not have a record of their full service because it was barred.
"Without documentation of their participation, no one knows of what they have done," he said. "That can affect benefits or promotion. It's pretty critical."
Jacob said women going to the Ranger course in April was a first step toward gender neutrality and eventual admission to what are now all-male units.
The action had been expected.
Thirty-one female soldiers were selected last fall as advisors and observers and participated in a week of training at the Ranger school. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno also sent a signal about the action during a virtual town hall meeting with soldiers this month.
"We're just going to let the statistics speak for themselves as we go through this," he said, in response to a question from a soldier. "The main thing I'm focused on is the standards remain the same. In order to earn that tab, you have to do all the things necessary to earn that tab. We want to try a pilot to let women have the opportunity to do that."
The Ranger regimen is grueling. To get in, a candidate must be able to do 49 push-ups and 59 sit-ups, each within two minutes. He or she must do a 5-mile run in less than 40 minutes and six chin-ups with palms in.
"Men and women soldiers will be given the same opportunity to succeed and will be equally postured for success. All soldiers must be treated equally," according to the Army statement, which also said that "female Ranger students would be graded and evaluated under the same standards as the male Ranger students."
The Ranger course is 62 days long. The Ranger test is also being closely watched in Congress, where there is some disagreement about the role of women in combat.