Army Ranger female graduates won't be last

Two women set to make Army history
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Story highlights

  • Two women on Friday will become first to graduate from Army Ranger School
  • Gayle Lemmon: They will be leading the way for many others who will follow

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the New York Times bestseller "Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield." You can read more about "Ashley's War" here on CNN.com. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)Rarely has one day -- and two groundbreakers -- changed a conversation so quickly. But Monday's news that two West Pointers have made the cut, and will become the first women ever to graduate from U.S. Army Ranger School, has shifted the discussion of women in combat from the hypothetical to the practical.

It seems that "let them meet the standard," rather than "can they meet the standard?" has become the new phrase, buoyed by the Ranger School performance of female soldiers whose mettle has thoroughly impressed Army leaders.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
"The women in Ranger School are another example of, if they can meet the standard, they should be able to go, and they should be able to earn their Ranger tab," said Gen. Ray Odierno, recently in his last news conference before retiring as Army chief of staff. "And I think that's how we want to operate as we move forward. If you can meet the standards that we've established, then you should be able to perform in that MOS. And I think that's where we're headed."
    That idea of meeting the standard has been central to the entire conversation around the opening of Army Ranger School to women, announced as a one-time pilot program last January. And having covered Ranger School for months, and the march of women into special operations for more than two years when I was writing "Ashley's War," I can vouch for the fact that every single soldier I have spoken to has argued simply for the chance to meet the standard, not a lowering of that very high bar. In fact, when I first asked the women I've interviewed about Ranger School, one of the first things they would say was that the worst thing that could happen for women was for a lowering of standards.
    Still, from the start, critics questioned whether women could endure the physical battering that the Army Ranger School is well-known to offer its students, from 12-mile marches to mastering treacherous mountains to days-long patrols in the Florida swamps. Many doubted whether even one female soldier could meet the test as it stands, and they worried that the prestige of the black and gold Ranger tab could be diminished for the sake of a "social experiment."
    Meanwhile, those charged with opening Ranger School faced a barrage of criticism on social media from those who said that the standard would have to be lowered if women were ever to meet it.
    Yet after spending years writing about a team of women whose members already had completed more than 70 combat missions alongside Army Rangers, or fast-roped out of helicopters with Navy SEALs on night raids in Afghanistan, I was probably less skeptical than some others that there was in fact a group of women fit, fierce and driven enough to push themselves -- both mentally and physically -- through the Army's toughest leadership school. The combat ban may have been in place, but these soldiers were needed to fill a security gap, and they raised their hands to serve on the special operations battlefield and to push themselves to the utmost in service to their country.
    Yet skeptics remained, and with this in mind, Col. David Fivecoat and those who led the opening of Ranger School invited a handful of reporters to see the process, while also bringing in respected retired Rangers to come see what they were doing and report back to their fellow Rangers that nothing had changed other than the gender of some of the school's students.
    "There is a lot of rumor and speculation," retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Jeff Mellinger told me in April during a visit to Fort Benning just before Ranger School opened. "What we wanted to do was to inject fact into a largely fact-free environment."
    And now, four months later, Army leaders say the fact is that two women have met the same standards as the men they trained alongside. And in the process they have moved minds and shifted views.
    "I talk to a lot of Ranger Instructors and they were naysayers, but you talk to them now and they are in awe and say 'my mind has been changed,' " said Sgt. Maj. Colin Boley, the operations sergeant major for the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade. "You cannot deny the fact that these three females who are in now have really wanted this tab. It is not an agenda."
    And now that Boley and many others have been convinced that at least a small number of women can meet the existing standard, the conversation seems to be quickly shifting from whether jobs will open to women to why wouldn't they -- even when it comes to the ultimate club of the elites, special operations.
    "Why shouldn't anybody who can meet these (standards) be accepted? And the answer is, there is no reason," Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert said Tuesday in an interview that caught many in the Pentagon off-guard with its speed. "So we're on a track to say, 'Hey look, anybody who can meet the gender non-specific standards, then you can become a SEAL.' "
    Another report Tuesday noted that "military services are poised to allow women to serve in most front-line combat jobs, including special operations forces." By January 1, all roles must open to women or a reason given as to why they will not.
    All this marks quite the shift.
    Of course, the two female officers have not quite graduated from Ranger School yet -- that will come Friday. But already it looks as if they will be leading the way for many others who will follow. And as they do, they will stand in the footsteps of Lt. Ashley White and her Cultural Support Team teammates, just as those women trod the path left by those before them.
    These women did not set out to make history or to prove a point, but sought to serve with purpose. And in the process their courage and guts have opened eyes and minds.
    "My hats off to them," Boley said. "I will be down there proud to say I was pinning the tab on the first female Ranger."