Ranger women

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Today we learned that the Pentagon is officially lifting the ‘ban on women in combat’ which will open up positions in the military that were once open only to men – namely combat arms jobs like infantry. I’ve written about this a lot on this blog and it’s a move I support. There are a number of reasons why I feel this way, but I can’t articulate those reasons any better than COL (Ret) Ralph Puckett, one of the founders of the modern Rangers.

From the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer:

Although there are many — particularly Rangers — who are vehemently opposed to opening the training to women, women will be permitted to attend. Rather than continuing to fight against the inevitable, the Army would do well to focus its attention on the steps to be taken to ensure that standards will not be lowered, and that the integration will be accomplished as smoothly, efficiently and fairly as can be.

If I were the commander (I’m not; it’s easy to say what one would do when he has no responsibility for the outcome), I would already have begun to plan for eliminating the prohibition on women attending Ranger School. I would be training and indoctrinating my staff. We would be preparing for the day when the first female student arrives.

I would make it clear (and I would continue to reiterate my position) that I have zero tolerance for harassment and fraternization.

If I had been in command for a couple of months, my soldiers would know that I mean what I say. There may be one or two violations of my policies. If there had been any doubt that I did not mean what I say, my swift, direct, strong actions would eliminate that doubt. I would expect little difficulty.

I would assign a couple of mature, experienced, respected female soldiers to my staff to advise my commanders, staff, and me. I would particularly want some senior female noncoms who fit the description.

I would make it clear to my commanders, staff and senior noncoms: “If you do not believe that you can give 100 percent effort to make this transition succeed, you need to request a transfer now.”

I would do everything in my power to make the transition from all-male to coed training go smoothly, and the integrity and value of Ranger training not be diminished. This transition affects the combat readiness of our Army and the security of our country. Significant diminution of combat effectiveness will occur if standards are not maintained.

I believe the biggest hurdle for women to overcome would be the skepticism of the men. On the other hand, it will be difficult for the females to accept being treated as equals with no deference being given to their sex.

Many — probably most — male soldiers may have difficulty in accepting the females as equals — as soldiers — and treating them in the same manner as the male soldiers. I do not believe most of the men will find that easy, especially those who have lived under the mores of the last few generations. I do not believe that the two sexes can ever look at each other without any inbred deference.

But we can do a lot better than we are doing. The most important factor in making this thing work is strong, sensitive commanders who put combat readiness first.

I believe the only step required to authorize females to attend Ranger School is for the combat exclusion rules to be eliminated. The Army would have to change the regulations governing qualification for admittance.

Standards must not be lowered. Establishing different criteria to enter or graduate would be the worst thing that could be done.

Unfortunately, I believe that the Army will lower standards. It has in the past. Take the Physical Training Test as an example. Females have to perform fewer repetitions and may run more slowly than men, yet get 100 points for the event. Females do not have to do chin-ups; they “hang.” Statistics show that women have more injuries (“stress fractures” is an example.) than men. If females undergo the same rigorous training as the men, the number of female injuries may rise to “unacceptable.” In my reading of studies and books examining what females can do and can’t do, there are examples of changing physical standards so women can meet the requirements. I strongly doubt that the Army can resist giving special consideration to females.

There could be benefits to the Army if women are accepted in Ranger School. But only if standards are maintained.

If standards are maintained and other problems minimized or eliminated, the Army will have added a pool of highly motivated, intelligent and physically outstanding individuals. They will be higher quality than some of the men who are being accepted. They will motivate the men to do their best — not to be outdone by women.

Among the biggest, if not the biggest, obstacles to making it work are those senior officers who don’t have the moral courage to refuse to knuckle under to superiors, politicians, and other influential people who may have in their minds only the advancement or protection of their personal careers.

Can it work? I think it can, if commanders and senior noncoms devote themselves to making it work. It won’t be easy.

Ralph Puckett, a Columbus resident and retired Army colonel with 22 years’ service, was honorary colonel of the 75th Ranger Regiment from 1996-2008.

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The Junior Officer Reader – Black Hawk Down

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Today is the 19th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu (Day of the Rangers).

When I first joined the military in 2001, Black Hawk Down was the book du jour for young infantrymen. At 30th AG, where all infantrymen get their start, just about everyone had read the book or were currently reading it. For some, it was the inspiration to join. For others, it represented the high end possibility of life in the peacetime infantry.

I never heard of the book.

Sure, I knew about the events in Mogadishu in 1993. But I didn’t understand them. I was 11 years old at the time. What I knew was that there was a major firefight in some far-off African city. A lot of Americans soldiers were killed, and these were some of our best.

I remember being marched to chow and passing the placards featuring the Medal of Honor citations for SFOD-D snipers Randy Shugart and Gary Gordon. Gung ho recruits who were more familiar with the book and story told of their heroic attempt to protect downed Black Hawk pilot Mike Durant, dropping into the crash site and holding back a violent Somali mob until they were ultimately overrun. Shugarts’s body would be seen on television screens across the world as it was dragged and displayed through the streets of Mogadishu.

I finally dove into Black Hawk Down (1999) a few weeks ago and just finished it. It was a difficult book to read because the detail was so intricate that the action was hard to follow. Bowden painstakingly recreates the battle, telling the same story and meta-stories from different angles and perspectives, including the Somalis. The reader is rocked forward and backward through moments of time, sopping up every detail of a gruesome battle.

For the junior officer, the book offers a number of lessons, including the importance of careful preparation. Task Force Ranger decided not to bring their night visions devices on the raid since it was supposed to be an in-and-out mission during daylight hours. This left them stranded in the city during the night without the device that would have given them a significant tactical advantage. Some of the men chose not to wear their bullet proof armor plates, opting for speed over safety. At one point, the Ranger Commander regrets choosing to leave bayonets back at their base, as they were growing dangerously close to running out of ammunition. I don’t remember the last time I saw a bayonet.

Unity of command is another important issue found here. At times during the battle, Rangers found themselves intermixed with operators, and it was not clear who – if anyone – was in charge.

Something captured well by Bowden is the hierarchical structuring the military does to itself in terms of eliteness and professionalism. The Delta operators thought the Rangers were unprofessional who though that the 10th Mountain Division was a joke. It wasn’t just an acknowledgement of different mission sets and training, but a real animosity that often manifested itself in tactical decisions made out of spite or anger.

Before I read the book I already understood the cultural significance that Black Hawk Down has had on the Army. It is the battle in which all modern battles are compared to. It is the benchmark. It is constantly referenced as both a joke (“Irene,” “This is my safety”) and a lesson (night vision, armor plates).

I also found the descriptions of the Rangers interesting. Bowden writes that the “high and tight” was the haircut that marked the professional, high-speed Ranger. Today I think you would be more likely to see a more civilian-inspired hairstyle, emulating the guys on the next rung on the hooah ladder.

I’m not sure that any mission since then – including the Bin Laden mission – has had or will have more significance to the culture of the military than Black Hawk Down.

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These are books that I have discovered or had recommended to me and would be good to read as a junior officer. My goal is to get through all of them before I’m no longer junior. Any suggestions?

Just Another Soldier (Jason Hartley) 10/13/11
One Bullet Away (Nathaniel Fick) 5/13/12
The Unforgiving Minute (Craig Mullaney)
The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War (Brandon Friedman)
Chasing Ghosts (Paul Rieckhoff)
Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (Matt Gallagher)
Love My Rifle More Than You (Kayla Williams)
Hesitation Kills (Jane Blair) 6/10/12
The Blog of War (Matthew Burden)
House to House (Davide Bellavia)
Afghan Journal (Jeffrey Coulter)
Once a Marine (Nick Popaditch)
Greetings From Afghanistan-Send More Ammo (Benjamin Tupper)
The Poor Bastards Club (Paul Mehlos)
Kill Bin Laden (Dalton Fury)
Horse Soldiers (Doug Stanton)
The Long Road Home (Martha Raddatz)
Once an Eagle (Anton Myrer)
The Good Soldiers (David Finkel) 9/19/12
Black Hawk Down (Mark Bowden) 10/1/12