Not long after the Pentagon first allowed women to be combat pilots, Martha McSally sat in a training room listening to yet another male fighter pilot ranting about how women “don’t have what it takes.” She had just run the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, beating most of the men in the military division.
“And here’s this slightly pudgy fighter pilot, standing up and emotionally arguing why women don’t have the strength — it was almost laughable if it wasn’t enraging,” recounts McSally, now a Republican congresswoman representing Arizona. Women had long performed well in gender-blind pilot training, but couldn’t go on to combat, “because we had ovaries, for crying out loud.” “You gotta pick your battles, but I couldn’t help myself from standing up and countering him. I said, ‘Let’s go outside and sort this out, just between you and me. Let’s have a little competition and see who’s the last one standing.’”
That was more than two decades ago.
On Friday, Army 1st Lt. Kristen Griest and Capt. Shaye Haver will become the first women to graduate the grueling Ranger course. Their achievement has been accompanied by a Wednesday announcement from Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, that the service will soon open its elite training school for SEALs to women as well. Most of the services — with the possible exception of the Marines — are not expected to ask for exemptions this fall as the military prepares to open to women all 200,000 positions that remain closed to them, including front-line combat and special operations jobs. The Defense Department has opened 111,000 jobs to women since beginning their review in January.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Thursday reiterated his desire for the services to be united on this front. “They are the first two women to pass through this elite proving ground … truly it’s a huge credit for anyone,” Carter said in a press conference at the Pentagon, after personally congratulating Griest and Haver. “The department’s policy is that all ground combat positions will open to women.” Final determination will be made, he said, by the end of the year, but he added he took “special satisfaction in strides like this that we continue to make.”
The four women serving in Congress who are veterans of America’s post-9/11 wars take particular pride in the accomplishments of these women, having blazed their own trails in the military, and now in office.
McSally, who was named to the House Armed Services and Homeland Security committees after her election in 2014, retired from the Air Force in 2010 as a full colonel. She had a lot of “firsts” in her 26 years, according to her office: first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, first woman to command a fighter squadron in combat, first woman to command a combat aviation unit. She flew nearly 325 combat hours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 2,600 flight hours over her career.
She noted the irony of women being able to qualify for the Ranger tab but not try out for the 75th Ranger Regiment, the active Army unit for the most selective missions. “We’ve had women on the battlefield in 360-degree war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and when put in those circumstances — often without the same training — they’ve shown bravery, they’ve killed bad guys, they’ve died, they’ve come back wounded, everything it takes to be a leader…and now the goal posts have moved. ‘Well, it doesn’t mean they can meet a job where the primary responsibility is to be on the offense’ — are you kidding me?”
She pointed out the women’s accomplishment is even more impressive given the microscope they were under from those who expressed concern that standards would be lowered for them, despite the military’s insistence, in addition to taking some four months to complete the 62-day course.
“Here we are ... two West Point graduates graduating from Ranger School, the toughest leadership course designed for combat forces, and they kicked ass under extraordinary pressure,” she said. “These gals are smart — they know exactly what they’re getting into, but they still said, ‘Send me.’”
McSally’s colleague on the Armed Services Committee, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., was also a combat pilot, flying Blackhawk helicopters. She says she purposefully chose the job because it was the closest she could get to combat before the 1993 changes that allowed McSally to become a fighter pilot. Duckworth became one of the first women to fly combat missions in Operation Iraqi Freedom when she deployed to Iraq in 2004 with the Illinois Army National Guard.
“To see two women get their Ranger tab in 2015 is inspiring, but not surprising to many of us who have never doubted that there are women who have the physical and mental strength required to earn a spot in the most elite combat units,” she told Defense One in a statement.
Duckworth lost her legs and partial use of her right arm when her helicopter was hit by an RPG in November 2004, and was awarded a Purple Heart. In 2009, President Obama appointed her as an assistant secretary of veterans affairs, and three years later, she was elected to Congress. She recently retired from the military, and now she’s running for a seat in the Senate against fellow veteran Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
“It’s past time that military policy catches up to that reality,” she said. “This move isn’t only good for women in the military – it will enhance force readiness since a greater pool of talent will be competing under the same criteria.”
A third female veteran colleague on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, was deployed to Iraq the same year as Duckworth. She served two combat tours in the Middle East. Elected in 2012, Gabbard continues to serve as a captain in the Hawaii Army National Guard.
When Griest and Haver graduate on Friday, she told Defense One “history will be made.”
“I'm so proud of what these women have accomplished, and the trail they are blazing for so many others who will follow,” she said. “Department of Defense policies are finally beginning to catch up to the reality … There is more to be done to make sure that our highly qualified female service members, like Cpt. Griest and 1st Lt. Haver, have the opportunity to lead in combat arms units and missions, which they are currently barred from.”
Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard, spoke to Defense One just before the August recess about her role as the first female combat veteran to be elected to the U.S. Senate, in 2014. She is one of three post-9/11 veterans named to the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee.
“There will be for some a push to say women should serve everywhere, regardless of cost, and as a commander who served overseas in difficult and strenuous times, and because my husband served as an Army Ranger, I have to say, there are standards in place for a reason,” she said, but continued, “Women can serve pretty much everywhere.”
In 2003, Ernst served as a company commander in Kuwait and Iraq with the Army Reserves. When she took command of her transport company, she said she had to break through stereotypes still held by the “old-timers.” “Some of the more old-school service members might have some very significant concerns about women in a combat role, but honestly women are already serving in combat and they do it quite effectively,” she said.
Of the women in Ranger School, who had not yet completed the course, she gushed, “I love it!” “I wish them the best. I would love to be there -- it’s gonna happen. If anybody can do it, these young women can do it. I want to be there when they pin their tabs on … There’s going to be a lot of elite groups of women pursuing these opportunities.”
But Ernst won’t be attending the graduation Friday — fittingly, she is currently doing her annual two-week training at Camp Dodge.