When Capt. Aston Armstrong was commissioned as an engineer officer, Sapper Leader Course was her dream.
“Sapper was the most badass a female officer could be,” she said.
Now the 28-year-old graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., has her sights set on Ranger School. She’s training to be ready, should the Army decide in January to go forward with a plan to bring women in for an assessment next year.
“It’s never been a dream of mine, but I never thought it was possible,” Armstrong said. “I wouldn’t have these things if some females hadn’t stepped up to the plate before me.
“Any female captain should volunteer if they are capable and say, ‘thank you,’ and show this wasn’t for nothing,” she said.
The Army announced in September it would accept applications from women interested in attending the 62-day Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga. The school challenges service members of all occupational specialties, but primarily infantrymen, through three phases with scenarios and tasks meant to induce hunger, mental and physical fatigue and emotional stress.
Overall, the school offers very little by way of comfort, privacy or relief from stress. Over the past six years, about half of all students graduate and earn the coveted Ranger tab.
With the tab, soldiers get better access to Ranger units. Women who complete the Ranger assessment course as students will be awarded the Ranger tab to wear, but will not be awarded associated Ranger skill identifiers due to military code restrictions. The decision to change that or not is scheduled to be made by the secretary of defense no later than Jan. 1, 2016, when he determines if women will be permitted to become infantry soldiers and serve in other closed military occupational specialties.
Fort Benning’s Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade selected 31 women who began training Monday to serve as observer/controllers for the potential course assessment in the spring.
Armstrong said she’s not sure how she feels about having female observers at the assessment, because she wants to have an authentic experience.
“I understand the standards will be the same, but it could change the dynamic,” she said.
The standards of the school will not be lowered for women during the assessment, and the class will include male soldiers as well, Army officials said.
Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, told reporters he expects to see about 80 women apply by the Dec. 1 deadline. The opportunity is open to ranks specialist through major with a commitment through Oct. 1, 2016.
Show of strength
Armstrong is one of two women in the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, training for a chance to show their strength.
Second Lt. Anne Lee also filed an application.
“I’ve always wanted to do it. I’ve never been able to,” said the 23-year-old. While at West Point, Lee played rugby and ran track and cross country, so she feels ready for the physical challenge — including the chin-ups.
“I obviously want to prove to myself I can do it. It’s a personal challenge,” Lee said. “I think it would be really great to go in there and do well and show that women can do that stuff. Just because we’re a certain gender doesn’t mean we don’t have the right to attend an Army school.”
Lee serves as a fires officer with 3rd Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment.
“I wanted to be as close to the maneuver side as I could,” she said. If infantry had been an option, Lee said she would have chosen it.
“But knowing what I do about artillery now, I wouldn’t want to change,” she said.
Aside from training outside of work, Lee is in Air Assault School “to remember what it’s like to be yelled at.”
“After plebe (freshmen) year nobody really yells at you,” Lee said.
On the weekends, Lee and Armstrong, as well as a handful of other Fort Hood women vying for Ranger tabs, practice land navigation, patrolling and other Ranger skills. Male soldiers with Ranger tabs also helped them get prepared.
“I’m worried about patrolling,” Armstrong said. “For infantry males, it’s second nature. I’ve only done it once in Sapper School for two weeks.”
She also fears that after the assessment, people will say the women chosen didn’t really earn it. Comments on Fort Benning’s Facebook page show this is already happening. A post Monday about the female observers garnered 77 comments, mostly with people criticizing integration.
“It’s important that the men who go there with the women say, ‘Hey, she earned that tab,’” Armstrong said. “We need to have our peers go to bat for us afterward.”