By Ed Stannard
New Haven Register, Conn.
Army Capt. Kristen Griest is eager to serve in a true combat unit and, as one of the first two women in history to pass the grueling Ranger School, she has marched closer to that goal.
A former track and softball star at Amity Regional High School, Griest, 26, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and went into the military police because it was the closest she could come at the time to serving in combat, her brother told the Associated Press.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mike Griest, an Army aviator, said his sister loves testing her endurance. “If she had been allowed to go infantry out of college, she would have done that,” he said.
Kristen Griest will receive her black and gold Ranger tab Friday at Fort Benning, Georgia, along with 1st Lt. Shaye Haver of Copperas Cove, Texas, but they will not be able to join the elite 75th Ranger Regiment unless the military’s top leaders decide to go along with a recommendation to open all combat roles to women.
“She’s awesome. She was always kind of a quiet leader, an unassuming leader,” said Anna Mahon, principal of Amity Regional High School, who taught Griest in English and, along with her husband, cross-country coach Sean Mahon, helped her prepare for the physical hurdles of entering West Point.
“The thing about Kristen is that she was always pretty tenacious and was goal-oriented,” Anna Mahon said. “She’s not histrionic and she’s not audacious.”
Mahon said she sees Griest occasionally at Orange Congregational Church, where they are both members. “She’s always been even keel and pleasant and I can see how she could be a good leader in any capacity,” she said.
Griest, who has served in Afghanistan, and Haver will join 94 male graduates of the 62-day course, which began in April with 381 men and 19 women, according to CNN. They were required to undergo demanding physical tests and simulated combat.
In a joint statement Wednesday, the families of Griest and Haver said the women were “just like all the soldiers” in their graduating class: “happy, relieved, and ready for some good food and sleep. Like everyone who will pin the tab on Friday, they are exceptional soldiers and strong teammates.” Griest’s parents were not available for comment.
Thom “Jake” Jacobs coaches girls’ track now at Amity but coached boys when Griest was in high school. But the teams did a lot together and he said, “I remember Kristen as being a super-dedicated and respectful young lady, certainly the type who would gravitate toward the military. I also remember her being physically stronger than the typical adolescent girl.”
Chris Dickerson was one of Griest’s cross-country coaches and, in an email, called her “a very talented athlete who was one of the toughest competitors we had,” competing in both the 1,600-meter race and discus. “No one has that sort of athletic range!!” he said. “I remember her as a respectful person and a very tough runner. I am so happy to see her excel at this level … It is great to see her setting the bar higher for women in the military.”
The Ranger course tests soldiers’ ability to overcome fatigue, hunger and stress during combat operations. The Army opened Ranger School to female soldiers for the first time this year.
“It’s just completely amazing,” Chris Haver, Shaye Haver’s father, told the Associated Press. “I’m super proud. I know a lot of guys that have been through it and tell me how hard the course is. They tell me it’s the toughest, most mentally demanding course they’ve been to.” Shaye Haver followed her father’s lead, serving as an attack helicopter pilot.
While they are now unable to join the Ranger squad, senior officials told the AP the military services are poised to allow women to serve in most front-line combat jobs, including special operations forces.
Based on early talks, officials say the Army, Navy and Air Force likely will not seek exceptions that close any jobs to women. Marine Corps leaders, they say, have expressed concerns about allowing women to serve in infantry jobs and may seek an exception.
The services are wrapping up reviews and must make their recommendations to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter this fall. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the internal debate.
Even if Marine leaders object, they are likely to meet resistance from senior Navy and Defense Department officials who want the military to be united on this issue.
State Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, issued a statement calling Griest “truly a groundbreaking woman for her commitment to excellence which proved that there really are no bounds for women and girls. Orange and the entire state of Connecticut are in awe of your accomplishments.”
Klarides said she hopes the two female Rangers will help convince military brass to allow women into other elite units, such as the Navy SEALs. “Qualified candidates should be allowed to perform the same tasks as their colleagues, regardless of gender,” Klarides said.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., also said women should be allowed into combat positions and praised the two new Rangers for “breaking down barriers and proving they are equally capable professionally and personally. These two women graduates are leaders in every sense, having demonstrated the courage and strength to serve in the most demanding, difficult missions.”
Blumenthal said Griest and Haver show that standards do not need to be lowered in order to accomplish that goal.
U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., also congratulated the two women. “Kristen and Shaye have more than earned their right to wear Ranger tabs on their uniforms and I know that their achievement represents a monumental step toward ending gender barriers in the military,” he said in a statement. “These women have demonstrated some of the greatest overall strength, and I hope that the Pentagon will act as swiftly as possible to ensure that Kristen, Shaye, and all of the women that follow in their footsteps are able to join the 75th Ranger Regiment if they so choose.”
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, said in a statement, “Being able to excel in the intense training and rigorous atmosphere demanded of Rangers is a tremendous accomplishment. I could not be prouder that Capt. Griest comes from Connecticut.”
Gov. Dannel Malloy called Griest’s accomplishment historic and said her achievement “no doubt is the result of years of perseverance, strength and patriotism. … Her achievements are incredibly important, yet also symbolic of how much progress we have to continue achieving in the future. We salute her service, and we also express our deepest gratitude to her family.”
Both Griest and Haver passed the three phases of the Ranger course on the first try. A third woman remains in the course.
Critics of allowing women into the military’s most elite units had used the argument that no woman has demonstrated she can keep up with men by passing Ranger School. It is considered one of the military’s most difficult courses physically and mentally and dates back to the 1950s. It includes phases at Fort Benning, on the mountains of northern Georgia and in the Florida Panhandle swamps in and around Eglin Air Force Base.
Undercutting the Marines’ reservations is that Special Operations Command is likely to allow women to compete for the most demanding military commando jobs — including the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force — though with the knowledge that it may be years before women even try to enter those fields.
Women have been steadily moving into previously all-male jobs across the military, including as members of the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, best known as the helicopter crews that flew Navy SEALs into Osama bin Laden’s compound. Women are also now serving on Navy submarines and in Army artillery units.
During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, thousands of women served and fought, and about 160 died.