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Defense Secretary Carter Says Two Female Rangers Are 'Trailblazers'

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The first two women to make it through the Army's demanding Ranger training met the press today at Fort Benning, Ga. They wore the same camouflage uniform as the six male classmates who joined them and all had shaved heads. Captain Kristen Griest summed up her feelings with one word - awesome.

CAPTAIN KRISTEN GRIEST: It's definitely awesome to be part of the history of a Ranger School in general.

SIEGEL: NPR's Tom Bowman has more.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Army Ranger training takes soldiers from the woods to the mountains to the swamps. They are pushed to exhaustion. They get little to eat or sleep, so the women - both West Point graduates - were asked this question. Did you ever think of quitting? Here's Captain Griest.

GRIEST: I never seriously considered it. I definitely had some low points, particularly in the swamps in Florida, but I never actually thought anything was going to be too difficult that it was worth leaving the course.

BOWMAN: First Lieutenant Shaye Haver said she'd be crazy to say she'd never considered dropping out.

FIRST LIEUTENANT SHAYE HAVER: But the ability to look around to my peers and see that they were sucking just as bad as I was kept me going.

BOWMAN: Tomorrow both women and about a hundred men will graduate and wear the coveted Ranger tab on their uniforms. But the two women will not be allowed to serve in ground combat units like infantry and armor. Army leaders are still deciding whether to let women serve in those jobs. Captain Griest wouldn't say whether their performance will open doors for women to serve in ground combat.

GRIEST: But I do hope that with our performance in Ranger School, we've been able to inform that decision as to what they can expect from women in the military, that we can handle things physically and mentally on the same level as men And that we can deal with the same stresses and training that the men can.

BOWMAN: That's still an open question. Both the Army and the Marine Corps are finishing up studies looking at whether women can withstand the long patrols, the heavy weight of packs. The Marines already have found a higher dropout rate for women in their experiments with infantry training. The services must tell Defense Secretary Ash Carter by October 1 whether all combat jobs should be open to women or whether some should remain closed. Today at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Carter made it clear that there's a high bar to keep any combat jobs closed to women.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASHTON CARTER: And the Department's policy is that all ground combat positions will be open to women unless rigorous analysis of factual data shows that the positions must remain closed.

BOWMAN: And he said he called the two women to congratulate them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARTER: Clearly these two soldiers are trailblazers, and after all, that's what it means to be a Ranger. Rangers lead the way.

BOWMAN: Rangers lead the way. That motto dates from World War II when Rangers arrived to the Normandy coast during D-Day. And Ranger School was always considered among the toughest Army training, it all but necessary to lead troops in combat. Fellow Rangers admitted they had doubts that two women could make it, but Lieutenant Mike Janowski said that changed during a hike one night when he was weighed down with gear and asked this question.

LIEUTENANT MIKE JANOWSKI: Hey, can anyone help take some of this weight? I got a lot of deer-in-the-headlight looks, you know? A lot of people were like I can't take any more weight. Shaye was the only one to volunteer to take that weight.

BOWMAN: Shaye Haver - one of the first women Rangers who carried the load for miles. Lieutenant Janowski said it literally saved me.

JANOWSKI: So from that point, no more skepticism. I knew she was going to make it straight through.

BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.