It is 2015, but there are still “firsts” for women in the headlines. Two of the first females to graduate and become Army Rangers just made history. Captain Kristen Griest from Connecticut and Lieutenant Shaye Haver from Copperas Cove, Texas are the first women to successfully pass the elite, grueling Ranger training.
Lt. Haver, 25, is an apache helicopter pilot. Major Mary Jennings Hegar, another female pilot from Texas, saw combat back-in-the-day and helped make it possible for women to obtain equal opportunity in the military. Hegar speaks with the Standard about the lawsuit that made today possible, and her personal experience in the military.
Major Hegar served three tours in Afghanistan as a rescue helicopter pilot and received a purple heart for combat-related injuries. She was denied a position in the air force for not being a man, she says. In response, Hegar sued the Secretary of Defense saying the combat exclusion policy was unconstitutional. At its core, it prevented women from entering direct combat.
When the policy was finally repealed in 2013, the Pentagon had already announced it would formally lift restrictions on women serving in combat positions. Even though Hegar was already in an office job in Austin when those restrictions were lifted she says it wasn’t too late for her to benefit from the policy change. “It’s never too late,” she says. “I could always look at applying for some of the roles that were closed to me before [but] the more time that goes by, the less and less likely that is.”
Some critics of the policy change take issue with the fact that only two women graduated from the training program, but Hegar says those numbers are deceiving. “[Two people graduating] works out to about just over 10 percent, and I think that the men’s is just over 20 percent,” she says. “And honestly, I don’t know that we have to see those numbers equalize in order to make the argument that all of these jobs should be at least open for people to be able to compete.”
Hegar says that all groups should have the chance to be a Ranger, regardless of any possible differences in their baseline abilities. “I’m sure that if we looked at statistics on other factors like ethnicity, or height, or socioeconomic status, you could probably find trends among other groups where they have higher percentage rate for graduation,” she says. “But we never talk about closing opportunities to those people just because they may have lower graduation rates.”
Other critics of women taking on combat roles say that the military will lower standards so women can get into the ranks. “The standards issue is at the forefront of the debate,” Hegar says. “Saying the standards shouldn’t change and saying that the standards shouldn’t be lowered are two very different things. The standards for all jobs in the military are constantly changing and evolving…. And they should be consistently re-assessed for applicability to the job.”
Hegar says that standards for this round of graduates weren’t lowered or changed at all, and every soldier — regardless of gender — had the same benchmarks they needed to pass to graduate.
But even with the new policy change, women will still be barred from membership in the 75th Ranger Regiment. Hegar says that adds a new level of difficulty to the training. “I went through survival training, which is very very intense and difficult and it’s still not as long and as difficult as what these women have gone through,” she says. “And there were moments during that training where the only thing that got me through… was knowing that I was going to be a pilot on the other side of it. So the fact that they were able to complete this course without that carrot that most people hold on to — the temptation to quit… has got to be a lot higher for people who aren’t guaranteed to serve in that role.”
So what’s the timeline for policy changes to take effect? “I believe this coming January of 2016… that’s the deadline that the Secretary of Defense has set for the branches to submit their plans for any job that they want to remain closed,” Hegar says. “Before — by default — the [positions] were closed and they had to try to submit waivers…. Now — by default — they’re open, and they have to submit waivers to keep them closed.”
That reversal is stepping back decades of discrimination and makes military officials responsible for proof that there’s a reason for the exclusion, Hegar says. “The burden of proof now is on the people who want to keep things closed.”
But how is the military going to deal with the very real differences between women and men, like the difference in body sizes and shapes? “With gear and logistics… are there gonna be things that are uncomfortable or challenges that we have to face? Absolutely,” Hegar says. “But you know what? We faced those same things when we integrated racially, and few people would stand up today and say that wasn’t worth it.”
“This isn’t about equality, this is about military effectiveness,” Hegar says. “Having a higher quality at the end — which is what you get when you increase the number of applicants for any position — is going to make the minor inconveniences and logistics well worth it.”