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Mourning the Army I Knew

Whether or not women serve in elite military units, declining standards have hurt a great institution.

It was long ago, but the scene is burned in my memory. My Army drill sergeant informed us how lucky we were that a previous recruit had died on the infantry range. The drill instructors (DIs) had been told to loosen procedures so as not to kill any more of “you college boys.” We were mostly New York City wise-guy reservists taking basic training after university graduation.

Our DI sure seemed to push the edge anyway and, struggling as I did, I always wondered how tough the previous training must have been. Later I had the opportunity to learn that the training loosened even more over the years to accommodate what Arnold Schwarzenegger called the increasing number of “girlie men” in our times.

By 2010, the Army’s top trainer, Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, told the New York Times that “the soldiers we’re getting in today’s Army are not in as good shape as they used to be.” The percentage of male recruits who failed the most basic fitness test at his training center rose to “more than one in five in 2006, up from just 4 percent in 2000.” In 2002, only three recruits suffered stress fractures. But last year the number rose to 39 and the percentages were “higher” for women.

The Army’s solution was to deemphasize “traditional sit-ups,” for more agility and balance training, while increasing the difficulty more gradually and setting up a multi-week course of linked exercises, rather than offering separate drills. There were fewer sit-ups, different kinds of push-ups, and fewer long runs, which may be good for building strength and endurance but also increased injuries. The new procedures also did not necessarily prepare soldiers for carrying heavy packs or sprinting short distances. “We haven’t eliminated running,” General Hertling said. “But it’s trying to get away from that being the only thing we do.”

Physical requirements have been gradually sliding downhill for a long time. When I was personnel director for the U.S. civilian government, recommendations for reducing physical qualifications for demanding occupational classifications such as firefighters, police, welders, masons, press operators, carpenters and the like were a constant during my tenure.

This summer’s controversy surrounding the successful completion of Ranger training by two women—Army Capt. Kristen Griest and First Lt. Shaye Haver—has been brewing for a very long time and is only incidentally about sex. There is no question that these are remarkable women whose determination should inspire anyone. But the Army had to explain that these first two female Ranger school graduates had twice failed the physically demanding first phase of the training but were allowed to take it a third time, together with the remaining phases, at which time they successfully completed the requirements. The spokesman conceded it was “rare” to allow a soldier to be allowed to start over from the beginning after failing the same phase twice. Reporters were assured that the two women met all of the requirements the third time.

Major Jim Hathaway, the number two official in the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade, modified this explanation a bit, taking to Facebook to respond to the criticism:

The women were not afforded any advantage on recycles. They went through Darby Phase, recycled and were Darby inserts. Upon a second failure they were offered a Day 1 recycle. This means they started Day 1 and had to complete the Ranger Assessment Phase a second time. There is no advantage to this. Would any of you volunteered to go through RAP week twice and take a Day 1 recycle? Most people would not as evident by the several men who were also offered a Day 1, but declined. The Day 1 recycle precedent has been in place for many years, and is nothing new. Unless you have been part of the [Ranger Training Brigade] leadership … and have sat on the academic boards you would not know how common it actually is.

William Sabata, a former Ranger, 25-year soldier, and military science professor, was unconvinced, pointing to “the overwhelming amount of effort put into getting women into the course” and getting two to finish it:

Even before the 20 women were selected, there was a concentrated effort to prepare them and the cadre at the school. Once these arrangements were in place and 19 of the 20 women arrived, there were multiple failures in passing course requirements that led to an attrition rate of 90 percent, and the women who graduated from the 62-day program had recycled through several phases and took an additional 67 days to finish.

Sabata also cited the “pressure on the officers of the training brigade,” with “higher commands … scrutinizing and evaluating the actions at the school.” These officials “expected results (read graduates) and would not look kindly on the failure to graduate at least some women from the course.”

Lieutenant Michael Janowski took the course with the two women and defended them. He told a press conference that he was the gunner for a M320 grenade launcher for one long march in the mountains during the training test. “I had a lot of weight on me, and I was struggling, so I stopped and asked at the halfway point, ‘Hey, can anyone help take some of this weight?’” His fellow male Ranger trainees responded with “a lot of deer-in-the-headlights looks,” he said. “Shaye was the only one who volunteered to take that weight. She took the weight off me, she carried it for the last half of that ruck.” That act “literally saved me,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t be sitting here right now if it wasn’t for Shaye.”

But of course the men were acting like soldiers while the woman allowed compassion to trump the others’ refusal. Should a soldier who needed such help be graduated? Interestingly, Janowsky had “med-ed” out of Ranger training twice before due to what turned into stage IV testicular cancer. His determination and courage are commendable. But why are those with serious medical conditions like cancer needed in Ranger school? Were the other “common” recycles that Hathaway mentioned due to medical issues? The are no reports on whether the women had medical problems.

My comments as a long-ago reservist grunt for six years are more blunt than the (few) professional soldiers who have spoken on the matter. Any soldier knows when a high-ranking officer sends a work product back, one had better be sure it is done right the second time. If it is returned a second time, the officer will get whatever he wants on the third try, at least in any army I know.

Most serious defenders of women in special forces say they only support them if standards are maintained. Yet standards have already been bent generally, and particularly when allowing both men and women to retake the test three times. As Hathaway admitted this is “common”–even in Ranger training!

I write this with little expectation that women will not be allowed into the infantry and all special forces. More general grade officers have been disciplined for transgressing sexual standards than for all military actions combined. No officer with any expectation of a career will say a word. No politician will dare speak to be accused of sexism by those who place ideology over facts.

I am not really looking for policy change, but only to offer commiseration for the decline of a great institution, the U.S. Army, and in the future, all special forces.

Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution, and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term and one of his campaign strategists.



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