Ranger strong?: Chattanooga woman tries to blaze a trail toward elite combat unit

Patricia Smith works out during a 6 a.m. session at the Cross Fit Brigade in North Chattanooga on Tuesday, January 13, 2015.
Patricia Smith works out during a 6 a.m. session at the Cross Fit Brigade in North Chattanooga on Tuesday, January 13, 2015.

This is the part she was dreading.

The pull-ups, the running, the push-ups all come easy to Patricia Smith. But trimming her shoulder-length hair down to three-quarters of an inch hurt. Badly.

"I'd rather go do a million dead-hang pull-ups," she said on her way into Hair A Go-Go on Tuesday.

Today Smith, 40, reports to Fort Benning, Ga., to begin the training process for the Army Rangers, one of the military's most elite combat units. Smith, a first lieutenant in the Tennessee Army National Guard, is among a couple of dozen women trying out the pre-Ranger School program for the first time as the Army considers if and how it might let women into one of its toughest combat groups.

The Army is allowing 60 women into the grueling Ranger School, allowing them to earn a coveted Ranger tab, The Associated Press reported. But even if the women succeed in the program, there's no guarantee they'll be admitted into the 75th Ranger regiment, which conducts special operations missions in locations across the world.

Before she started working as a platoon trainer, Smith didn't think women belonged in infantry positions. But in training other men and women, she has seen women who are just as skilled, just as strong and just as smart as men. Now she feels that women and men should have the same opportunities in the military -- so long as they are held to the same standard. Aside from the mental and physical exhaustion that awaits in the Ranger training program, she says she now feels pressure to succeed on behalf of women.

Smith's journey comes as the Army and all the nation's armed forces are working to better integrate women. In 2012, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the opening of combat positions to women; in 2013, he lifted the military's exclusion on women in direct ground combat. Today the Navy also is considering plans to integrate women into its elite SEAL unit. It was Navy SEALs who killed al-Qaida chieftain and 9/11 attack planner Osama bin Laden in a 2011 raid in Afghanistan. By 2016, the military must open all combat jobs to women or ask for special exceptions.

But not everyone is convinced women should be allowed into these high-risk units. Rangers are sometimes deployed behind enemy lines. They're trained in hostage rescues, counterterrorism and reconnaissance missions. In 2003, American prisoner-of-war Jessica Lynch was rescued from Iraqi combatives in part by Army Rangers.

Russ Bryant, a former Ranger who wrote a book on Army Rangers, said some women may be able to complete the tough requirements of Ranger School. But he still has concerns about women serving alongside men in Ranger units. He has photographed troops in Iraq and documented Ranger School for Time magazine. He thinks the women's presence could upset unit cohesion and their lack of physical strength could become a liability during wartime.

"Say I go through a door, I have a female behind me and I get shot in the chest," he said. "I'm on the ground and I'm out. Can that female pick me up with 150 pounds of crap on me and throw me on her shoulder to get me to a medivac?"

Plus, there's an emotional cost, he said.

"I don't think the American public is ready to turn on the TV and see a female infantry platoon wiped out by an IED with eight bodies lying there," Bryant said. "I don't think we're ready for that."

But women have been serving in combat since the American Revolution, said Greg Jacob, policy director at the Service Women's Action Network, a group aimed at securing equal opportunity for women in the military. Jacob said elite squads like the Army Rangers represent some of the final frontiers for full female integration.

"We see this really as part of the process of bringing women into the units instead of being a test of whether they can do it or not," he said. "I think it's already been proven they can perform."

Aside from Ranger-specific regiments, some leadership positions are set aside for Rangers in other parts of the Army. So far none of those positions have been opened to women, because women haven't completed Ranger training. Jacob hopes women who complete Ranger training will be able to compete for those positions.

"The school is what qualifies you to do the job," he said. "There's no excuse why the Army should be keeping those jobs closed to women."

In the coming weeks, Fort Benning will host women in four classes of Ranger Training Course Assessment, a pre-Ranger School program that prepares candidates for the rigors of the 62-day Ranger School. In Ranger School, candidates are deprived of sleep and food. Along with time at Fort Benning, the training takes them to the mountains of North Georgia and the swamps of Florida. Only about half of candidates complete successfully. It's so intense that some have died during the program.

"I think it will be the challenge of my life," Smith said. "I'm all about new experiences and this is going to be a new experience."

Those who know her say she's well-prepared for the challenge.

"She is the perfect candidate to embark on this opportunity," said Maj. Andrea Wynn, Smith's commander in the Guard. "I think she's going to be a fantastic role model for those that are coming in behind her."

In civilian life, Smith is a physician's assistant. In the Guard she serves in a medical squad. But physically, Smith should have a good chance. She has mastered the requirements for push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and running.

At CrossFit Brigade, where she trains, she's often the top performer, beating out the men and even topping a Ranger and a Green Beret, said co-owner Eric Griffith.

"She blows me away," he said. "She quite often is the rabbit my top competitors are chasing."

Even if she gets through the pre-Ranger program and completes Ranger School, Smith has no ambition to go into active-duty service or serve in a Ranger regiment. Because her work in the Guard involves training others, she hopes the experience will help her build leadership skills.

"I'm old. I'm going to retire in a few years," she said. "I'm never going to be in a Ranger regiment. But I want other women to have the opportunity."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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