It will be a week before the eight women trying to earn the coveted U.S. Army Ranger tab find out if they move from the hills of Fort Benning to the mountains of North Georgia and the next step in the brutal leadership training process.
The current class of Ranger School — the first in its more than six-decade history to include women — started two weeks ago with 399 soldiers, including 19 women. It was pared down after four days of intense physical assessment to 192, including eight women. There are three more potential cuts between now and the June 19 graduation. Students can also fall out for medical reasons.
One of the factors determining who earns a tab is a peer evaluation system, a critical tool used to judge potential Rangers. It evaluates an individual Ranger student’s performance in comparison to the performance of peers within his or her squad.
“In the peer process, you learn about yourself, your buddy and everybody else,” said retired Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis L. Smith, who owns Uncommon Athlete Inc., a workout and training facility in nearby Columbus, Ga. “You know right off what somebody is thinking about you.”
Smith, a Ranger, is more than familiar with the process because his final assignment in the Army was command sergeant major of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade.
Each student receives peer reviews three times during the course. Those reviews come at the end of the current Camp Darby phase, the Camp Merrill phase in the mountains and the Camp Rudder phase in the Florida swamps.
Sgt. 1st Class Travis Pheanis has served as a Ranger instructor and is currently assigned to the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade.
“As part of that process, they are asked two questions,” Pheanis said. “ ‘Would you go to combat with this person? Would you share a foxhole with this person?’ ”
The answers can sometimes be brutally honest, Pheanis said.
“I can tell you that you get some very truthful answers when they are tired and they are fed up with their fellow students,” Pheanis said.
“I have seen a student write that he would not send his worst enemy into combat with someone,” Smith said.
If a squad manipulates the peer process in any way in regard to women, it will be obvious, Smith said.
“It is going to come out,” he said. “It will be thrown out and that squad will be brought in and talked to. They will be told, ‘We know you tried to keep her or lose her’ – whatever it is. They will make sure there is no cheating and it is a fair process.”
When a soldier fails a peer evaluation in the first phase, the battalion commander determines whether the soldier should go forward. If allowed to move on to the next phase, the Ranger student is switched to a different platoon or company before beginning training at the next phase, according to the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade.
If a student fails to complete one of the last three phases, he or she is eligible to re-enter the process at the point where they washed out.
“That student – if he or she happens to recycle – will get to read” the assessments, Pheanis said. “They will see the harshness that maybe their brethren gave to them.”
The questions are asked for a reason, said Col. David G. Fivecoat, commander of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade.
“The way we see those two questions is, with the foxhole, ‘Are you more annoying and I can’t stand to be next to you all the time,’ ” Fivecoat said. “The going-to-war one is more competency and ‘Do I trust you to go to combat with you?’ That is the bigger one.”
During the last three phases, the leadership abilities are assessed in small-unit patrols during which students plan and execute missions under difficult circumstances that include lack of sleep and lack of normal meals and nutrition. These missions are also carried out in difficult and demanding high-mountain terrain and the critter-invested swamps. Students also have to carry provisions and essentials for the missions, with a weight that can top 100 pounds for each person.
Approximately 4 percent of the Ranger students will fail peer evaluations, Fivecoat said. Many Ranger students who fail peer reviews also score low on another portion of the course.
Poor peer reviews play out in a very practical way, Smith said. He uses the following example:
“You never know when you are going to be called to be a leader,” Smith said. “They’ll stop in the middle of the patrol. You might have planned the mission, then I have to execute it. I better have been paying attention because me and you both are being graded if that happens. If that happens you ain’t going to like me very well if you put a great plan together and I didn’t execute it correctly.”
There is also another way that can play out, Smith said.
“If you were just in charge and I was Joe the Ragman and I worked for you,” he said, “I was helping out — I was putting people in, I was putting machine guns in, I was getting everything done, I was trying to get things right — and we are switched, I am in charge and you are Joe the Ragman. You are falling asleep and not keeping up. You are like, ‘I am done with my grade. I got my stuff.’ I am going to peer you pretty low — or vice versa.”
When the small unit work begins, which comes after the initial week of intense physical training and assessment, you can’t hide, Smith said.
“Everybody sees that,” he said. “The cream rises. The kids who are really good, great leaders and step to the top, they peer high.”
Those who added value to their units also do well in peer reviews, Fivecoat said.
“Strength and endurance is a premium in this course,” the colonel said. “Usually with peers, it will focus back on if a soldier will carry extra weight. In that small microcosm of a squad, if he is willing to carry extra weight, then I don’t have to.”
There are other elements of teamwork that come into play, according to Fivecoat.
“Do they help with the patrol? I don’t have to tell him things multiple times,” Fivecoat said. “That is value added. Each day you have to find way to provide value to the squad. If you are small person and you can’t carry a lot of weight, but you do a great job planning or you go and get water, that is how you do well in the peers.”
The school has not altered the strict standards in any way for this class. The women are having to meet the same physical, mental and peer standards that the men are held to.
Smith does not think the male soldiers will be pressured to review a woman one way or another.
“I don’t think there will be any pressure unless they apply it on themselves,” Smith said. “If everybody is honest, the assessment process will work just as intended.”
Williams reports for the Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Ga.