I was not a great cadet. I went to West Point for the wrong reasons: the education was free, the pictures in the catalog were impressive, and my girlfriend - now my wife - was going to go. I did not give my heart to the institution. I was not interested in military discipline. I saw myself as a Hawkeye Pierce kind of rebel. As soon as I could, I sported a "marijuana split" parting my hair down the middle. I cut every corner I could. And I could cut lots of corners, because I was a guy. I was one of over 1000 guys in my class. If (and when) I got caught, it didn't reflect on the other guys at West Point. I was just one guy who did something stupid, or funny. Nobody said, "See, I told you guys shouldn't go to West Point." I had the luxury of being able to be mediocre.
The women in my class did not have that luxury. They could not blend in. There were just over 100 women in each class. And they were all suspect. Any mistake was a blemish on all the women. Any weakness would be seen as evidence that women didn't belong. Which made it hard on all the women. And women were hard on each other - knowing that the stakes for any mistake were high. Women had to perform well. All the time.
I could be mediocre. All the time.
It drove Andrea, my girlfriend, crazy. She was a great cadet. She had grown up wanting to go to West Point. Women wouldn't be allowed to go until Andrea was 14, but as a young girl she knew she wanted to be a cadet. She loved the structure and the discipline and the ideals of Duty, Honor, Country. She was a great cadet. And she felt the pressure to be perfect. All the time.
If Andrea was Private Benjamin, everybody would have noticed. And she would be a disgrace. I, on the other hand, was seen as a "good guy." My company-mates, when picking songs for our graduation slide show, picked the Beatles "Here Comes the Sun" for my song. I could get by on my sunny disposition. No woman had that luxury. No woman could be Private Benjamin.
But they also didn't have the option of being G.I. Jane. One of the most popular cadences we sang while running began "I want to be an Airborne Ranger . . . ." While it wasn't true for me - I didn't think I could handle the sleep deprivation of Ranger School - I never thought that for the women singing that song, it wasn't an option. No matter how perfect they were at West Point, they could never go to Ranger School, or even serve in the Infantry. A guy could be a mediocre cadet and become an Infantry officer. A woman could be a perfect cadet, had to be a perfect cadet, and couldn't.
Thirty Five years later, two totally bad-ass women are graduating from Ranger School and a third is close on their heels in the Mountain Phase.
This changes everything. Or should change everything.
Some people are claiming that they must have received special treatment, been coddled in some way. Ranger School must have lowered their standards. How else could a woman graduate?
How insulting for these women who have endured the hell of Ranger School. We should do nothing but stand, cheer and thank them for their courage for entering the program and their tenacity for not giving up.
It is time the Army opens all the branches for all qualified soldiers. These women have proven that women can be G.I. Jane. And we need to let them and support them. That's how we honor our soldiers.
We also honor our soldiers by realizing that they aren’t all called to be Rangers, or serve in the combat branches. While I was not a great cadet, I was a very good Army officer. I ended up loving the Army. I was an officer in the Signal Corps, setting up communication systems in the middle of nowhere. I loved the mix of leadership and technical Macgyver-ing necessary keep systems running on mountaintops in South Korea or the jungle in Thailand.
Our all-volunteer Army is blessed with a wide variety of people. We need do our best to get the right people in the right seats on the bus, to borrow a metaphor from Jim Collins author of From Good to Great, who taught leadership at West Point. Men and women who are Rangers at heart should be able to go to Ranger School and if they graduate serve in a Ranger Battalion. Those who aren’t should be put in positions that match their abilities and interests. The gender of the soldier does not need to be a factor.
I am proud to have served my country as a soldier. I am proud of the Army. And I am beyond proud of Capt. Kristen Griest and Lt. Shaye Haver who will graduate from Ranger School tomorrow. I look forward to the Army becoming stronger as all branches of the Army are opened to all qualified soldiers.