As the first two women to graduate from U.S. Army Ranger School sat with their classmates on the edge of Victory Pond Friday, Sgt. 1st Class Robert Hoffnagle sat in the bleachers with his two young daughters.
Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver proved the skeptics wrong when they completed the Army’s most difficult combat leadership course and earned their way into what until now was an exclusive all-male club.
They did not speak to the media Friday — that was done Thursday at a news conference.
The significance of the moment was not lost on Hoffnagle, a former Ranger instructor and a four-time competitor in the Best Ranger Competition, an annual event that seeks to determine the force’s top two-man team.
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In January, Hoffnagle accepted an assignment to work with the female soldiers who had been selected to attend the first gender-integrated class.
He took the job for a couple of reasons: Aubrey, 9, and Abigail, 6.
“I knew that these girls could knock down these walls so my girls did not have to face the same trials and tribulations that these girls had to face,” Hoffnagle said.
It was an emotional moment when Griest and Haver got their tabs along with 94 men in a class that experienced a high attrition rate and even a lightning strike in the Florida swamps that sent an entire platoon to the hospital.
Ask 1st Lt. Alessandra Kirby. She, too, was there to see the wall come down.
Kirby was one of the female soldiers the Army selected to serve as observers and advisers to the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade battalions. She was brought to tears as she watched the black and gold tabs being pinned on Haver and Griest.
“It’s only possible until it’s done,” she said. “It’s done.”
A lot of people — inside and outside the Army — said it was not possible for a woman to successfully complete Ranger School.
“This proves a woman can do it,” Kirby said. “It’s not about just putting the tab on. It’s how it was done. Their demeanor, the way that they performed, how many minds they changed through this entire journey.”
Kirby saw the mindset of some instructors change as the women shouldered the load and took an offer to restart the course after twice failing the patrol phase at Fort Benning.
“Many of them felt like they would not be able to do it,” Kirby said. “You could see they were strong and wanted it. … Their demeanor and focus changed everybody’s mind.”
Gen. Mark Milley, on the job of Chief of Staff of the Army for about a week, came to Fort Benning to witness the historic moment. He will be at the center of a decision later this year that could allow women to hold combat jobs that have been previously off limits.
The Army has announced that the November Ranger School class will be a second pilot course open to women.
Milley made no public comments. He just watched and shook the hands of soldiers when it was done.
Maj. Gen. Scott Miller, normally a three-minute speaker, took 13 minutes under a scorching noon sun that caused at least one Ranger graduate to faint. The general put the historic nature of the event in perspective, addressing critics of the process with all the force of a former Delta Force commander, which he was.
And it was those Ranger instructors — spread over three battalions at Fort Benning, Camp Merrill in the north Georgia mountains and Camp Rudder in the Florida swamps — that Miller rose to defend.
He pointed out that he was wearing not the usual beret, but instead a soft cap, pushed back on his head.
“Ranger instructors refer to it as a patrol cap,” he said. “… This is in honor of them. They are the folks who make this course happen. They probably had more pressure self-generated, more scrutiny on them than any other Ranger instructor throughout the history of the course. They show up for work and it’s a 30-hour work day. They are responsible for the men and women — the soldiers — you see up front here.”
Miller also took on the critics who have insisted that the Army loosened the standards to allow women to graduate.
“I really hate to do this, but I have to address some of the nonsense on the Internet — mostly because it is noisy, but primarily because it’s inaccurate,” he said.
He then went through a list of how the standards had not changed. And he shot down another rumor: “The President of the United States was not planning to attend nor is he here today,” Miller said.
At the end of the day, it was about history — and that was not lost on Hoffnagle, the man who trained the women soldiers after they completed the Ranger Training Assessment Course and before they started the school on April 19.
“I don’t want them to miss out on history,” he said of his daughters. “They know these girls, and I wanted them to be a part of this.”
He said he also had a pretty good idea some of the 19 women who started the course would successfully complete it. In addition to Haver and Griest, a third woman soldier is still in the course, repeating the mountain phase.
“I am not surprised at all,” he said. “I knew from Day 1 that those two had the potential to graduate. They broke through the walls.”