Jerome Bechard thought it was an interesting question.
How do you break the gender barrier in a male-dominated environment?
The question is based on what’s happening at Fort Benning, where women are moving through U.S. Army Ranger School for the first time in the 62-year history of the elite combat training leadership course.
Bechard, coach of the Columbus Cottonmouths professional hockey team, has a little insight. He has spent the last year integrating female goalie Shannon Szabados into his previously all-male club. And he did it successfully. By the end of the year, she was one of the guys.
Bechard, in the way that only a man with 27 years of hockey wisdom can put it, called the integration of women into Ranger School “different but the same.” He’s absolutely right.
What is different is Bechard tries to win games, while the U.S. Army is in the business of winning wars. The stakes are higher for men and women in combat. But what is close to the same is the culture. Ranger School can be similar to that of a hockey locker room in that it’s a boys’ club, for the most part.
There are eight women still in the Ranger School class that started last month with 19 females out of 399 students. The course, a 62-day marathon that includes little sleep and a lot of missed meals, is the most physically and mentally demanding training offered by the Army. Only 3 percent of soldiers earn the Ranger tab, given to those who survive the course.
And the Army has been pretty much doing it the same way for more than 60 years.
When you put a woman in that situation, she better be better than most of the guys, Bechard pointed out.“In that situation, women have to go above and beyond.” Bechard said.
And she better have credentials. Szabados had credentials when Bechard signed her to a professional contract. She has two Olympic gold medals playing for Canada’s women’s team. But most of her formative years were spent playing on all-male teams.
One of the most important aspects of successfully working a woman into a male-dominated environment is leadership, Bechard said.
And that leadership starts at the top.
“The players on our hockey team would usually follow my lead,” Bechard said. “If I am all right with a situation, then they are all right with a situation. That is probably what has to happen in Ranger School. The people on top have to be comfortable with the situation.”
After that it comes down to performance.
“You perform, you become part of the team,” Bechard said. “Your team starts to believe in you and they start playing hard in front of you.”
The current Ranger School class has been cut by more than half in two weeks. That means nearly 200 men could not pass the same physical fitness requirements that these eight women did.
It’s still a long way before the Ranger School class graduates on June 19, but so far the women have accomplished tasks that most men couldn’t. They have run five miles in under 40 minutes, they have done 49 pushups, 59 situps and six chinups. They have completed a 12-mile road march carrying about 50 pounds of equipment and water in under three hours.
They have survived the Darby Queen, a nearly 1-mile course with 26 obstacles.
You get the picture. But there is also a part of the picture that Bechard sees more clearly than some — and it comes down to toughness.
“Women are sometimes mentally tougher than men — and I know I am going to get in trouble for saying that,” Bechard said.
But toughness is something that you can’t hide — and you can’t fake.
And the men working alongside the women — and seeing them doing the same work and meeting the same standard — will see it, Bechard said.
“At the end of the day, everyone’s got to have everyone else’s back,” Bechard said. “You may not have to like them, but you have to respect them.”