About 300 Ranger School students were in the combatives pit back in April, when Col. David G. Fivecoat noticed a man standing off to the side.
Inside that pit were 16 women, the first females to go through the school, and they were in the first hours of that training.
“I look over and this guy is wearing a Ranger hat, in his civilian clothes,” said Fivecoat, commander of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade.
So Fivecoat approaches the man.
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“A lot of people are running their mouths down at the VFW and I came down here to see it for myself,” the man told the colonel. “You guys are running a good course. Same standards for everybody. I am going to go back and tell them at the VFW.”
That was kind of nice, Fivecoat said.
It is much easier to deal with a direct assault rather than an ambush. Just ask Fivecoat.
“That is a lot better than the guys on Facebook,” Fivecoat said last week during a break at Camp Rudder, the final phase of Ranger School.
Three of those 16 women are still in the school, 115 days after they started the most difficult leadership course the Army offers. Two could graduate on Aug, 21 if they are successful with patrols and peer reviews in the Florida swamps, and a third is repeating the mountain phase.
In addition to managing a historic first, Fivecoat has had to do it amid a swirl of social media attention. A lot of people, those have earned the Ranger tab and those who have not, have an opinion and they are not shy about voicing it.
“I think the older generation has a bigger problem with it than the younger generation,” Fivecoat said. “...There are a whole bunch of people on Facebook who seem to have problems with it.”
Many of those are on Facebook pages for those associated with the Rangers.
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis L. Smith, whose last assignment was with the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade at Fort Benning and ended in 2012, calls a lot of the discussion he has seen on social media “unprofessional.”
“Most of the people who have a negative opinion do not know the whole story,” said Smith, who owns Uncommon Athlete, a Columbus fitness facility that offers a pre-Ranger School training program. “... What they are saying is they do not trust the young men who have been empowered to give them a go or no-go and grade them fairly.”
Fivecoat admits this process would have been much easier to manage from the outside if it was still 1993, the year he graduated from Ranger School.
“You would have only had to worry about newspaper reporters,” he said. “Everybody didn’t have cell phones — Tweeting, texting, Facebooking and everything else. A lot of these discussions occurred, but they didn’t occur where a lot of folks could see them.”
Which brings us back to the keyboard warriors on Facebook.
“They do it loudly on Facebook,” Fivecoat said. “...Those discussions happened in the pre-Facebook age, but they happened in the backroom of the bar down in Crestview (Fla.) or the VFW.”
With the spotlight getting brighter as the process nears a conclusion, Smith said Fivecoat and those under his command in the training brigade are in a difficult situation.
“There is no way the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade can come out good here,” Smith said. “If no woman passes, then it will be said they did not allow the women to pass. On the other hand, if one or more of the women pass and earn the tab, then it will be said they gave it away. They will say that they gave it away and they can’t believe they lowered the standards.”
“Heroes or Zeroes,” Smith said. “And they are going to be both depending on how you look at it.”