Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Army took another historic step in the gender integration of combat arms, graduating the first 13 women armor officers.
During the 45-minute ceremony at Fort Benning McGinnis-Wickam Hall, there was no mention of the history being made in Derby Hall, where 13 women joined 55 men to graduate the Armor Basic Officer Leadership Course. It is the first step in a process to becoming tank platoon leaders.
As the 68 graduates, including 55 men, paraded across the stage, it was business as usual. On Oct. 26, 10 women, who started at the same time the armor class did, graduated from the Infantry Basic Officer Leadership Course. In August 2015, Capt. Kristen Griest and Capt. Shaye Haver became the first women to graduate from Ranger School, the Army’s toughest combat leadership course.
But Thursday, it was all about new armor officers — men and women.
Ret. Lt. Gen. Guy C. Swan III, an armor officer who commanded at every level, told the young officers to listen to their non-commissioned officers, “because they know you don’t know squat.”
“You are an American soldier, act accordingly,” said Swan, who saw his son, Ryan, graduate. “Your integrity is all you’ve got – don’t lose it.”
Six of the 65 graduates were made available for interviews by the Fort Benning Public Affairs Office Thursday morning. The lieutenants could only be identified by gender and not name, according to the ground rules for the 30-minute interview.
One female graduate said the significance of the graduation was that women are now able to choose from the combat branches, which until this year had been off limits.
“We got to choose what we wanted to do,” the woman said. “And we all wanted to be here. We’re happy that we got the choice.”
Another of the women agreed it was about choice, joking she selected armor over infantry because “we all know armor is the superior branch.”
“But seriously, it is an individual choice,” she said. “I want to be a recon scout.”
The women were just a normal part of the course, said one male graduate.
“All any of us have ever known was an integrated Army,” the soldier said. “Everything we have done – easy or hard – we have had a woman standing next to us.”
The 19-week course conducted at Fort Benning included a wide variety of tactical and skills training. The students had to learn how to plan and execute offensive, defensive, reconnaissance and security operations. They also worked with tanks and Bradley fighters, learning the weapons systems and the responsibilities of the various crew members.
Two of the 15 women who started the course in the summer did not graduate with their class. There were five male soldiers who did not complete the course.
Most of the graduates will have about six more months in various schools before reporting to their units.
Command Sgt. Maj. John S. Woodson of the 2-16 Cavalry Squadron was one of the men charged with training the lieutenants and preparing them for leadership roles. He spoke to a small group of local media during a command staff roundtable prior to the graduation.
“The Army – any organization – is all about talent management, picking the right soldier for the right job,” Woodson said. “Opening it up to the females gives us a larger pool to pick the right soldier for the right job.”
Maj. Gen Eric J. Wesley, commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence, said the gender integration process has broadened the talent pool for selection of platoon leaders.
“It is consistent with what you have seen over the last 18 months,” Wesley said. “And what’s consistent about it is we always knew when we entered this effort that we wanted the process to be standards-based. In the case of Ranger School, we wanted to make sure there were clear objective standards to determine the qualifications to become a Ranger. In IBOLC, we wanted it to be standards-based. Now in the armor, we have done the same thing. Now, the standards in these courses are different, but the fact that we have used standards is what is consistent.”
Staff Sgt. George M. Baker was part of the 2-16 Cavalry Squadron that trained the Basic Officer Leadership Course students.
“There was some skepticism to begin with just to see can they do it because it is a first,” Baker said. “As soon as they started performing to those same standards, it became obvious they performed to those same standards and they met those standards.”
Wesley knows there will be detractors.
“This change is good and it makes the Army better,” Wesley said. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be heat. But it makes us better.”
Woodson insisted that the Armor Basic Officer Leadership Course standards did not change for the first integrated class.
“All 13 that are graduating have met the same standards,” Woodson said. “What have I learned? That any soldier, as long as you have the heart and motivation, can succeed. These 13 females, and the males, proved they can work together and accomplish the mission.”