CLEVELAND, Ga. -- The woman stood at the front of the formation Tuesday morning, toting a 50-pound rucksack and holding an M4 rifle.
In front of her was Mount Yonah. Behind her were about 50 soldiers of Charlie Company. The mission was to march up a trail 1.8 miles long and more than 1,000 feet in elevation.
About 45 minutes later, the soldiers, breathing heavily and sweating under their loads, emerged from the woods, found a road and finished the march.
Still near the front of that line was the same female soldier.
She is one of three women -- all West Point graduates -- trying to become the first females to earn the U.S. Army Ranger tab. They have moved to the Ranger School mountain phase, arguably the most difficult piece of the most difficult training the Army offers.
Staff Sgt. Gregory Space has been an instructor assigned to the 5th Ranger Training Battalion at Camp Merrill for two years. One of the female soldiers is assigned to his company.
"She's pulling through and she wants the tab," Space said.
Will it happen?
"We're finding out," Space said. "There is a lot of mountains to go, but we will find out."
In April, the Army opened Ranger School to women for the first time as part of an evaluation of how to fully integrate the Army's combat forces. Nineteen female soldiers started the course at Fort Benning, and after three months, three remain.
The common denominator is that all three women are graduates of the United States Military Academy. That is not surprising, said Sue Fulton, who graduated from West Point in 1980 with the first class to include women.
"West Point teaches leaders to be tenacious in overcoming obstacles," said Fulton, who chairs the West Point Board of Visitors that reports to the President of the United States. "At some point -- probably more than once -- you have to do a gut check and call on inner reserves to do something that you never thought you could do. Am I surprised that the three remaining women in Ranger School are West Point graduates? Not at all."
The women are earning respect as they slug their way through a combat leadership course that creates stress by depriving students of food and sleep. Their leadership skills are graded on their ability to lead small units on patrol missions.
At Fort Benning, all eight women who passed the physical testing in April -- including the three women currently in the mountain phase -- failed their patrols twice. The other five women were dropped from the course.
Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade Command Sgt. Maj. Curtis Arnold has been involved in the process from the beginning. During each phase, he and brigade commander Col. David G. Fivecoat have the final say on whether a student moves forward, is recycled or dropped. Before a student is dropped from the course, he or she meets with Arnold and Fivecoat.
Less than 30 percent of Ranger-qualified soldiers go straight through the course without recycling.
After failing the first patrol phase twice, the three women were offered an opportunity to start the course over from the beginning. Two male soldiers received the same invitation and decided to go home.
That changed the game, Arnold said.
"By accepting the Day 1 recycle, they absolutely validated their place here," Arnold said. "This is tough, physically and mentally demanding training, and a soldier has to earn that Ranger tab. What it said was they were here to earn it, that this was not a sideshow and there was not an agenda."
"I think that the women, at that point, showed they were willing to take on any challenge," Fulton said. "They are not going to give up, and that is exactly what you want in a combat leader."
The third time around, the women sailed through patrols and earned the right to go to the mountains. During the training at Camp Darby on Fort Benning, Ranger instructors were in the students' faces, applying pressure to an already pressure-packed situation. But in the mountains, the Ranger instructors seemed much more like coaches and college professors than drill sergeants.
"Mother Nature takes care of that," Arnold said. "The terrain up here will crush you. You don't have to have a Ranger instructor in your face."
Arnold had the same advice for the male and female soldiers.
"Don't quit," he said.
During Tuesday morning's march up Mount Yonah, only one of the 200 soldiers failed to get to camp in under an hour. He was told he would have to repeat the march the next morning.
About an hour later, word began to circulate through the cadre that the soldier was leaving the course because of "LOM" -- lack of motivation, which means he quit.
There is no lack of motivation or quit for the three female soldiers. Now a month from possible graduation, their journey is being watched closely across the Army -- by men and women.
That was evident as the training moved up to the bald rock face of Mount Yonah, where the students were climbing and rappelling -- "the four best days you will have at Ranger School," according to one Ranger instructor.
As the first women prepared to climb Mount Yonah, most of those in the vicinity turned to watch. First Lt. Jill Mueller, from a field artillery unit in Fort Bliss, Texas, is one of about a half dozen female soldiers assigned as observers and advisers to the Camp Merrill battalion.
Mueller was standing a few feet away as the female Ranger candidate began climbing the rock. Mueller watched intently as the woman, assigned to a Military Police unit, harnessed in, received her instructions and began to attack the rock.
"This is more emotional than I expected it to be," Mueller said. "For so long, we have been told that this was not possible. I have been saying this was possible -- and I think we are being proved right."
Lesley-Anne Crumpton, another observer/adviser, was also watching the woman climb. She focused on technique, not history.
"She didn't shake, and she didn't look like she had any muscle fatigue, and she didn't look like she was scared of the climb," Crumpton said. "Maybe she is a rock climber in her spare time."
The historic significance is not lost on those involved in the process. Space, the Ranger instructor, said he is pleased to be part of it.
"I am getting to see this firsthand," he said during training on Mount Yonah. "If they earn it, they deserve it. There is no coddling, and there has been no lowering of the standards."
What would Space say to the critics who insist the standards have been altered to get a woman through the course?
"I would tell them I was there, and I was one of the ones upholding those standards," he said. "And I will be able to honestly tell them that."
That is important to Fulton and other women watching this play out.
"We want to hear the standards have not been lowered," Fulton said. "I know that the professionals at the Army Ranger School are not about to lower the standards for anyone -- men or women."
It is also important for another reason. By maintaining the Ranger standards for the women, the Army is raising the standards across the board, Mueller said.
"We've all heard the excuses -- 'I can't carry this' or 'I can't keep up,'" Mueller said. "You can't use that anymore. Everybody in our military, including the women, will be pushed to a higher standard."
Fulton puts it another way.
"This demonstrates, once and for all, that leadership and physical courage is not unique to men," Fulton said. "This will ultimately make the Army stronger because we can draw from a talent pool to put the best person in the right job across the force."
After four days of mountain training, the students are now going through five days of combat technique training. The real test begins Tuesday when the class heads to the Chattahoochee National Forest for graded student-led patrols.
The remaining three women are among about 200 students currently in the mountain phase at Camp Merrill. Those who are successful will move seven hours south for the final phase in the Florida swamps near Destin.
And unlike when this started in April at Fort Benning, the women have blended into the class and no longer stand out.
"The first couple of days, I could not pick them out," Mueller said.
They will become more visible as it gets closer to the Aug. 21 graduation at Fort Benning's Victory Pond, especially if one or more of them earn the tab that is worn by less than 3 percent of the Army's soldiers.
Space said it would be a "great point of pride" if any of the women get through the mountains, pass the Florida phase and earn the Ranger tab.
"If one of them makes it," Space said, "I will go down there and pin the tab on them myself."