The women -- more than 75 of them -- came to Victory Pond on Fort Benning Friday morning in a show of force and pride.
Ranging in age from 23 to 56, all graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and all soldiers at one point in their lives, they were rallying to a place they have been told for decades was off limits because of their gender.
At Victory Pond, soldiers are tested early in Ranger School to ascertain if they can deal with the high-risk water aspects of the most demanding combat leadership school the U.S. Army offers.
It is also the site of every Ranger School graduation. On that morning, two of their West Point sisters, 1st Lt. Shaye Haver and Capt. Kristen Griest, were becoming the first women in Army history to complete Ranger School and receive a Ranger tab.
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Donna McAleer, a 1987 West Point graduate who authored "Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point's Long Gray Line," was in the line of women who filed into the grandstand.
"Good steel is forged from hot fires," McAleer said. "That is what brought all of us together to witness history being made in such an epic and monumental fashion that has made and will continue to make our Army stronger."
35 years later
In the middle of the West Point women was Lillian Pfluke, 56, and a member of the U.S. Military Academy's class of 1980, the first one to include women.
Pfluke, who traveled to Georgia from Germany, watched with great emotion as Haver and Griest broke a barrier that could have fallen 35 years ago when Pfluke petitioned the Secretary of the Army to be admitted to Ranger School, an institution that started in 1951.
Instead, Pfluke spent 15 years in the Army Ordnance Corps, running maintenance facilities in Germany and Fort Lewis in Washington state. As she looked down at Griest and Haver sitting among 94 men, she struggled for the right words.
"This is the most important thing to happen to Army women since 28 May 1980," Pfluke said of the day of her graduation. "This is the cultural core of the organization. Every single senior Army leader and most of the combat arms leaders sport the Ranger tab. As women, we have always been looking in from the outside, knowing women could do this but never having the chance."
That's why it was important, Pfluke said, for the West Point women to meet at Victory Pond on a hot and sticky August morning, the kind of day Rangers will tell you makes the course more difficult.
"We in the Class of '80 know what it's like to be a pioneer and know what it's like to go through something like this," Pfluke said. "We know how much better you have to be than everybody else -- how much harder you have to try."
For Pfluke, the graduation ceremony was a proud moment, if not an entirely satisfying one.
"That had to be really difficult for her to watch knowing that she could have done it," said Kris Fuhr, a 1985 West Point graduate.
Greg Camp, a retired colonel who is now the executive vice president of the National Infantry Museum Foundation, has known Pfluke for three decades, dating back to when they were both in leadership roles at Fort Lewis.
"In my humble opinion, if Lil had gotten into the school, she would have been the first female Ranger," said Camp, who earned his Ranger tab in 1968. "She had the physical strength and the endurance you look for from somebody going to Ranger School."
"I was ready to do it 35 years ago," Pfluke said.
'So healing and redemptive'
Sue Fulton, a former Army captain who now chairs the advisory Board of Visitors to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was also among the 1980 graduates who visited Fort Benning.
"For our entire Army careers, Ranger has stood for something special -- something above and beyond," Fulton said. "We are honoring every Ranger today, but the fact that two of them are our sisters from West Point is so healing and redemptive for the West Point women who have fought and served this country for 35 years."
In a news conference on the day before she received the tab, Griest, who now has her sights set on a Special Forces position if the elite unit is opened to women, acknowledged the possibilities that might come from her success.
Under a January 2013 edict, remaining all-male positions will be opened to women unless Defense Secretary Ash Carter approves exceptions by January 2016. Carter said on Thursday that he expects to see recommendations from the service branches, including the Army, by October.
Gen. Mark Milley, the new Chief of Staff of the Army who attended the ceremony and met with the new female graduates, told The Associated Press on Friday that he was "right on the line" as to what he would recommend.
Meanwhile, women across the force are waiting.
"I do hope that with our performance in Ranger School," she said, "we have been able to inform that decision as to what they can expect from women in the military -- that we can handle things physically, mentally on the same level as men, and we can deal with the same stresses in training that the men can."
That is the exact point that many of the West Point women have been making for years.
"Every woman who has worn the title 'soldier' has fought to be evaluated on her character and her confidence, on her performance not her gender," Fulton said. "The accomplishments of these two remarkable women opens doors for all of us. That is why we are all so proud."
Those doors could not have been opened without a cultural change inside the Army and the Ranger community, Pfluke said.
"The institution has to be ready to accept it, and these guys were," she said of Maj. Gen. Scott Miller, Col. David G. Fivecoat, Command Sgt. Maj. Curtis Arnold and the Ranger instructors, the men closely associated with managing the process. "You have seen how they have gone out of their way to see that the standards were maintained, and they had the female advisers there to make sure the students were given a fair chance. I am not sure it would have been that easy 35 years ago."
'A dangerous thing'
Fuhr called Friday's rendezvous probably the largest gathering ever of West Point women alumni.
"It was ingrained in us from the time we got to West Point that a gathering of women was a dangerous thing," Fuhr said.
In addition to graduation, they met Thursday night for dinner on post, and then again Friday for a celebratory lunch at the National Infantry Museum & Soldier Center with the two new Rangers.
Thursday night, Pfluke and Fulton, along with seven of their 1980 West Point classmates, briefly met Griest and Haver in the parking lot of Camp Rogers as they were reporting for their final night as Ranger School students. The Class of 1980 presented Griest and Haver with silver-plated dog tags linking their class to Friday's historic moment.
"They are going to grow into their roles, just as we grew into our roles in 1980," Pfluke said. "Sometimes, we wanted to go hide under a rock and blend in. It has taken some of us 35 years to be proud of what we did and who we are."
And something else has happened: West Point men are reaching out to West Point women and congratulating them.
"In the last 49 hours, I cannot begin to tell you how many texts and calls I have gotten from male graduates of West Point," McAleer said.
Soon enough, Haver, an attack helicopter pilot from Texas, and Griest, a military police officer from Connecticut, will realize what their accomplishments mean, Fulton said.
"This changes the Army," she said. "This is an opportunity for the Army to be stronger and smarter. Now, we know we have a pool of talent -- Army women -- who might be capable of anything."
--The Associated Press contributed to this report.