"A woman will graduate Ranger School," a general told shocked subordinates this year while preparing for the first females to attend a "gender integrated assessment" of the grueling combat leadership course starting April 20, sources tell PEOPLE. "At least one will get through."
That directive set the tone for what was to follow, sources say.
"It had a ripple effect" at Fort Benning, where Ranger School is based, says a source with knowledge of events at the sprawling Georgia Army post. "Even though this was supposed to be just an assessment, everyone knew. The results were planned in advance."
On Tuesday, PEOPLE revealed that Oklahoma Republican Rep. Steve Russell had asked the Department of Defense for documents about the women who attended Ranger School after becoming concerned that "the women got special treatment and played by different rules," sources say.
Ranger School consists of three phases: Benning, which lasts 21 days and includes water survival, land navigation, a 12-mile march, patrols, and an obstacle course; Mountain Phase, which lasts 20 days, and includes assaults, ambushes, mountaineering and patrols; and Swamp Phase, which lasts 17 days and covers waterborne operations.
But whereas men consistently were held to the strict standards outlined in the Ranger School's Standing Operating Procedures handbook sources say, the women were allowed lighter duties and exceptions to policy.
Multiple sources told PEOPLE:
Women were first sent to a special two-week training in January to get them ready for the school, which didn't start until April 20. Once there they were allowed to repeat the program until they passed – while men were held to a strict pass/fail standard.
Afterward they spent months in a special platoon at Fort Benning getting, among other things, nutritional counseling and full-time training with a Ranger.
While in the special platoon they were taken out to the land navigation course – a very tough part of the course that is timed – on a regular basis. The men had to see it for the first time when they went to the school.
Once in the school they were allowed to repeat key parts – like patrols – while special consideration was not given to the men.
A two-star general made personal appearances to cheer them along during one of the most challenging parts of the school, multiple sources tell PEOPLE.
The end result? Two women – First Lts. Kristen Griest and Shaye Haver – graduated August 21 (along with 381 men) and are wearing the prestigious Ranger Tab. Griest was surprised they made it.
"I thought we were going to be dropped after we failed Darby [part of Benning] the second time," Griest said at a press conference before graduation. "We were offered a Day One Recycle."
Robin Trimarchi / Ledger-Enquirer / AP
"Standards remain the same,” Miller said, according to The Army Times. "The five-mile run is still five miles. The 12-mile march is still 12 miles.
"There was no pressure from anyone above me to change standards," said Miller, who declined to speak to PEOPLE.
Instructors say otherwise.
"We were under huge pressure to comply," one Ranger instructor says. "It was very much politicized."
The women didn't want or ask for special treatment, says one who attempted the program.
"All of us wanted the same standards for males and females," Billi Blaschke, who badly injured her ankle only six days into a required pre-assessment program, tells PEOPLE. "We wanted to do it on our own."
On September 2, the Army announced that Ranger School is now open both to men and women.
Women are not currently allowed to perform Ranger duties, even Lts. Griest and Haver who passed the course. However, the Army will be forced to open Ranger positions to females on January 1, unless the Secretary of Defense grants an exception.
If the exemption isn't granted, the Army may send women into combat – which is why so many former and current Rangers are concerned about women being held to the same standards as men.
"Combat is brutal and unforgiving," says Jim Lechner, a retired Army officer and Ranger who was wounded in combat in Mogadishu, Somalia, during the famed "Black Hawk Down" incident. "Fighters must be prepared and capable. If they are not, people will die."
Ranger School teaches students how to overcome fatigue, hunger and stress to lead soldiers in small-unit combat operations.
"I remain unconvinced that the recent graduation of two female soldiers was a proper test of females' ability to perform in combat," Lechner tells PEOPLE.
While Griest and Haver could not be reached for comment, the Army insists the two women who graduated August 21 did so under their own steam.
"In order to successfully graduate Ranger School, all students, male and female, are required to meet all course standards," Army spokesman LTC Jennifer Johnson tells PEOPLE.
"The course standards for Ranger Class 08-15 are the exact same standards that have been used for all other Ranger classes," she says.
Nick Tomecek / Northwest Florida Daily News / AP
Claims of Special TreatmentThe women got special treatment from the start, sources tell PEOPLE.
Though the course didn't begin until April 20, the first female Ranger candidates arrived at Fort Benning in January to attend the National Guard's rigorous Ranger Training and Assessment Course (RTAC), a two-week program designed to assess whether a student could attempt the 62-day Ranger School.
Previously, only the National Guard's Ranger hopefuls were required to attend RTAC, while non-Guard candidates had the elective option to attend. Now, all females – no matter whether they were Guard, Reserve or Regular Army – were required to attend.
There they were given another edge, sources say: While men were held to a stark pass-fail standard, women were allowed to redo the special training repeatedly.
"That was the first special concession," says an Army source with knowledge of what transpired. "Males do not recycle RTAC. They either cut it or not."
Neither Gen. Miller nor Fort Benning responded to questions asking about allegations of altered standards.
Approximately 140 women went through various cycles of the 14-day long RTAC. Many left of their own volition. Others dropped out, sources say.
By the end of January, many were slated to begin Ranger school.
Then came the second round of special treatment, sources tell PEOPLE.
The males proceeded to Ranger School without further ado. The women got special training. They were placed into their own platoon and spent the next several weeks preparing for Ranger School, sources say.
They were given nutritional counseling and a soldier to train them full time. The soldier, Sergeant First Class Robert Hoffnagle, previously had competed in Fort Benning's annual Best Ranger competition, touted as the "ultimate test of fitness, endurance and grit for the Army's most elite soldiers.”
The women "lived and breathed nothing but Ranger School 24/7," a source tells PEOPLE. "He taught [them] everything, including how to do patrols."
There they were also allowed to train and rehearse on Land Navigation.
"That right there was a special consideration that only was given to the women," says a source with knowledge of events. "It's not fair, on a lot of levels."
In a response to questions that included a request for confirmation that the women were placed in the special platoon, Army spokesman Lt. Col. Ben Garrett said "the allegations are not true."
However, other sources confirmed its existence to PEOPLE.
"Hoffnagle got us ready for Ranger School," says a woman who attended the special platoon.
And other sources at Fort Benning tell PEOPLE they were present at meetings to discuss the platoon's budget and how it would operate.
By April 20, 19 women and 381 men reported for Ranger School.
Within days, 11 women were dropped from the course because they failed either the physical training, land navigation, or road march portions, sources say.
"They were decimated on road march," an instructor tells PEOPLE.
Robin Trimarchi / Ledger-Enquirer / AP
Then something changed.
"The women were called in to see the general," said the source, referencing Miller, who oversees Ranger School.
"He told them they could not quit – too much time and money had been devoted to bringing them here," the source said.
Miller himself acknowledged he'd met with the women in a statement to The Washington Post, though he did not say what he told them, just that he was "impressed" that they wanted to continue, according to the newspaper.
On May 8, eight women were allowed to repeat the first phase.
Once again, the women failed, sources said. They stumbled on patrols.
"They were not aggressive enough," a source with knowledge of events tells PEOPLE. "They made poor combat decisions."
Patrols are a crucial element in Ranger School.
"If you fail patrols, it's significant, because you don't have what it takes," says Bubba Moore, a former Ranger Instructor with close ties to the Ranger and Fort Benning communities. "People will get killed."
In late May, with more failed events, commanders reassessed what to do with the women. Five women were sent back to their home units. Three were offered the chance to start Ranger School all over again, from the first day. They accepted the offer.
The three women again failed patrols during the first phase, sources say.
That's when Gen. Miller himself arrived on the course, according to sources.
Fort Benning later acknowledged to PEOPLE that Miller had gone to the training grounds while the women were on the course. A Fort Benning spokesman said Miller went there to commemorate his 30th anniversary of attending Ranger School, and did not go to pressure instructors into passing the women.
Nevertheless, with Miller on scene, the women passed and progressed to the next phase.
"Was it undue command influence?" a source with knowledge of events tells PEOPLE. "No matter what the general intended to convey, the instructors had no choice but to take this to mean, 'Play along.' "
"The instructors knew what they were expected to do," the source says. "They did it."
After the women continue to struggle, Miller showed up again, sources say. Two women passed and ultimately graduated on August 21.
Meanwhile, one woman from that same class, who has redone other phases repeatedly, just failed the Swamp Phase and is going to try it again, sources say.
Another group of women is set to begin Ranger School in November.
Late on the evening of Sept. 25, the Army released a statement from Brig. Gen. Malcom B. Frost, who is chief of the Army's public affairs office, about the PEOPLE story and the allegations uncovered by PEOPLE reporter Susan Keating.
“[Ms. Keating] claimed that women were allowed to repeat a Ranger training class until they passed, while men were held to a strict pass/fail standard," the statement said. "That is false.
"She charged that women regularly practiced on Ranger School's land navigation course while men saw it for the first time when they went to the school," the statement said. "Again, false.
"She accused an Army general of calling female candidates together to tell them they could not quit the course. Yet again, false.”