Two US soldiers become symbols of new generation of female fighters

Washington (AFP) - When two young women graduate from the US Army's prestigious Ranger School on Friday, they will cement their places at the forefront of a new generation of females in combat roles.

Local media have identified the two as Captain Kristen Griest, a military police officer from Connecticut, and 1st Lieutenant Shaye Haver of Texas, an Apache attack helicopter pilot.

They became the first women to complete the Ranger School combat leadership course that constitutes one of the most physically and mentally challenging military training programs.

Over a period lasting at least 61 days, participants endure patrol and combat simulations in the toughest of environments while often deprived of food and sleep.

Despite having made it this far, however, the two women will still not be allowed to serve with the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, which has yet to lift its ban on female soldiers.

But the Pentagon is putting finishing touches on a plan that would allow women access to all military posts, with a few exceptions which the Secretary of Defense will rule on in January 2016.

- Boost for equality backers -

The success of Griest and Haver provides a welcome boost for backers of full gender equality in the military.

The notoriously challenging Ranger School welcomed women for the first time this year, following President Barack Obama's 2013 request that the Pentagon order all branches of the armed forces to open up ground combat roles to women by 2016.

In an effort to show that the female participants in the program were treated the same as their male counterparts, the Army took special care to invite some reporters to see for themselves this summer.

The military's top brass seems keen to lift all restrictions on women -- provided they meet the criteria for specific positions.

"If they can meet the standard, they should be able to go, and they should be able to earn their Ranger tab. And I think that's how we want to operate as we move forward," the now retired army chief of staff, General Ray Odierno, said earlier this month.

Admiral Jonathan Greenert, outgoing chief of naval operations, seemed to echo that sentiment, telling Defense News that the US Navy plans to open its famed SEAL fighting units to women, provided they can pass the notoriously difficult training course.

"Why shouldn't anybody who can meet these (standards) be accepted? And the answer is, there is no reason," he was quoted as saying.

The Navy SEALs have carried out some of America's most dangerous and storied raids, including the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, the late Al-Qaeda leader, in Pakistan.

Some experts argue that in actual fact women are already in the line of fire, especially in wars without any clearly defined frontlines such as those the United States fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For example, women found themselves at the sides of special US forces during night raids in Afghanistan, and were tasked with establishing contact with Afghan women who would never have spoken to men.

- Debate not over -

The debate is not over. The military's services are putting final touches on their recommendations and are due to submit their requests for exceptions to opening up posts to women by the end of September.

But the Center for Military Readiness, for one, said on its website it "takes issue with Obama Defense Department leaders and 'politicians in uniform'" who "are putting gender politics above national security and the best interests of both women and men in the military."

"All of them are disregarding previously undisclosed military combat experiments, which show injury rates among women twice as high as men's," it said.

For now, about 220,000 positions -- or roughly 10 percent -- remain closed to women.