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Meet Fort Drum's first female soldier to make it to Ranger School

Julia Botero
Capt. Michelle Kelly is the first female soldier from Fort Drum to qualify for Ranger School in Fort Benning, GA

This month, two soldiers made history by becoming the first women to graduate from Army Ranger school. The course is the most exhausting and mentally demanding in the Army -- designed to create leaders who can excel amid the stresses of combat. This April marked the first time woman were admitted to Ranger School.

Capt. Michelle Kelly is the only woman from Fort Drum who qualified for the course. She didn’t pass, but she says she’s glad she tried. WRVO's Julia Botero sat down with Kelly to talk about that experience.

Botero: Out of the 18 women who first entered Ranger School only eight made it through the first four days. Kelly says she got to know the other woman pretty well.  

Kelly: We were able to talk about our experience and  what went well, what didn’t. At one point we called ourselves the "Crazy Eight" because we felt a little crazy at the time  for having taken on such a big mountain, such a big hurdle.

Botero: At one point in the whole process did you see that you might not be able to make it to the next phase?

Kelly: We were really surprised to have made it physically. So I was happily surprised to see that I had made it through all the physical stuff. I was pretty surprised not to have not passed the patrolling. That’s where you have to go out and lead fellow soldiers.

Botero: This phase patrolling presented the biggest challenge for all the women. None of the "Crazy Eight" were able to pass their first attempt at a patrol. On their second try, all but two women failed. Those two would go on to graduate from the course.

Kelly: There are a lot of people who come to Ranger School with different levels of knowledge in this patrolling so probably its accurate that overall the women came with a lower standard because we are not infantry. We don’t do that on a daily basis. We aren’t trained the same way so we were coming there not as prepared as some of the males were. If we could more time to prepare to that or just if that was a part of training covered by all of the different jobs that women hold than there would definitely be a higher success rate.

Botero:  Given all of that, what would you say is the most challenging part of Ranger School?

Kelly: There were some complexities of Ranger School that I wasn’t fully prepared for. I would say that probably any female that is in the military, I’d say that when we preform you always have to perform at a high-level because you are still in a male-dominated environment. The same is true in Ranger School only its in a very scrutinized level so it was that much more important to have good relationships with the males who were in Ranger School also because they were the ones who were going to peer you. So you have to convince them that you were strong enough. I definitely found that you have to go above and beyond every time. I couldn’t be just like any other guy there in that instance. I had to be the one who was like, "Hey do you have extra weight you need to be carried? Okay I got it." I always had to step up and be that person because if any weakness was shown they were like, "Ah, there’s a female and she’s not able to cut it."

Botero: Kelly says she thinks all ground combat roles in the military should be open to women. She says she doesn’t like to expend her energy on those who say women aren’t as capable as men. She says her experience shows that simply isn’t true.

Kelly: I like to bring up the point that a lot of times males or anyone, if they are unfamiliar with seeing someone do something they don’t necessary think its possible. Or they will say, "ya, sure they did." There’s skepticism. But when they see it first hand, really seeing females out there doing the same thing, carrying the same weight, rucking the same times, then they’re like, "oh, I saw this person." They believe it.  

Botero: The next step for Kelly will be no less daunting. She is now preparing  to deploy to Afghanistan later this week. And when she get back, she says she  wants to try and get through Ranger school again.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said that the Pentagon still plans to formally open all ground combat positions to women.  In September, top Army officials will have a chance to make their case to Carter on what units they believe should be keep closed to women.