The first two women to wear the coveted black-and-gold tab of the United States Army's elite Rangers say that it proves they are as tough as men.
In fact, by graduating from the Ranger School in Fort Benning, Georgia, last Friday, Captain Kristen Griest, 26, and First-Lieutenant Shaye Haver, 25, did something 287 men who started the gruelling course with them in the mountains of Georgia and steamy swamps of Florida back in April failed to do. They were the only two women out of 19, said People magazine, who made it through the first course of its kind that takes in both genders.
As Colonel David Fivecoat, commander of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade said: "A lot of the time, you couldn't tell the difference between the men and women."
Indeed, Capt Griest's brother, Michael, told The Washington Post in a phone interview last week that she can do "an insane" number of push-ups: "My sister grew up with a desire to do a lot of things with her life. She has always been very athletic and very smart."
The US military is considering opening up roles in previously male-only units to women, including some front-line infantry and Special Forces.
FEELING LIKE EQUALS
I do hope that we've been able to inform that decision as to what they can expect from women in the military, that we can handle things physically and mentally on the same level as men and that we can deal with the same stresses in training that men can. We felt like we were contributing as much as the men.
CAPTAIN KRISTEN GRIEST, 26, describing how she fared against the men during training.
"I do hope that we've been able to inform that decision as to what they can expect from women in the military, that we can handle things physically and mentally on the same level as men and that we can deal with the same stresses in training that men can," said Capt Griest last Thursday.
"We felt like we were contributing as much as the men."
The Ranger School is the US Army's premier small-unit tactics and leadership school, according to the Army Times.
Since it opened in 1952, 77,000 soldiers have earned the Ranger Tab, the Army Times said on its website. Last year, 4,057 students entered but only 1,609 earned the Ranger Tab.
1st Lt Haver, who is an AH-64 Apache pilot, said: "It's awesome to be part of the history of Ranger School in general, and graduating with these guys next to me, and the 90-plus other Ranger students will probably be the highlight of my life." 1st Lt Haver graduated from high school in Copperas Cove, Texas, in 2008, where she ran cross-country.
According to a story in her hometown newspaper, she became determined to join the military after several soldiers who were her father's friends died in Iraq.
She first met military instructor Enrique Herrera in ninth grade.
Gruelling course to train elite combat leaders
The famously difficult Ranger School aims to build elite leaders able to withstand combat.
It takes at least 61 days to complete and, if sections are repeated, can take many more.
In the first phase alone, recruits must complete 49 push- ups, 59 sit-ups, a combat survival swim test, an 8km run in 40 minutes, and a 19km road march in three hours, carrying heavy gear.
The two women spent more than 120 days toughing it out on hikes, mountaineering, parachute jumps, and helicopter assaults, then spent sleepless nights under extreme weather conditions. This simulated combat patrols and was designed to test their reaction time, teamwork and tenacity under fire.
He told The Washington Post: "She told me straight out: 'I love my feminism, and I love dressing up. But I'm also tough'."
She went on to graduate from West Point in 2012.
Sergeant First Class Tiffany Myrick, a military police non-commissioned officer who served as an observer and adviser at Ranger Schools, told the Defence One website last week: "When I watched Haver patrol when she was yelling at the guys to get in position and get moving... she was well-respected and that stood out a lot and that also reflected her leadership style as well."
Capt Griest, from Orange, Connecticut, graduated from West Point in 2011.
She was also a runner but competed in the hammer throw as well. A high school English teacher, Ms Anna Mahon, described the teenage Capt Griest to The Washington Post as a "solid, all-around kid".
Last week, a West Point instructor who did not want to be identified, told the Defence One website: "She had talked about (going infantry) from when she was a cadet. It was common knowledge to people who knew her that that is what she wanted to do."
Capt Griest, who trains 20 hours a day while carrying 41kg of kit and weapons, said she never thought of giving up. "I definitely had low points, particularly in the swamps in Florida," she said.
"But I never actually thought anything was going to be too difficult that it was worth leaving the course."
1st Lt Haver also had doubts but soldiered on.
"There's a point that you hit along the way, doesn't matter where it is, it's different for everybody. But the ability to look around to my peers and see that they were sucking just as bad as I was kept me going and I'm pretty sure that they could probably say the same thing."
Some critics have questioned whether the two female Ranger students received any breaks. Army instructors emphatically denied that, and said they met every requirement the men did.
Capt Griest herself said: "No woman who I know wanted to go to Ranger School if they changed the standards. It degrades what the tab means. Maintaining the standards is absolutely imperative. We're leaders in the army. We're expected to do what we ask of our soldiers and then some. We're supposed to be leading from the front."
•With additional information from The New York Times, Agence France-Presse and Reuters