FORT JACKSON, S.C. (Feb. 12, 2015) -- First Lt. Christel Sacco said she never imagined getting a chance to earn the Ranger tab.

The Army decoration signifies a Soldier has completed the Ranger School combat leadership course, generally considered to be the toughest of its kind in the world. Until 2012, though, women were banned from combat assignments in the Army, essentially prohibiting them from participation in Ranger School.

Secretary of the Army John McHugh recently approved the admission of both men and women in the spring phase of this year's Ranger course assessment, removing one of the obstacles between women and the Ranger designation.

Before being admitted into Ranger School, though, women must first complete the two-week long Ranger Training Assessment Course, or RTAC.

"I wanted to be a part of that elite organization," said Sacco, of the 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry Regiment. "I honestly thought that my time had passed. I was fully accepting my mentees, or even my children, having this opportunity, but not me."

The idea that she could become a Ranger was first presented to her as a college freshman. Sacco was part of Loyola University Maryland's ROTC program, which received a visit from an Army Ranger as part of its Green to Gold Active Duty Option Program.

"He encouraged me to pursue becoming one of the first female Rangers," she said. "At the time, I didn't know what a Ranger was."

TRAILBLAZING SOLDIERS

Sacco was among the first group of women to take part in the RTAC, which wrapped Jan. 30 at Fort Benning, Georgia. Despite the press coverage the event received, she said it still came as a surprise to many of the men in the course that women would be among the Soldiers in the course.

"We got the briefing on Day 1," she said. "We were told, 'Everyone's here to be an Army Ranger, so let's train like that and not let gender come into play.' We slept in the same barracks and used the same latrines, did the same training with the same standards."

She said the attitudes she witnessed the first day of the course were merely "growing pains."

"I think the Army is continuing to try to figure it out and understand what it means when we say we're truly 'gender integrated,'" said Lt. Col. James Allen, 1-61st commander. "I'm excited about this, and I hope 1st Lt. Sacco has every opportunity to succeed."

The concept of gender-integrated training for Rangers is new to everybody on both sides of the experience, she said, including command and the Soldiers striving to earn the coveted tab.
"All the females involved are trailblazers," she said. "They're pushing through their own chains of command all over the Army right now to get into (RTAC.)"

RTAC consists of two phases. The first phase is designed to reflect the assessment portion of Ranger School, which challenges a Soldier's mental and physical fitness.

"There are certain standards you have to meet in order to move forward and stay in the course," Sacco said. "Many of them are physical, but some are technical or tactical. For me, the course was very difficult and physically demanding. It's no easy feat for even the fittest individuals. Everybody finds it to be extremely difficult."

The first phase involved a physical training test, land navigation challenges and a 6-mile foot march. The second phase of RTAC is when the course really gets interesting, she said. Although the course remains physically challenging throughout, the ultimate test is to maintain confidence in your abilities to move forward.

The second phase of RTAC is a field training exercise, which tests patrolling and troop landing procedures that are called upon during the Ranger Course.

"I would argue that the mental aspect is more of a challenge than the physical aspect," she said. "(Everyone's) body will break down at Ranger School, especially during the second phase. It's in your head. 'Can I pick up one more ruck? Can I fight one more battle drill, do one more patrol and make it up one more mountain before my body quits on me?'"

Sacco said faith got her through the mental ordeals of the experience.

"God was my friend at RTAC," she said.

COMMITMENT TO THE PROGRAM

Allen said sending a Soldier like Sacco to leadership training courses like RTAC comes at a cost to both the Soldier and his or her unit.

"For Bravo Company, there is a loss of a company (executive officer) for a while," Allen said. "But I think it's important for the battalion that we continue to support every person's goals."

He said Sacco is also required to conduct rigorous personal training in the months leading up to the course.

"You just don't show up at Ranger School hoping you'll be taught how to do everything," he said. "You go there to be tested and evaluated. She's been working incessantly since at least October, and maybe even before that, as well. I think that's what's going to make her successful in the end."

Sacco said the key to preparing physically for the course is "training like you fight."

"You have to get out there and wear a super heavy 80-pound ruck with 20 pounds of equipment on a training day here at Fort Jackson," she said. "It will prepare you mentally. You'll feel the pain before you're out there doing it."

Allen said that dedication to training was the reason why Sacco was sent to RTAC, and not another Soldier.

"It's her commitment to the program," he said. "She showed up and said, 'I want to do this,' and has not slowed down since. Army Physical Readiness Training with basic combat trainees is not the PT necessary to get into shape for Ranger School. So she's got to make time to do extra foot movements, extra running and extra PT in general."

Sacco was eliminated from the course early after failing to complete the pushup tests. All of the Soldiers who washed out of this phase -- both men and women -- were allowed to stay and complete the two-week course, though. Sacco was among those who chose to stay.

She said the lesson of RTAC is that your body can always do more, no matter how mentally or physically exhausted you might be.

"That commitment to accomplish the mission is absolutely critical for Soldiers whenever they are in an environment that's not training," she said. "That willingness not to give up is hugely important."

Of the 122 Soldiers who began RTAC in January, 58 graduated. Three more RTAC courses will be held before the Ranger course's start date. Sacco said she is planning to return to the RTAC in March. Her application packet has already been prepared, but is awaiting evaluation.