By Alun ThomasApril 20, 2018
PHOENIX -- The end was in sight.
Long days of little food and sleep affected every waking moment for Capt. Natalie Mallue, as she neared the end of Third Phase at Ranger School, deep in the murky waters and terrain of Florida's swampy Camp Rudder.
But after three months of attending the demanding course and enduring recycle during the final phase, Natalie knew it would soon be over, the grueling days and nights culminating in one crucial thing: the coveted Ranger tab.
When Natalie graduated from Fort Benning in April 2017, she became only the sixth female to pass Ranger School and the first to wear both the Ranger and Sapper tabs in the U.S. Army.
The determination to achieve these goals was something instilled in Natalie, 30, at a young age, as she grew up in Portland, Oregon. She did not grow up in a military household however, she said.
"I was raised in a typical rural, suburban type neighborhood. Nobody was in my family was in the military … I didn't know anything about it," Natalie said. "I had a neighbor who was retired Air Force and he suggested I take a look at the Air Force Academy. So I started taking a look into it and the other military academies."
Natalie considered her options and eventually decided on West Point, seeing it as the most viable academy.
"Between all the service academies I liked West Point and the Air Force the most. I ended up choosing West Point because it was more people focused," Natalie explained. "The Air Force Academy seemed more focused on technology. I also liked the aspect of learning leadership and people skills."
Despite the rigid military structure and discipline required at West Point, Natalie said she never felt restricted or contained by her new Army surroundings.
"I never had that feeling. I always felt like I was working for something bigger than simply just going to college," she said. "I didn't know if it was going to be for me, but I felt like everyone was going to college just to go to college, with no real purpose after that. So I thought I'd do something extra besides just going to college."
After careful consideration, Natalie chose Engineer as her branch of service upon graduating from West Point in 2009.
"I chose the Engineer branch because they have a wartime and peacetime mission," Natalie said. "A lot of branches only do their mission when they deploy, so I liked that I could go out and do construction projects and still hone my skills, even when not at war."
Natalie's first duty station was in Schweinfurt, Germany, where she met her future husband Capt. Edward Mallue, also a West Point graduate and Engineer officer.
"Our paths never crossed at West Point … I never knew Natalie until we met in Germany," Edward, 33, said. "That was our first duty station. We got married in 2014 and moved to Hawaii with the 25th Infantry Division as a dual married couple."
Edward attended Ranger School successfully in 2014, Natalie said, while she would attempt the Sapper Leader course in 2013.
"Sapper School was very demanding. It's a much shorter course than Ranger School but it's very intense. It's very taxing knowledge-wise," she said. "There's a lot of tests and everything's point based, so you don't know a lot of the time what you're getting graded on."
"You don't know how the points system works and it's a lot of recalled information. So it's a lot more mental, whereas Ranger School is twice as long and the physical effects are far tougher," she continued.
The end result, however, was being able to place the coveted Sapper tab on her left shoulder.
"I was very proud when I got the Sapper tab. I went in open-minded and humble, with the attitude that I'm going to give it my best," Natalie said. "I think it also says something for the people that attempt the course itself."
It was at the Sapper course that the first inclination to attend Ranger School became a distinct possibility for Natalie.
"While I was there I had a few friends who were in the course who had been to Ranger School … that's what planted the seed for me to go to the school. They saw my ability and said it's something I should attempt, if it was opened to females."
When Ranger School was opened to females in 2015, Natalie's battalion commander realized she would be an ideal fit. However, the timing wasn't quite right.
"When they opened up Ranger School to females, my battalion commander in Hawaii asked me if I wanted to go. I told him I wasn't in a position where I feel like I could put in the effort," Natalie explained. "I was in a unit that was going on a JRTC (Joint Readiness Training Center) rotation and I was the primary staff planner. I was putting a lot of hours into that, so it wasn't a good time."
Natalie said she changed her mind in 2016 and decided to apply for Ranger School, realizing time was of the essence.
"I actually decided to go in 2016 when I was a company commander in Hawaii. A lot of times I had to encourage my own Soldiers to go to schools. I thought to myself, 'Well Ranger School is open to women now.' So I set some preliminary goals. In six months I wanted to be in the right shape for Ranger School. So I started eating better and training hard."
Natalie said her main motivation to attend was to set the standard for her Soldiers to attend.
"I was motivated by quite a few different factors to attend. I was setting the standard as a company commander by showing my Soldiers I can still do my everyday job and prepare for Ranger School at the same time," she continued. "I didn't want any excuses. I was pressed for time, but if I could do it as a company commander, my Soldiers could do it as platoon sergeants or squad leader."
Also encouraging for Natalie were the three females who had already passed Ranger School, proving it could be done.
"Seeing the females who had passed Ranger School definitely encouraged me. It showed me there was a way. I was slightly hesitant because none had passed in a while since the initial trio in 2015. By the time I was accepted, 36 women had attempted the course and there had been three that had graduated. So when I looked at those odds, I thought 'Either the people that are going aren't prepared, or it's something else.'"
Natalie said she never let herself be overcome mentally by the daunting prospect of the school.
"I didn't know what it was, but I was going to go and do my best and at least I would've gone and experienced it," she added. "I went in with the same mindset as Sapper School -- I'm going to do my best, prepare well and not have any regrets about what I didn't do right."
Boosting her preparation was Edward, who was able to provide detailed insights into Ranger School, after his own experiences there.
"That knowledge I had from being a Ranger School graduate helped me evaluate Natalie to the correct standards," Edward said. "Her push-ups, running … just from having been through it myself, what she could expect to go through there helped significantly in her preparation."
Natalie agreed this assistance from Edward and others in her unit was invaluable.
"Once people found out I was going, they wanted to tell me about their experiences. Being in the 25th ID I worked with people every day who'd been to Ranger School. I heard just as many stories at work as I did at home with Ed. So mental preparation was the most important. There's a lot of stuff you can't prepare for however. I just had to be open minded and tell myself I wasn't going to quit."
Natalie had to complete a pre-Ranger assessment course with the 25th ID in order to qualify for the school, something which gave her the basics needed to excel at the course.
"The 25th had a fairly streamlined process for acceptance to the school. I had to do the pre-Ranger assessment course. I had to do an RPFT (Ranger Physical Fitness Test), followed by a ten day course where they teach you almost everything you learn in the first phase of Ranger School. They gave us the fundamentals of patrol, which is the type of thing you forget if you don't brush up on it … recon, squad ambush, land navigation … the things you're expected to know."
"Once I passed the pre-Ranger course I was assured of a spot, so I was asked what class I wanted to attend. I opted for the second class in 2017, so I still had about a month and half between the pre-course and Ranger School itself."
Natalie said she tried not to overthink things in the period between the pre-course and Ranger School itself. But the time quickly evaporated and before she knew it she was standing at the gates of Fort Benning, ready to begin her Ranger School journey.
"When I got there I did mandatory paperwork and things like that, but it doesn't begin until the RPFT on day one," Natalie said. "Before that everyone was nervous just waiting for it to begin, not really sleeping at night."
Once the course was up and running, there was no looking back, Natalie said, with everything moving rapidly over the three month span.
"Once it started the pace was hectic. We were running everywhere or just standing around on rocks all day. It wears you out, because your mind is being engaged for 20 hours a day," Natalie said.
The Ranger instructors were every bit as tough as expected, making things that would normally seem tolerable, turn into the exact opposite, she continued.
"The events themselves weren't that difficult. If you did the Ranger obstacle course, you'd think 'This isn't bad at all.' But it's the stuff they make you do in between that really adds up and taxes you physically and mentally. You don't get to go from one obstacle to another. You have to do a crabwalk or duck walk. Then you might have to do it two more times, because the person in front of you did it wrong."
"Another example was the 12 mile ruck march," Natalie said. "They made us stand at the start line for over an hour, with our rucks on, before we'd even started. The march itself isn't bad, but it's what they did to us before it that made it hard. I still don't know why we had to wait. It was very miserable."
Natalie said she coped with everything relatively well, the only exception being the extreme lack of sleep, which made it hard to accomplish the simplest of tasks.
"I went in winter and Edward went in summer, but it's difficult either way. You're either dealing with extreme heat or the freezing cold, where the packs weigh more," Natalie said. "The cold and the lack of sleep were the worst for me. I would say those were worse than being hungry. You can function without food, but you can't function without sleep."
The reality of this situation affected Natalie the most during the third phase in Florida, where the lack of sleep altered her sense of reality.
"One of my jobs near the end was medic. I had to help the platoon sergeant count every time the patrol went somewhere, to make sure we had everyone. We set up a chokepoint and I was physically counting everyone that went through. I couldn't count though, because I kept falling asleep. They were going through really slowly as well. When I woke up I couldn't remember what number I was on."
Natalie said they were only given five hours of sleep in ten days, which took its toll on everyone.
"Everyone had their own moments where they were talking to trees or just walked off. People were sleeping standing up or while they were walking."
Attending Ranger School in winter also added the element of being constantly cold, which was also proved difficult to navigate.
"Being so cold all the time was one of the toughest things. I feel like it changed me physically. Now I don't ever want to be cold," Natalie said. "The worst part of the day was when the sun went down, because it got so cold and we walked around all night to get to our control base."
"I really got to a point at the end of the course where I knew one thing was certain -- that the sun was going to go down and a number of hours later that sun was going to come back. That's the only thing I could count on. I knew they couldn't fit an extra hour in the day, although if they could they would have."
Natalie was recycled during the third phase, but kept her spirits up and headed back to the 'Swamp Phase' with renewed confidence, even being able to laugh at some of the occurrences taking place.
"Looking back now I can take a step back and laugh about everything, because things seemed so ridiculous. During the days we walked through the swamp in Florida I had to laugh … you're taking 55 people through a swamp and trying to be quiet, carrying all this stuff on your back. I was tripping over every root and covered in mud. It's crazy, so you have to be able to laugh at yourself."
At no point did Natalie ever consider quitting, even after recycling.
"I never considered quitting … I worked too hard and had too many people who believed in me to ever quit," she said. "It still didn't make it any easier to find out I'd recycled during the last phase, especially when I was so close. I ended up being recycled for about ten days."
Even near the end of the course Natalie said she refused to let herself think she was close to completing the course and graduating.
"I never let myself think I was getting close. I definitely thought about it -- you're excited and want to graduate -- but you also have to have that discipline in your mindset to know you can recycle," she explained.
Despite other females being the course at the same time as Natalie, her contact with them was limited to the recycling phase.
"I didn't really interact with the other females in the course, except for when we were in the recycle phase. But I know their experiences were the same as mine. Talking with the males was exactly like talking with the females. There weren't many unique issues we talked about, unique to being female."
Natalie also said she received the exact same treatment as the males, with no exceptions being made.
"I wasn't treated any differently from anyone, except having my own shower time. I had to be really quick because I didn't want to inconvenience anyone," Natalie said. "The guys had to be even quicker because there was so many of them. Other than that, everyone was treated exactly the same."
After three months of hard work and determination, Natalie finally found out she had graduated, although it was something she had known for a while.
"I had already been told I had a go, which is not common. The instructors don't tell you, because they don't want you to check out once you know you're a go," she said. "I knew I had a go and I'd done well on my peer evaluations. But I never had that mindset of 'I'm good.'"
Natalie said the day the announcement was made was one that came as a relief to her and everybody else.
"It's a Sunday when they tell you if you're going to graduate and they send you to church first. I thought that was funny, like you're praying for your fate. The instructors read off a list of names and separated everyone into two groups."
"I looked around at who I was with. Some of them you knew did a great mission and were a go with their patrol. So you definitely wanted to be in that group," Natalie said.
Even though she knew she was graduating, the excitement for Natalie was still palpable.
"The relief of finding out I'd passed was still exciting. Just knowing I was leaving the place was heartfelt, especially after being recycled," she continued. "I didn't feel relieved until I graduated. They could always pull it for any reason until you graduate. The initial feeling was great when they told me I was passed. Then it was 'Okay, I can't do anything wrong, I have to do everything right.'"
Natalie was finally reunited with Edward during the week before the graduation ceremony, a welcome relief for both, Edward said.
"It was an awesome experience seeing her … just knowing what she'd been through and achieved," Edward said. "When I watched her get tabbed I got a little emotional. Our whole family was there, which was really nice."
Natalie said she's proud to be seen as a role model for future female Ranger School applicants and does her best to help them out.
"I've had a lot of women approach me and ask how I trained, how was my experience, what did you think of the school … so I've helped out quite a few women that want to go to the course or are still thinking about it," she said. "I've talked to some women that are recycling to help them out or just need some advice."
Currently Natalie is studying as a graduate student at Arizona State University for her Master's Degree in Sustainability, which is required for her forthcoming position as an instructor at West Point in 2019.
"I had to apply to teach at West Point and I'll be going there in 2019," Natalie said. "I applied back in 2016 and they said I had to be a grad student, so myself and Ed decided to come to Phoenix, where he got a job as an ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) instructor as part of the Army Married Couples Program."
"It's tough, because we're trying to figure out when to have kids, which I'm sure isn't unique to married military couples. But my goal right now is to teach at West Point and I'll see where I land after that," she continued.
Given her experiences successfully graduating as both a Sapper and Ranger, Natalie said her Army experience thus far has been a positive experience for her, while making history in the process.
For those thinking of joining the Army, Natalie urges them to always challenge and push themselves.
"The Army's been an awesome adventure for me. I've learned a lot, met so many people and really expanded my perspectives on life," Natalie said. "In that sense be ready for adventure and to challenge yourself; if you aren't challenging yourself, you're not doing something right."