Eighties and ‘90s nostalgia ran through her mind. Films like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon and G.I. Jane were often featured in the household and she never missed her chance to watch. She remembered the profound impression the films had on her, especially G.I. Jane. Despite her love for G.I. Jane, a young Capt. Kristen Greist, an action officer at Army Talent Management, never would’ve imagined living the reality of the film by becoming one of the first female Soldiers to receive a Ranger tab.
“I was stressed out as a child because I thought G.I. Jane was a real story and I didn’t know serving as a Navy Seal was an option,” Greist said. “I panicked — I was like, ‘I’m not ready to become a Navy Seal, and I need to start doing sit-ups right now.’ I was 11 years old at the time, but that’s how strongly I felt. I knew this is what I wanted to do one day.”
The spark of determination as a child would, eventually, ignite into a burning desire to prove the doubters and detractors wrong.
And so, the stage was set. After enduring all the tasks the Army placed before her, Greist returned to West Point as a guest speaker during the annual Founders Day dinner on March 16, commemorating the day in 1802 when Congress formally authorized and established West Point as a military academy.
Following the dinner and musical performances, Class of 2021 Cadet First Captain Riley McGinnis introduced Greist to the stage. The Cadet Mess Hall roared with applause as Greist took the podium. She began her speech on what it means to be resilient and imparted a story on her journey to receive her Ranger tab.
“As a kid in the ‘90s, I had no grasp on the concept of war. Even though I had a desire to join the military, in the back of my mind, I felt joining was unrealistic,” Greist said at the Founders Day dinner. “I also didn’t know about West Point, I didn’t know about Ranger School, and I had no idea what the Army did and when the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, I believed, at 12 or 13 years old, that the Iraq war would end by the time I was 18.”
Greist added it was at the age of 15 or 16 when she started learning about politics. Every night she would catch news headlines of Soldiers deploying for a year to Iraq and Afghanistan. She noticed that those deployments would get extended from 15 to 18 months. Her perception of war had changed at this point. She realized that the Middle East conflict would go on for some time, and she recalled the attack on 9/11, and everything came into focus. She realized that joining the Army was the path she would pursue with tremendous zeal.
“Soldiers would return from deployment and then in six months go back to the Middle East, and it was just this really urgent sense in 2005 to 2007, when I was 15 to 18, that I had this notion of the country needing more combat troops to relieve those people because they were stretched so thin,” Greist said. “So, I felt I needed to help relieve that burden. That’s when my motivation came in high school.”
Greist attended Amity Regional High School in Woodridge, Connecticut. She was in her senior year and had applied to West Point. Despite running track at her high school, she felt she needed more training to prepare herself for the Army Physical Fitness Test, so she joined a gym. She focused on getting faster and more robust, running the treadmill and doing push-ups and sit-ups, and, in 2007, Greist passed her APFT, earning her title as a cadet at West Point, she said.
During her plebe year, Greist joined the Sandhurst team to compete in the International Military Skills Competition.
“During our runs, I was the slowest on the team. On the team, it was mostly junior and senior men, and they would put me up front. They were friendly about it,” Greist said. “It wasn’t like a hazing thing, but they were like, ‘hey we’re really only as fast as you, we got to stick together as a team so you’re setting the pace,’ and I was like, ‘oh, I’m going to be holding these guys back if I don’t pick up my speed.’”
Greist, along with the team, would run from the Hudson River to the peek of a ski slope with helmet and boots on while their dummy rifles and canteens dangled on their bodies. She loved the team, and she loved the idea of being part of the Sandhurst event. However, she would often feel overwhelmed due to the arduous nature of the competition, she added.
“I struggled all the time. I thought I’d never be good at it. My back hurt, my feet hurt, I was like I’m just not built for this, and then it got to a point where I just trained so much and I started feeling the progress,” Greist said. “I did (Sandhurst) my sophomore year. I studied abroad my junior year. Then my senior year it all came full circle where I was still upfront, but it was because I was actually the fastest at this point.”
Greist had trained so hard throughout her tenure at West Point with the thought of infantry and Ranger School on her mind that by the time she was a senior, even though the rest of the team were still men, she was still up front leading the pack during the runs, she said.
“My team leader turned to me, and he was like ‘alright Kris, I’ll put you in charge of cardio days because you’re really good at it,’” Greist said. “That was like a real eye-opening thing for me. This was my weakness, and now it’s my strength because I put effort into it.”
At the end of her tenure at West Point, Greist branched Military Police, received her degree in International Relations, and commissioned as a second lieutenant in 2011. She became a platoon leader for the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. In 2013, she deployed to Afghanistan and when she returned in 2014, she found out Ranger School was opening up to women, and her brigade was disbanding, Greist said.
“They got rid of all the fourth brigades. So I went to the 716th Military Police Battalion, which was right across the street on Fort Campbell, and that’s when I spent that whole summer training up for Ranger School,” Greist said. “I just decided, ‘OK, I got to get this five-mile run down. I got to worry about the push-ups being perfect, I need to do pull-ups, and I did a lot of leg days to build up my muscles for ruck marches. But I really focused on upper body making sure my push-ups were good and making sure I could do the five-mile run, that was pretty much my only focus. I didn’t even ruck march that much, to be honest with you.”
Greist added how critical mental preparation was leading up to Ranger School. She would sign up to run marathons to train for the five-mile runs she would experience during Ranger training. Before she left, she had an encounter with Soldiers who made it through Ranger School. They planted the seed in her head that they overheard Ranger instructors saying they wouldn’t pass a woman. This challenged Greist’s mental will.
“The (Soldiers) would say stuff like, ‘you know, the instructors are telling us they’re never going to pass a woman,’ but that wasn’t really my experience because there were some leaders when I was at Ranger School where I was like, ‘man this guy, that’s the guy who’s never going to pass a woman,’” Greist said. “However, later, that same guy, if I was performing really well, he would pull me aside if I were first place in a physical competition. He would pull the top three of us aside and say, ‘you guys are standing over here, you’re not getting smoked anymore because you care.’”
Greist overcame the first phase’s trials, or the “Benning Phase” as it is more commonly known. For 21 days, she performed at the highest physical standards, maintained mission essential equipment, and completed all the missions she was tasked with by fortifying her mental will and remembering her goal of receiving the Ranger tab, she said.
During the second phase (Mountain), she received her education in military mountaineering techniques and learned about combat patrol operations. The moment of truth came when she finally reached the third and final phase (Florida), she added.
“This was my least favorite phase because the rucksack was so heavy, and we had a long swamp movement scheduled. So, you go into the swamp, which is the Everglades,” Greist explained. “As the sun is setting, you have no idea how long you’re going to be walking for — pretty much all night. You’re tripping over roots, the water is up to your waist or higher, and you just can’t see anything. It’s just miserable.”
Greist wanted to carry the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) during swamp movement. She had carried the M240 machine gun during the mountain phase and felt that she would complete the phase with minor setbacks, but this moment in her training nearly pushed her to her limit. At 5’5,” she was concerned about drowning in the swamps, and she was aware that carrying the machine gun and the ammunition that came with it would make the task that much harder, she added.
She had been carrying the weapon throughout the day and intended to hold it close as she moved through the swamp when the sun was setting.
The mud rose over her hips, and her elbows were sinking into the swamp, Greist explained.
“As I tried to really waddle with the SAW, we didn’t even make it that far in, when one of the instructors saw a bunch of people struggling and yelled out, ‘Hey! If you’re having trouble right now, you’re gonna slow everybody down, so just trade-off your weapon or your equipment, so we don’t have a break in contact,’” Greist said. “He was talking to everybody, and many men traded off their weapons, but in that moment, I felt like he was talking to me. I absorbed all the doubt he had and let all my self-doubt take over. My friend reached down to trade his M240 for my SAW and I gave in.”
Greist moved out about 50 meters into the swamp with the rest of the trainees when a different Ranger instructor approached her and shouted, “Ranger! where’s your machine gun!” Greist told him she exchanged weapons with her battle buddy, she said.
“The (instructor) was like ‘alright, roger that, you now have a major minus, which is a negative spot report, and you only get three, and this was two for me.’ And he said ‘If you don’t get your SAW back immediately, you’re going to get a second one.’ I got it back with a quickness,” Greist said.
The instructor continued to scold Greist asking, “How could you give up your weapon like that? How can you just let everybody down?”
Afterward, he spoke about responsibility and how it was Greist’s duty to carry and maintain that weapon. When he contextualized the meaning of maintaining the weapon, it changed the way Greist saw the final phase. She went from thinking she was trying to prove something to herself against the naysayers to thinking people depended on her ability to succeed and be a team player. After completing the third phase, Greist finally received her Ranger tab at Victory Pond becoming one of the first female Soldiers to complete Ranger School in 2015.
“He completely flipped the script for me, and I had absolutely no problem carrying that machine gun for the rest of the swamp movement. I realized it was my mindset that was holding me back and my doubt. He told me afterward, he knew I could carry the SAW based on my performance. Why did I doubt myself when he knew I could do it,” Greist said. “He still gave me the major minus, but he really changed my mentality. This story, I think, is important for cadets to understand as soon as possible that the only thing holding you back is your mindset. Forget your personal hang-ups, or where you came from, or any preconceived notions of what you might be capable of. You have complete control over your mind, and sometimes a simple change in perspective is all it takes to be resilient.”