By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Dec. 02, 2016) -- At Fort Benning, Georgia, the Army for the first time Thursday held a graduation for the Armor Basic Officer Leader Course that included female Soldiers among the graduates.
"It's a great day," said Maj. Gen. Eric J. Wesley, commanding general of the Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, during a press conference in advance of the graduation. "You're going to see today 65 great armor lieutenants walk across the stage as graduates of the ABOLC."
Of the 65 graduates, Wesley said, 13 are female officers. All had met the objective criteria that define the role of a combat leader, he said. The Army's decision to open the course up to women, he believes, will have the overall effect of strengthening the Army through diversity.
"It's broadened the pool from which we draw to promote to platoon leaders in the armor branch because we've extended the opportunity to be armor leaders to women in the Army," he said. "So we have a much broader pool of talent, all normalized, based on the standards that we have emplaced on armor leaders."
The ABOLC is attended by second lieutenants who are new to the Army. The 19-week, three-phase course provides commanders in the field with armor or cavalry platoon leaders trained in the fundamentals of tank and reconnaissance platoon weapon systems and capabilities, combined-arms maneuver and area security tactics.
Staff Sgt. George M. Baker, an ABOLC cadre member, said that initially there was skepticism among trainers about how the women would perform in the course. That skepticism, he said, soon vanished.
"As soon as they started performing to those same standards -- because we didn't change anything -- and they performed to those same standards, they met and exceeded those standards," Baker said. "It solidified that they have a place here."
Fellow ABOLC instructor, Staff Sgt. William J. Hare, said that, after pushing through the latest iteration of ABOLC, he wouldn't have a problem serving as a Soldier under any the women he was charged with instructing.
"They have been astronomical. They blew us away during our field training exercises" Hare said. "Their ability to plan and execute on the fly and execute that plan in a clear and concise manner and communicate plan changes on the go was amazing."
A key to ensuring that only the best officers would make it into the armor branch, Wesley said, was the development of a set of standards that would apply equally to both men and women who go through the ABOLC.
The high physical demands of the course are gender-neutral and difficult, he said. They define what an officer must be able to do physically to serve as an armor officer.
"The beauty of the high physical demands test is that it eliminates or removes the whole question of gender relevance," Wesley said. "If you base your performance and the graduation on standards, that just falls away and disappears. And it becomes a merit-based effort."
The course's physical demands included dragging a 188-pound casualty over a 15-meter distance in 60 seconds; a 12-mile foot march with 68 pounds of gear and uniform lasting five hours; removing a 188-pound casualty with 19 pounds of uniform and equipment from a vehicle; and moving a dozen 55-pound, 155-millimeter multi-purpose anti-tank projectiles from an ammo point to a tank in five minutes.
In recent months, women Soldiers have also endured and graduated Ranger School and the Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course. There, too, standards were applied equally both to men and women, Wesley said.
"We spend a lot of time measuring the metrics we use to assess the performance of leaders in training," Wesley said. "And as we scrutinize those, we collectively come to agree on ... the important, critical tasks. Then we charge the lieutenants to perform in accordance of those tasks. And when they do, they become graduates of the institution, who are fully qualified in accordance with Army standards."
Wesley hasn't failed to notice the intense media interest that greeted the graduation of female Soldiers from Ranger School back in August 2015. In October, when 10 women graduated IBOLC, he noted that the media interest had dwindled.
There was even less interest in the ABOLC graduation, he said.
"It tells you that this is business as usual," he said. "We train leaders at Fort Benning. We just got done with a session of triaging 65 brand new armor lieutenants, and they will walk across the stage today. What stays the same? At Fort Benning, we train combat leaders."