Today, two Army officers will be the first women to graduate from Ranger school. This is a groundbreaking milestone many predict is cracking the “brass ceiling”, but what does it really mean to female integration into military combat arms? Yes, these women will wear the coveted Ranger tab on their uniform—but they are still barred from serving in a Ranger unit. Will this be a historic moment that changes the trajectory of women’s service in the US military? Or just a brief reminder that women are capable, but that the status quo will continue?

In January 2013, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey repealed the 1994 Ground Combat Exclusion Policy, thereby granting women the opportunity to compete for jobs from which they were previously excluded (tanks, artillery, infantry, special operations, etc). The joint memorandum formally repealing the 1994 policy noted:

Success in our military based solely on ability, qualifications, and performance is consistent with our values and enhances military readiness.  Today, women make up 15% of the US military and are indispensable to the national security mission. In fact, thousands of women have served alongside men in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, like men, have been exposed to hostile enemy action in those countries. However, many positions in our military remain closed to women….

Secretary Panetta and Chairman Dempsey’s logic in rescinding this policy was clear: the US military is more powerful when roles are filled by those most qualified for them. Anything else artificially limits military readiness.

When the 1994 policy was rescinded, US servicewomen had already been serving in combat roles for a decade. In 2003, the Army established an all-female team, known as Lioness, to accompany all-male Army and Marine Infantry units in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2009, the Marine Corps began employing Female Engagement Teams (FETs), which are attached to all-male infantry units and maneuver units for combat missions. The fact of the matter is, women have been consistently proving their ability on the battlefield right alongside their brothers—however, unlike their brothers, they haven’t been able to do so in an official capacity. 

Despite the 2013 memorandum and proof of women’s ability to perform on the battlefield, progress in opening specialty positions has been slow. The services did indeed open previously closed units to occupational specialties women already serve in.  (For example, a female logistics officer can now work in a tank company, where previously, women could not be assigned below the regiment level.) The services also opened many training opportunities to women. Yet the fact remains that women remained barred from serving in the units for which they trained upon graduation.

Furthermore, the memorandum was no panacea. Unlike with similar changes, such as the desegregation of the services after World War II, each service branch will have an opportunity to request exceptions to policy. These exceptions would essentially keep certain jobs closed to women.

This brings us to the dilemma confronting us as we watch these Army officers graduate from Ranger School today. They proved they are up for the job–that they have the physical and mental fortitude to serve the United States as Army Rangers–and they will wear tabs on their uniforms distinguishing them from men and women alike who were unable to overcome the challenges faced by Ranger School graduates. However, because they are not male, they cannot serve their country as Rangers. And, should the Army request one of these exceptions to policy come January 1, 2016, they may never be able to do so.

While the opening of elite training schools like Ranger School to women is a step in the right direction, it will be nothing more than a feel-good headline if they cannot fully participate in the special operations community–which means being able to serve with their brothers (and sisters) in a unit and career they trained and proved they were prepared for.

This view, that those who prove their ability to meet the standards for service should be able to serve at a level commensurate with their talent, is not out of the ordinary in the defense community. As recently as last Wednesday, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert was quoted in Navy Times, saying,

“Why shouldn’t anybody who can meet these [standards] be accepted? And the answer is, there is no reason…So we’re on a track to say, ‘Hey look, anybody who can meet the gender non-specific standards, then you can become a SEAL.'”

At the Aspen Security Conference last month, Army Gen. James Votel, who has led US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) since August, 2014, stated, “”This is about meeting the standards for the task that the nation expects us to be able to do. If people can meet the standards, then we should be able to integrate them.”  Even Defense Secretary Ashton Carter weighed in via Twitter in July, with his official account paraphrasing a response he gave to a question asked after his speech at the Global Response Force Troop Event at Fort Bragg, North Carolina:

While at this point these are all statements and not official policy, the fact remains: senior military and civilian leaders recognize the benefits of opening positions to the most qualified applicant.

So, as we raise a glass to the two women who will graduate from Ranger School today, we must bear in mind that, although they have proven their superior mettle, strength, and fortitude in the face of incredible challenges, current policy precludes them from serving in a capacity that fully utilizes this talent simply because of their gender.

This gap between policy and practice is simply bad business for national security. If an individual can meet the physical and mental standards required to serve in a particular role, she (or he) should be able to do so. No exceptions.