A congressman who is a combat veteran and Ranger graduate has asked the Pentagon's top Army leader to produce documents related to the performance of thefemales who began Ranger Schoolat Fort Benning, Georgia earlier this year, PEOPLE has learned.
In a letter obtained exclusively by PEOPLE, Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., gave outgoing Army Secretary John McHugh until September 25 to produce documents revealing the women's test scores, evaluations, injuries, pre-training and more. The letter was delivered to McHugh's Pentagon office on September 15.
"The training of our combat warriors is paramount to our national defense," Russell wrote to McHugh. "In order to ensure that the Army retains its ability to defend the nation, we must ensure that our readiness is not sacrificed."
The congressman is concerned because "sources at Fort Benning are coming forward to say the Army lied about women in Ranger School, that the women got special treatment and played by different rules," according to a Capitol Hill source with knowledge of why the letter was crafted. "These folks say one thing, the Army says another. Congress needs to know the truth, and Russell reached out to find it."
Ranger instructors – who said they were ordered to remain silent, and fear for their careers for speaking out – gave Russell's office specific examples of the special treatment the women received, the Capitol Hill source says.
The school consists of three phases: Benning, which lasts 21 days and includes water survival, land navigation, a 12-mile march, patrols, an obstacle course and others; Mountain, which lasts 20 days, and includes rigorous mountain training like assaults, ambushes, mountaineering and patrols; Florida/Swamp, which lasts 17 days and covers waterborne operations.
The instructors say that among other things, the women did not carry the same amount of equipment as the men, did not take their turn carrying the heavy machine guns and were given intensive pre-training that was not offered to men, other sources with knowledge of what occurred at the school tell PEOPLE. In addition, men who repeatedly failed crucial phases of the school were sent home while the women were allowed to redo those phases over and over, sources say.
The women could not be reached for comment but an Army spokesperson insists they passed under their own steam.
"... There was no pressure from anyone to lower any standards – the standards remained the same and the Soldiers that graduated with their Ranger tabs on August 21, 2015 in Ranger Class 8-15 accomplished the very same demanding standards of Ranger School as previous classes," the Army's Lt. Col. Garrett wrote in an emailed statement to PEOPLE.
That's why the congressman wants to see the documents himself, the Capitol Hill source says.
"The only way to resolve the discrepancy is to examine the documents," the source says.
The issue is gaining prominence as the military as a whole moves towards opening all jobs, including combat positions, to females. The positions are slated to be open January 1, unless special exemptions are granted. All services have until October 1 to notify the Secretary of Defense whether they want exemptions.
"Everyone is waiting to see how this plays out with the Army," says Jim Lechner, a retired Army officer and Ranger who was wounded in combat in Mogadishu, Somalia, during the famed "Black Hawk Down" incident.
The issue is crucial, Lechner says. "Combat is brutal and unforgiving. Fighters must be prepared and capable. If they are not, people will die."
Ranger School needs to remain a stark litmus test of who can perform in combat, says a longtime trainer.
"These are our front-line fighters, and they have to have what it takes," says Bubba Moore, a former Ranger instructor with close ties to the Ranger and Fort Benning communities.
A number of "concerned" congressional leaders are watching closely to see the results of Russell's inquiry, a committee staff member says.