Fort Benning (United States) (AFP) - They hiked for miles across mountains and jungle with 90-pound (40-kilogram) packs, jumped out of helicopters and worked 20-hour days on the US Army's most grueling training course.
On Friday, the first women to complete Ranger School graduated, to the delight of female peers hoping to see more frontline roles open up for women combat leaders.
Lieutenant Shaye Haver and Captain Kristen Griest faced all the same combat, survival and stamina challenges as the 94 men also pinning the Ranger tab on their fatigues.
But they also faced the added pressure of keen media attention, and of becoming symbols in the US debate over how far to open up combat posts to female troops.
"I feel tremendous pride," said retired captain Sue Fulton, herself a trailblazer as one of the first women to graduate West Point military academy in 1980.
"It is an important step for the Army to evaluate every soldier based on their competence, capability and character."
Fulton was part of a 70-strong delegation of West Point graduates who came to Fort Benning, Georgia to congratulate 25-year-old Haver and 26-year-old Griest.
The younger women were all smiles as they accepted their cheers and posed for pictures. More female soldiers are expected to attempt the course in November.
Haver and Griest now bear the Ranger tab on their uniforms, but will not join the 75th Ranger Regiment, an elite infantry unit that still does not accept women.
- Elite infantry -
Other frontline units are opening up, however, and more are expected to do so. Meanwhile, passing the Ranger School combat leadership test is seen as a key step in a successful officer's career.
"Every senior leader in the US Army wears the tab," another 1980 West Point grad, Lillian Pfluke, told AFP.
She argued that by opening Ranger School to women, the US Army had shown they were "fully accepted in the cultural core of the organization."
Friday's ceremony was also attended by the families of the graduates and by the new US army chief of staff, General Mark Milley, and by General Austin Miller, whose command oversees Ranger School.
Miller dismissed allegations that trainers had been under pressure to lower standards or give women trainees an easier ride.
"A five-mile (eight-kilometer) run is still a five-mile run," he said, insisting he had been under no pressure from his superiors. "Time standards have not been adjusted."
Beverly Rouse, who graduated from West Point in 1984 and served 29 years in the army with tours in South Korea and Iraq, said: "Women are in combat already. The fight is not on a front like in World War II."
By allowing women to follow the Ranger School course, she argued, "you are giving women the opportunity to be prepared just as men have been given the opportunity to be prepared."
Women make up about 15 percent of US Army personnel.
Since the decision to open some combat positions to women, about 111,000 posts out of some 331,000 previously closed have been opened, according to the Defense Department.
But the armed services -- the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy -- can still request that women be barred from specific jobs and the door has yet to be opened for women in infantry combat roles.
They have until the start of next year to decide whether to maintain the ban.