One of the first woman to graduate from the U.S. Army Ranger School, the Army’s premiere leadership school known for its toughness, is hard to reach. I find her by phone driving from Ft. Benning, Georgia, where she is completing the Captain’s Career Course, to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, to see her boyfriend for the weekend. She is not what you might expect, which is to say, she’s thoroughly normal, and thoroughly extraordinary, all at once. She’s also a junior captain, which puts her squarely in the midst of learning about leadership. Her experience offers much for new leaders just starting out, but her remarkable experience at Ranger School has something to offer for everyone and certainly has everything to do with grit.
Shaye Haver grew up as an Army brat, the eldest of three children born to an Army warrant officer Apache instructor pilot and his wife living between Ft. Rucker, Alabama and Ft. Hood, Texas. Growing up living the Army life, she felt entirely comfortable with the idea of the military.
Athletics was also a part of her upbringing. “Soccer was my life,” she says. “I played on as many teams as my parents would let me, high school and traveling. My dream was to play soccer at Texas A&M, but dad wasn’t paying for college.”
This led to a hard choices. While she felt comfortable with the military, playing soccer was her dream. “To go to West Point, @@I had to choose to leave behind this dream I had had my whole life@@,” she says. “It was a tough decision.”
Forced to make tough decisions early, Haver learned the maxim of one door closing opening another.
“My first year team leader introduced me to triathlon,” she remembers. “I joined the triathlon club and competed for two years. Then I got into competitive rock climbing. At the same time I worked on strength training and became a strength coach. I had the chance to work with some of the best in the world, and then was able to coach Division I female athletes. That’s where I found my passion for mentoring. Also, I realized it was ok to be strong and be a girl. Just because my arms were strong didn’t mean I had to wear a jacket. @@Being strong was still feminine. I finally embraced that myself.@@”
She fit into West Point and its active culture perfectly. She graduated with a degree in International Legal Studies. Following her father’s footsteps, she went into Army Aviation upon graduation, and she trained as an Apache pilot. Moving into her aviation platoon as a 1LT was harder.
“Coming from West Point, I was only responsible for myself,” she says. “I didn’t know how much time it would consume to take care of other people, too. I had to learn time management, and I realized I still had to study, still be a good pilot and also take care of soldiers and soldier issues.”
Growing up around the military, she had some idea of where to start. “I made a conscious effort to spend time with my soldiers and to get to know them and understand them. Realizing that they looked at me not only as their platoon leader but also as an advisor wasn’t something I was ready for.”
This early experience with soldiers led her to one of her biggest lessons and advice to new leaders. “@@Know your job isn’t about you. It’s about everyone else around you. The military is a team sport.@@”
A year into her platoon time Haver had an unusual opportunity. Ranger School had opened to women, and while stationed at Ft. Carson, her platoon was responsible for launching the helicopter carrying a general officer. When her battalion commander mentioned to the general that Haver was one of the battalion’s best lieutenants, the general asked: would she like to go to Ranger School?
“Timing is everything,” Haver says. “It hadn’t even been on my radar. My chain of command was incredibly supportive. I figured pass or fail, I was going to give it everything I had. It was everybody’s faith in me that set me on the path.”
Haver sees the physical training for Ranger School as something she’d been doing all along. “At a young age I was playing sports and doing strength training,” she says. “At West Point I got into triathlons, which helped with endurance. I strength trained every day, and I did runs or tris on the weekends. When I knew I had the assessment (for Ranger School) ahead, I trained on functional strength—carrying sandbags, doing weighted pull-ups. Female specific training included working on upper body strength, grip strength and hip strength and flexibility. Fortunately, my generation is much more accepting of weight lifting for women.”
“There had to be no doubt in my mind that I had the physical strength,” she says. She was up to the challenge.
The Army website says that Ranger School is “is one of the toughest training courses for which a Soldier can volunteer.” Major General Scott Miller, Commander of the U.S. Maneuver Center of Excellence, said in July 2015 that, “Without a doubt, Ranger School is the most physically and mentally demanding course in the Army.” The first class of Rangers graduated in November of 1950. Since then, only a few select male soldiers have completed this course. For a few short years, from 1967-1972, Ranger training was required of all male Regular Army officers after basic training. In 1995, Ranger school training went through another evolution, reduced to 61 days at just under 20 hours of training a day, with candidates consuming only one to two meals a day and typically carrying between 65 and 90 pounds. In 2015, Ranger School was opened to women, against a clamor of criticism. This is the environment Haver entered.
Even so, “I had no issues at all with my peers,” Haver says. “I kept my mouth shut. I was in their territory. I didn’t try to show I knew it all. @@I let my actions and performance speak for me instead. I wasn’t about to be the weakest link.@@”
Physically, she equalled or outperformed her male peers, gaining their respect.
Still, a number of her peers were confused at why she would want to be at Ranger School at all. “A few brought up that they’d talked about it at their units, that they didn’t want women there,” she said. “I tried to be understanding and respectful of their space, and then asked questions back.”
The cadre were different. “But the cadre are supposed to be mean,” Haver says. “I didn’t know which parts were real and which were acting. I wrote off everything they said as acting. I chose to look at it like that. Was there discrimination or hatred there? Yeah. But @@I chose not to let it affect me.@@ It’s another reason I kept my mouth shut.”
I ask Haver how she prepared herself mentally. She has a lot to offer.
“I’d been through the Army’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school,” she says. “So I understood those kinds of intimidation tactics. I knew how I responded to pain and fatigue. I knew that @@my biggest enemy at Ranger School going into every situation was myself and my own mind@@, a tendency for negative self talk.”
How did she train for those stresses?
“First of all I’m a Christian,” she says. “I focused on the fact that no matter what, I’m a child of God. My true value doesn’t come from other people, but from my relationship with Christ.”
“Fort Carson also had master resiliency trainers (from the Forrest Resiliency Center) that worked with us,” she says, “specifically focusing on mental strength. They trained us to think through a situation. That @@when you have doubts, you remind yourself why you’re there.@@ I went into Ranger School with a plan of what to tell myself when I got low. @@It’s critical to have a game plan going in.@@"
"I also had a really good mentor, one of my strength coaches. He helped me develop a mantra, which became just the word “one.” I can always do one more push-up, take one more step. @@I can do one more of anything. Every time I did something, I’d do it like it was my last time.@@ It gave me a kind of reckless abandon.”
She’s about to relay a story about grit, so I ask her to define it. “Grit…it’s doing whatever it takes to do what you set out to do. Daring to fail with reckless abandon.”
Haver also recommends a book. “I just stumbled across it at Barnes and Noble,” she says. “The Mind Gym— it was awesome. My coming across it before Ranger School was perfect timing. It was written for athletes but has a huge influence on the military.”
These lessons didn’t just come to Haver. I ask her for a story of one of the lessons she learned the hard way.
She thinks for a moment. “I’ve only told this story once, talking to cadets at the Air Force Academy,” she says. “At Ranger School we were in Mountain Phase. Dahlonega, Georgia is known for its rolling hills (and mountains), and we were on a long walk. That’s when the RI (Ranger Instructor) puts us on a path and tells us we’re going to walk carrying a heavy pack until the sun rises. We don’t know where we’re going, or how long.
"I don’t know what it was about that night. Maybe it was just fatigue. Those thoughts of being afraid, not staying in touch with why I was there, asking myself if I had what it took to finish… all those came up. It was really hot, and my ears started to get muffled, there was a pounding in my ears.
"I was thinking, I’m probably the slowest one out here, and suddenly I thought: I can’t hear! I’m going deaf! I panicked. I started looking around, but I couldn’t see anything. It was so dark. I couldn’t figure out if I was lost or if I was blind, and still I had this pounding in my ears. I was freaking out. I thought: I’m just going to sit down. I felt like I was literally being crushed. I started thinking about the word truth. I can’t be blind. I kept looking around. I couldn’t see anything in the darkness.
"That’s when I had a come to Jesus moment,” she laughs. “I was talking to myself, murmuring. If anyone could have seen me, they would have thought I was crazy. I asked myself: why am I here?”
Her preparation kicked in. “I’m here for the ground soldiers, I told myself. I’m a pilot, and I have to know how to support them. I’m here for my mom— she’s always had faith in me and I haven’t ever failed her. I started naming every one of my soldiers and the girls I started Ranger School with. @@I thought of all those people who meant more to me than the feelings I was having.@@ I got up, still not seeing anything, and started running.”
Then she looked up.
“I was heading up a hill, and there was the beginning of dawn lighting the top of the hill, and an RI standing there 100 meters above. I looked behind me, and I wasn’t lost. Because I’d been running, I was in the lead.
"It was a new day. I got to start over again. All these things I believed weren’t true. I wasn’t blind, I wasn’t deaf.
"I’m grateful for that moment,” she says. “I know how I react to pain, to fear, to being overwhelmed. Outside of combat, I don’t think I ever would have experienced that.”
Haver graduated from Ranger School in August 2015, along with her friend CPT Kristen Griest.
Thinking of her hardest lessons, Haver says that “Sometimes the military can seem like a big machine. It can be hard to think that your part matters. You have to be satisfied with what you’re doing. @@I want to know at the end of the day that I committed to give 100%, and that I was a value add to my team.@@”
Haver is a big reader, and I ask for her favorite books.
"My best friend Kirsten (Greist, the other woman who graduated with Haver) and I found out we had the same favorite book," she says. It’s The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. She recommends The Mission, The Men and Me by Pete Blaber for what should be at the heart of every leader. Finally, she’s reading more Lisa Bevere and specifically Girls With Swords, about being the strong woman God calls her to be.
In and out of her reading, it's clear this woman has got grit.