By Sarah Ferreira
As of August 2020, 54 women have graduated Ranger School and a very select few have earned both the Ranger and Sapper Tab. One of those phenomenal women is MAJ Natalie Mallue, an active duty Army Engineer Officer, West Point Class of 2009 graduate, and native of Damascus, Oregon. I’ve been lucky to call Natalie a friend since our time at West Point and it’s been amazing to watch her blaze a trail since her commissioning. She graduated Sapper school in 2013 and then Ranger school in 2017. I thought it would be a great opportunity for the MTI community to hear Natalie’s perspective, lessons learned, and training process throughout her Ranger school journey. Below is our question-and-answer session.
Q: Can you describe your athletic and training background? What were your physical strengths and areas where you needed to improve prior to Ranger?
A: Prior to attending Ranger school I was a devoted 3-year member at a CrossFit gym, and I worked out 4-5 days per week with my unit. I’ve always been strong with rucking, upper body strength, agility and coordination. My biggest weakness is definitely running and speed. I’ve never naturally been a gifted runner, so I knew that training for the RPFT 5 mile was going to be an important aspect of my training plan. I also knew that going into Ranger I needed to optimize my body composition, decrease fat and increase lean muscle mass in order to improve my strength to body weight ratio.
Q: What was your training methodology to prepare for Ranger School? Did you follow a prescribed program, or did you make your own?
A: I began training for Ranger school one year before I attended (Jan 2016-Jan 2017). I did not have a set training plan or schedule, but I did have an evolving methodology based off my own strengths and weaknesses. I did about 40% of my workouts with my unit in the morning, 50% with a CrossFit affiliate, and only about 10% on my own (this was mostly testing myself for the RPFT). My priorities during train up were as follows: 1. Train for the RPFT 2. Train for strength to carry a ruck, 3. Train for endurance 4. Train to prevent injury. After listening to some advice from a coach who was ex-MARSOC, I decided to test out his theory that you do not need to ruck and run often to prepare for ranger school (it also helped that I don’t care for conditioning runs or rucks). I believe this worked for me, but what works for one person may not work for everyone.
Q: What was successful about your training and preparation? What worked well and what do you wish you would have changed or altered?
A: After learning that many women fail out on the 12-mile ruck march I intentionally increased my workout volume as much as I could without being destroyed and unable to walk by Wednesday (which happened a lot in the beginning). Because I had a long period for train up, I was able to learn my line between maximizing training and overtraining. I struggled with overtraining in the beginning because my workouts during morning PT sessions often conflicted with the CrossFit programming in the evening workouts. I eventually started picking and choosing who I would do PT with during the morning workouts based off what was programmed at the gym in the evening. I understand that most people cannot pick and choose who they want to do PT with in the morning, so for those who cannot choose, it’s important to have a chat with your commander about your train up plan or offer to run a ranger train up within your company.
Injury Prevention: one of my biggest fears during train up was getting injured. I had invested so much time and energy into my train up that I sought out ways to prevent injury which would also (hopefully) translate into injury prevention at Ranger school as well. I subscribed to ROMWOD (Range of Motion Workout of the day) which is a daily 15–25-minute yoga-like routine which increases mobility and also aids recovery. Yoga will also do the same thing. I also owned a copy of “Supple Leopard” by Kelly Starrett. This book is great because it’s organized by sections of your body. If you are sore in one area, turn to that section and it will have a list of activities you can do whether you want to speed recovery, have an ache/pain, or just want to improve mobility. I’d usually choose a section of my body to work on every other day before working out.
Q: After Ranger school how did you get back into shape? How long did it take you to get back to your baseline of fitness?
A: Within a week of returning to my unit after Ranger school I was back in the CrossFit gym. I thought I was ready to get back into my old routine, but I quickly realized that jumping right back into working out was a bad idea. I was definitely not ready, mentally or physically, to dive back into a training routine. My body needed time to heal and recover. I was battling some plantar fasciitis and had recurrent back and leg pain. I had to drastically reduce my training volume and focus on rebuilding my muscular strength, especially my upper body strength. I did ROMWODs and other injury prevention protocols to ease back into it. Overall, it took me about 7 months to get back to my normal baseline of fitness.
Q: What did your spouse and family think about your decision to attend Ranger School? Did you have the support from your friends, peers, and leaders at your unit?
A: My husband is also a Ranger school graduate and he was extremely supportive of my decision to attend the school. He assisted in my train up, helped grade and critique my push-up form, as well as offer tactical advice. It was great to have his full support. My parents and siblings don’t come from a military background and they really didn’t have any idea about what Ranger School was, but they were proud of my decision to attend and offered all the assistance and encouragement they could offer. I had a very close-knit community at the CrossFit gym I attended, and all my gym friends and colleagues were a great help in keeping my motivation high during some of those brutal workouts.
When I attended Ranger school, I was serving in an Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT) where Ranger School is very much a part of the culture of the unit and is held in very high regard. A large percentage of Officers and NCOs in the unit have their Ranger tabs. I was fortunate to have the full support of my chain of command. As part of the process, I had to attend a 2-week pre-ranger course at my unit. It was super physically demanding and it prepared me very well. My unit’s pre-ranger course appeared very selective, and they consistently had a very high Ranger School pass rate.
Q: What was your primary motivator to attend Ranger school? How has it impacted you personally and professionally?
A: I had several strong reasons for wanting to attend Ranger School. First and foremost, I felt a strong obligation to attend the school because I was serving as a Company Commander in a Ranger coded slot; meaning that the position I was in was normally held by a Ranger qualified officer. It felt hypocritical to be serving in an IBCT and Ranger slot without actually having the credentials to be in that position. I also wanted to set a strong personal example to my Soldiers, by showing them that you’re never too busy to invest in your professional career. Even with all the demands of being a company commander, I could still find time to train and attend Ranger School. I felt it was best to lead by example. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed and sought physical challenges and I was curious if I could make it through Ranger School.
One of the most professionally rewarding experiences since graduating Ranger School is the amazing opportunity, I’ve had to mentor young Soldiers and Officers. It’s been great to be able to impart some coaching and guidance and in turn I end up learning so much from them as well.
Personally, I know that every day I need to live up to the Ranger values and uphold the high expectations of a Ranger qualified officer, and that brings about some personal challenges. I’m about to go back to the line as a battalion XO or S3 after having two kids in under two years. I certainly feel pressure to get back in the right physical shape and mindset needed for the job and mission, which is stressful when trying to think about how I’m going to balance the job requirements with family life.
Q: Being one of the very few female officers with both a Sapper and Ranger Tab, do you feel pressure to act a certain way? What is the best and worst part about the experience?
A: I don’t feel external pressure to be anything other than my genuine self. Any pressure I feel is internal. One cool part about the experience is that I got a unique opportunity to serve as an on-set military advisor for the film Monster Hunter staring Milla Jovovich, who played a Ranger in the film.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome throughout the process for Ranger? What was the most difficult phase of Ranger for you?
A: One of the earliest challenges was getting my body composition where it needed to be for optimal performance. Naturally, I’m not super lean and thin so I had to be very disciplined in my training and nutrition. By the time I started Ranger I got down to 20% body fat and 36% lean muscle mass. It was also a challenge to avoid getting into an overtrained state and avoid injury. Many days I was doing two workouts on top of my company command responsibilities, so I had to be smart about how I trained.
Physically, mountain phase of Ranger school was the most difficult for me. I went through Ranger during the winter months and the long-distance rucks were absolutely brutal. My body was lacking the calories I needed to sustain myself and I was losing fat, so I was always freezing cold.
Mentally, Florida phase was the most challenging to me. Florida was the only phase I had a to recycle. I didn’t do well on my initial patrols and while many of the factors were in my control some were not, and that was frustrating at the time. Mentally, I knew I had to own the situation and take the lessons learned into my second attempt at Florida phase. It was a total mental suck to have to stay in Florida while watching all my squad and platoon mates move on to graduation.
Q: How were you treated at Ranger school by the cadre? How did your male peers view you?
A: The Ranger School cadre were professional the whole time and I was not treated differently due to my gender. My male peers viewed me as just another Ranger student. I think that Ranger school is a good place to integrate women into combat arms because you can change the minds of so many young Soldiers and Officers. Everyone is too tired and hungry to worry about gender. The only thing that matters is “Can this person carry their load, can they stay awake through the night, and can they do what is required of them?” The keyboard warriors don’t exist in those types of extreme conditions.
Q: How did you and the other females handle personal hygiene?
A: First of all, thank you for not asking me “How I handled my female issues”. I think most people who haven’t lived the experienced with a woman in their platoon tend to think these accommodations impact operations more than they actually do. I was the only female Ranger student in my platoon and some very simple accommodations like hanging a poncho liner or adjusting the position of wall lockers allowed me to change in privacy without making my male peers uncomfortable. Since there was only one area for showers, we simply planned for me to shower either before the men or immediately after; that way no one was inconvenienced by a disrupted shower schedule.
In the field environment, ponchos were hung around the slit trench for privacy and honestly, I think that the majority of Ranger students, both male and female, enjoyed some small level of privacy when having to utilize the trench. The Ranger Instructors also appreciated not having the slit trench open for all to view. The only downside was the poor person who then had to carry around the “poop poncho” in their pack. In order to be able to pee while standing I used a FUD (female urination device)- very similar to a GoGurl. It’s essentially a small rubber channel that’s simple to use and allows women to discreetly pee while standing up.
When it comes to menstruation, again, I think people tend to make this a big deal when it’s really not. Many women attending the school already actively manage their menstrual cycle and will take different forms of birth control to minimize the inconvenience. Some women won’t get a period at all during Ranger due to physical exertion and loss of body fat. Dealing with your period is not any different than using the bathroom.
Q: Top piece of advice for other women attending Ranger school?
A: Set some realistic and achievable goals for yourself and prepare to the best of your ability. I can’t emphasize the preparation piece enough. I truly think that my deliberate train-up and then attending pre-ranger were huge contributors to my success at Ranger school.
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