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Class Notes

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Captain Griest’s Remarks at Founders day 2021

Thank you and good evening Lieutenant General Williams, Brigadier General Buzzard, Brigadier General Jebb, Command Sergeant Major Coffey, Command Sergeant Major Killingsworth, Dr. Peterson, Mr. Browne, Sergeant Major Payne, and Sergeant Major Williams. It's a tremendous honor to get to address the United States Corps of Cadets on such a meaningful occasion as Founders Day.

First of all I want to acknowledge how much everyone in this room has had to deal with over the last year of COVID-19. The pandemic has been hard for everyone, and West Point is hard for everyone, but having to handle both at the same sounds almost unbearable. It actually sounds like good mental preparation for Ranger School- so you have no reason not to go!

I was also excited to learn that I would be speaking virtually to West Point graduates all around the world as well. This is important information to know, especially when you've spoken at graduate functions over the last few years, possibly to many of the same people. Fortunately I have so many impactful memories of West Point that I could choose any handful of them to hopefully illustrate some valuable lessons learned.

Due to the current COVID environment, I was asked to focus my speech around resilience. That seems fitting for Founders Day- because I've been asked a lot about resilience over the last six years, and I cannot tell you how many times I mention West Point in my answers. When people ask what is different about me that made me resilient, I always think it's not me, but really this institution that's different. It was the combination of high expectations and impressive examples from its faculty and graduates that made the difference in my early career and helped me achieve my goals.

So there are three main questions I get asked with regards to resilience and I thought it might be best to answer those for you here tonight.

The first question is almost always - How did I find resilience to deal with the backlash from men who didn't want women in Ranger School or the Infantry?
This question is funny to me, because it was actually men who encouraged me to go to Ranger School and join the Infantry in the first place. One story I have to retell is about then-LTC Gus Huerter, class of 1990. LTC Huerter had served in Ranger Regiment and spent seven years in Special Operations before becoming a Regimental TAC officer. Needless to say, he had extremely high standards, and you not want to run into him if you were jacked up in any way. LTC Huerter's corrective action tactics earned him the nickname the "Huertlocker," and I met him the summer going into my senior year. I was interviewing for a key summer leader job and, as usual, I wrote down that my five year plan was to branch Infantry and go to Ranger School - which for women in 2010 was not a thing. But LTC Huerter took me seriously and he said, "OK Ranger, send me your PT card." He knew we had an APFT in a few weeks, and I went into my training for that one with a different motivation than usual.

Although the APFT had different standards for women, I realized LTC Huerter did not care about my gender, he just cared about my performance. That was the first fitness test I maxed on the men's scale, finally running under a 13-minute two mile. When I sent him my PT card, he invited me into his infantry mentorship club along with a few other women. Even though the Army excluded women from combat arms, he included us and showed us that gender was not important; performance was all that mattered.

LTC Huerter is a big part of the reason I'm so passionate about gender-neutral standards for the ACFT. Not everyone is exposed to his level of leadership - but by implementing a policy that finally holds women to equal standards, the Army will send the same message to all women that he sent to me back then:  You are an equal member of the team, we do expect great things from you, and you are responsible for your performance, regardless of your gender. The knowledge that my performance is completely within my control makes me resilient when I fail or fall short, which happens often. And I did fall short many times in LTC Huerter's mentorship program. Whether bench-pressing my own body weight or running five miles in 40 minutes, there were few physical tasks I could do on the first try- most recently it was that stupid ball throw for the ACFT. But rather than giving up on myself, I know I can train to get there, or as he would say, fix myself.

Another influential officer in my development was COL Casey Haskins, class of 1982. COL Haskins was our DMI-6 in 2010, and he also came from Ranger Regiment.  My class was the first year they made CLDT, Cadet Leadership Development Training, a requirement, and having a new, arduous three week course thrown into our summer break caused a few hurt feelings (which I think you guys know something about). So he started Day 1 of the training off with a pep talk- of sorts. I will never forget this speech, it was seared into my brain- to say COL Haskins was disappointed that day is an understatement, he was more like disgusted. Not in us, but with some previous graduates. He paced back and forth, not really making eye contact with anyone, as if he was trying to maintain his temper and calm himself down.

And he told us this story: He said, "During the previous summer, FOURTEEN West Point graduates decided to quit Ranger School. At some point during the 62-day course, they each, independently, raised their hands and said 'I quit.' And when a Ranger Instructor asked if they were sure they wanted to be dropped from the course, they said, 'Yes.' They then proceeded to sign their own name on a piece of paper that said, "I do not have the intestinal fortitude to complete this physically demanding and mentally rigorous course." That piece of paper, called a 'Lack of Motivation' statement, will be the first thing their unit sees of them, and they signed it with their names! FOURTEEN West Point graduates!" He practically spat the last part out, then turned to us and said, "We are here to make sure that never happens again." The bottom line of the speech was that West Pointers don't quit.

Part of me wanted to raise my hand and ask since women aren’t allowed in Ranger School are we excused from the training, but I didn’t think he was in the mood for that question. And, he was speaking to us as well. He knew that women needed to be mentally tough, just like the men. He knew we could be in combat situations and he knew that we owed it to our soldiers to do everything we could to prepare ourselves for any situation.

I recalled his speech as I was going through Ranger School after having recycled the first phase, twice. When you recycle a phase of Ranger School twice, you can either be sent home or have the opportunity for a Day 1 recycle- which means starting over at the very beginning of the initial, grueling Ranger Assessment Phase or RAP week. When I walked into the brigade commander’s office, he had already dismissed four of the women before me and told me that I was likewise going to be dropped from the course. He said I was a good candidate, I was physically fit, and I should definitely try this again, if the Army every did it again.

At that moment, realizing what was at stake, I felt I needed to do everything I possibly could to stay. Now, I really didn't WANT to stay; I wanted to go home and sit in the air conditioning and take a nap at this point. But I thought about COL Haskin’s speech and all the women I might be quitting on, and I asked for a Day 1 recycle. The Brigade Commander said most men could not pass RAP week a second time, especially after two months of being worn down in Ranger School. I told him I thought I could pass it. This was somewhat of a bluff - I definitely did NOT think I could pass RAP week again but I wanted to feel like I did everything I could to keep women in the course. COL Fivecoat, class of 93, saw something in that bluff, and called me on it.

He kicked me out of his office for about ten minutes. I thought ok, I've done everything I could, I asked to stay, but did not really expect a second chance. Then he called me back in and said he'd give me the same opportunity he gave the men- if I could do 49 push-ups there in his office, he would let me stay. Once again, I thought ok, this is it, there's no way I can do the infamous Ranger school push-ups right now after two months of RS, no one can blame me for not being able to stay....but as I got to number 35 I realized I did have the strength to finish, and I would know if I didn't do my best, and quit on myself. So I got to 49 push-ups and COL Fivecoat and CSM Arnold gave me another chance. Not surprisingly, CPT Shaye Haver, class of 2012, and MAJ Lisa Jaster, class of 2000,  were also able to do the push-ups and they also moved their bags from the drop pile to the Day 1 recycle pile. I gained resilience that day from COL Haskins's message, that you should take pride in where you came from and what you've done, and that quitting not only dishonors that legacy but also yourself.

There have been plenty of male detractors of women in the infantry but I don't remember their names. In fact, most of the criticism occurred online behind anonymous usernames. But I have noticed a trend in the people I do remember - that the men who stood up for me, encouraged and empowered me were always the ones with the most impressive credentials, who were the most self-assured and confident in themselves. From my Ranger School classmates, to my peers at the career course, to my first Infantry Battalion Commanders, my 1SGs, Platoon Leaders, and Paratroopers, those men probably don't remember all the small things they did that made me feel welcome, but I do, and they gave me resilience to handle the critics.

****

The second question I get asked is what did I do to become more resilient than other women?
To this question I always want to respond, 'have you met other women?' Because it was actually the example of so many other women that showed me what I was capable of achieving and gave me resilience. Generations of women have showed me that my gender was not a limitation and inspired me to push myself harder.

As honored as I am to have been the first female Ranger or Infantry officer, I realize those accolades are largely a matter of timing. Lillian Pfluke, class of 1980, who ran a triathlon three weeks after giving birth, could have been the first female Ranger. Kris Fuhr, who was ranked 10th in the class of the 1985, could have chosen any branch she wanted if they were all available to her. Those ladies and so many others had been body-breaching obstacles for women for decades before I showed up in 2007.

But I also had personal examples. I'll never forget one of my early female role models, then-Major Charcy Barrett, class of 2001. She was my Battalion XO when I was a Lieutenant in the 716th MP Batallion. Our unit held a week of physical activities and games, and she signed up for the triathlon. Even though she was the only woman competing against all men in the same events and for the same distances, she won the swim event. During the 12 mile bike ride, she had borrowed someone's bike and the seat fell off around mile seven. She did not let this stop her for a minute- she just continued to finish the last five miles without a seat! Although some men passed her at this point, when she hopped off the bike, she took off for the 5k run and actually passed every man ahead of her. One of those men had a Ranger Tab! This was like a Tuesday morning fun-run! But she took it seriously, and she showed me that day that my gender was not the limitation I thought it was.

This was the summer of 2014, while I was training up for Ranger School. I was thinking that when I showed up to a pre-Ranger course, I was going to be dead last in every event. After watching MAJ Barrett, I realized maybe I was holding myself back, and I realized my gender was not an excuse to not push myself as hard as the men. When I went to the Fort Campbell pre-Ranger course that fall, I came in first place among all men on the five-mile run, and when I did the ruck march my SECOND time through RAP week, I was first person in my company to finish. The instructors were quite surprised to see me back so soon, they thought I must've gotten injured, but by that time I knew I could push myself to be in the front of any pack.

Since joining the infantry women have continued to inspire me and push me to be better. When the ACFT was getting rolled out I called now-LTC Jaster for some advice on deadlifting, I was sure I could only do 180lbs ...she reassured me, "Kris, trust me, you can definitely get over 200..." She was right.

CPT Shaye Haver, my counterpart who's on her third Infantry company command, decided when we were commanders in the 82nd Airborne Division that it would be a great idea to participate in the Bataan Memorial Death March in White Sands, NM. For those of you who don't know, that event is literally a marathon, with a ruck sack on, at a mile of elevation. I did NOT think this was a good idea, but she thought we had a chance, so I agreed, and we actually came in 1st place in the military heavy co-ed division.  The next year, she went down with another team, and they won out of all the male teams as well.

There are also women that came after me that continue to inspire me. I met Shaina Coss, class of 2016, here at West Point before she graduated. She was not only in the first group of women to graduate from the Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course, but also became the first female infantry officer to serve in Ranger Regiment. In 2019 she also successfully deployed that Ranger Platoon to Afghanistan and is currently at the Marine Corps career course.

I was also lucky to have Erin Mauldin as my platoon leader and then as my XO. Erin was the valedictorian of the class of 2014, and went from West Point to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. Rhodes scholar is such a rare term in the infantry, that everyone thought we were calling her a ROGUE scholar. She is currently an infantry company commander in the 101st Airborne Division.

I had a grasshopper becoming teacher moment when BOTH of these women beat me in a cross fit competition. Part of me feels like that doesn't count because it is cross-fit, but a bigger part of me was proud because I know that gender integration is in good hands. I was also so excited to meet and speak to the three women branching infantry in the class of 2021, and I'm excited to see what they bring to the table.

All of these examples of women crushing it give me resilience because they demonstrate that there is nothing inherent about my gender that limits me. They remind me that with enough training and effort, I can achieve any goal, even in the face of setbacks.

***

The third question I always get asked, is what lessons about resilience did I learn from RS?
And I promise I just have one quick story about this.  It was during the Florida phase of Ranger School. We had a long swamp movement coming up, and I was worried about it. I knew we would be walking for hours in the dark, under nods, tripping over roots, with the water up to my waist, but I also wanted to see if I could carry the M249 SAW during the movement. I carried the heavy machine gun (M240) in Mountains, and the ASIP radio pack in Darby, but this was a stretch for me- at five foot five, I was really concerned about drowning in the swamps, and I knew carrying the awkward weapon with extra ammo would only make it harder.

But I had been carrying the weapon all day and planned to keep it as we moved into the swamp just as the sun was going down. Already the mud was up to my hips and my elbows were dipping into it as I tried to carry this awkward weapon, with all the extra ammo as well. One of the instructors saw me and a few others struggling and yelled out “HEY! If you’re having trouble now, you might as well trade out your weapons or equipment right now, because you’re going to slow everybody down!” He was talking to everyone, and many men traded off their heavier weapons, but in that moment I felt he was talking directly to me. I absorbed all the doubt that he had, and I let my self-doubt get take over. My friend reached down and offered to trade his M4 for my SAW. I gave in, and we moved out.

About 50 meters into the swamp, another instructor came up to me and he was livid. He was like, “Ranger! Where is your machine gun?!” I told him I traded it off and he was like, "Ok, roger that, you now have a major minus"- which was a negative spot report and you only get three- this was my second. He said "If you don't get the SAW back immediately you're going to get another." I got the SAW back with a quickness and he continued to chastise me, saying, “How could you think it was OK to trade off your weapon?  This is your weapon system, this is your job, people are depending on you to do this, I can't believe you're willing to let everyone down.”

When he put it like that, he changed my mindset completely. I went from thinking I was trying to prove something to myself against everyone, to thinking that people were depending on me, and expected me to do this for the team. He completely flipped the script. And I had ABSOLUTELY no problem carrying that machine gun for the rest of the movement (4-6 hours). I realized that my mindset is what was holding me back. He told me afterwards, that he knew I could carry the SAW based on my performance the previous 9 days in that course, he knew I was able to do it and asked why did I doubt myself? He still gave me the major minus, but he really changed my mentality.

This story is important for you as cadets to understand as soon as possible that the only thing holding you back, is your mind set. Forget your personal hang-ups, or where you came from, or any pre-conceived notions of what you might be able to achieve, you have complete control over your mindset, and sometimes a simple change in perspective is all it takes to be resilient.

****

So I hope in addition to this message of resilience you also got something about gender integration. Because it's not just important for our Army or our country, but gender integration throughout the world is important for security and freedom. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley, who often points out that his mother was in the WAVES during WWII, testified before Congress recently about our presence in Afghanistan. He thought it was important enough to mention that if we leave, women's rights in that country will "be set back to the stone age." I have since heard several critics ridicule the idea that we should be worried about women in Afghanistan. That we are somehow just trying to advance a radical progressive agenda overseas.
I don’t know if those critics think the Special Forces have a radical, feminist agenda, because their motto has always been "De Oppresso Liber," to liberate the oppressed. Who has been more oppressed than Afghan women by the Taliban?

From a strategic standpoint, I don’t know if the critics realize that the most natural enemy of radical terrorist groups like ISIS are those who have the most to lose when they gain control - women (Ask the Daughters of Kobani).

I don't know if the critics of women's rights realize that women are people too, equally motivated to preserve life, fight for liberty and pursue happiness. Malaal Yousaf proved that at the age of 15 when she stood up to the Taliban and was shot for it.

Something I learned from all my mentors and role models is that leadership is about recognizing potential and catalyzing it. Women are people, and if you can't recognize potential in women, you're not leading, you're following along with the status quo. My class motto is 'For Freedom we Fight,' and if we want freedom and security in the world, we need to fight for the freedom of everyone.

With that, I’d like to say thank you again for your time, I know it’s precious, and end with a few other mottos that are important to me- Follow me, Rangers Lead the Way, Go Army! Beat Navy!