A Wytheville native is breaking barriers in the Army. Abby Blount is one of only a few female Apache helicopter pilots and is one of only 92 women to graduate from the Army’s grueling Ranger School. She is the only female pilot in all branches of the military with a Ranger tab.
Her military career began at the University of Tennessee, where she studied linguistics and Spanish, graduating in 2014. She decided on linguistics because she was awarded in-state tuition if she studied it. Plus, she thought it would be help her get a job with the FBI.
Still needing help with tuition, Blount decided to join the Army, thinking military experience would also help her obtain her goal of joining the federal law enforcement agency.
“At first, I was curious, so I signed up for ROTC,” she said. “And I immediately found it exciting, and liked the people in the program.”
While at UT, Blount was the first woman selected to be invited to train for the Tennessee Ranger Company, The ROTC’s version of Ranger School, which she completed.
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“I really enjoyed it,” she said. “I found it a challenge that was exciting to be a part of. I fell in love with the whole concept of being in the Army.”
In May 2014, Blount graduated from UT as an Army second lieutenant. She is the daughter of Mary and Tyler Blount.
Blount didn’t know it when she joined, but the Army has a small aviation branch within it. As soon as she found out, in the summer of 2014, she started pilot training at Fort Rucker, Alabama. At the time, women were not allowed in combat roles and the closest she could get to combat was to learn to fly Apaches, the Army’s most advanced helicopters. Eighteen months later, she graduated as an Apache pilot.
In 2020, Blount was sent to Camp Humphries in South Korea, where she currently serves as a captain and where one day last year she spoke with a commanding general about her desire to go to Ranger School, the Army’s toughest and premiere leadership training school.
“He’s an infantry guy, and had been to Ranger School,” she said. “I told him I had always wanted to go (to Ranger school), but chose aviation and the opportunity had not presented itself. He just looked at me and asked, ‘Do you want to go to Ranger School?’ I was taken aback and said sure. He turned to my boss and said, let’s submit her packet and get her in. Two weeks later, I was enrolled.”
In another few weeks, on Sept. 12, 2021, she started Ranger School at Fort Benning in Georgia. The 62-day leadership training school is broken up into three phases: the Benning Phase at Fort Benning, the Mountain Phase at Frank D. Merrill in Georgia and the Florida Phase at Eglin Air Force Base near Destin, Florida.
The Benning phase is designed to assess a soldier’s physical stamina, mental toughness and establishes the tactical fundamentals required to complete Ranger school. During this phase, Blount walked over 200 miles and ate twice a day for a total of only 2,000 calories, all while carrying a pack on her back that weighed anywhere from 80 to 110 pounds. The 5-foot-9-inch Blount weighed 160 pounds at the start of school and 145 pounds at the end.
“My back was completely screwed up by the time I was done,” she said.
Blount said that the second phase, Mountain, was the hardest segment of Ranger school because she walked through the mountains in October, carrying heavier winter gear and equipment. During that phase, she learned mountaineering tactics and how to navigate mountainous terrain. Over 10 days, she did 200 hours of work on 20 hours of sleep.
“I was hallucinating; it was wild,” she said. “I saw grown men talking to trees because they thought it was someone. Some people fell asleep while walking; I did, too. You get so tired that you are delirious and you lose track of time, which is, in a way, helpful.”
During the third phase, the soldiers learned how to navigate flat, swampy terrain. They learned how to waterproof equipment and spent two days crossing swaps on foot and in water anywhere from ankle- to chest-deep.
Throughout the school, Blount and her fellow soldiers survived on two hours of sleep per night.
“Sixty-two days doesn’t sound that long, but when you are only sleeping two hours a night, it feels like an eternity because you are conscious of everything,” she said.
About half of her class left after the first week.
“We started with roughly 330 people and my graduation class was 145 people,” Blount said, adding that the fail rate is about 50 percent for men and 75 percent for women. At the beginning of the school, there were eight women; Blount was the only one who graduated.
So how did Blount get through it?
Like any good leader, she credits those around her.
“For me, I think the biggest motivation is primarily your teammates,” she said. “When I felt unmotivated, I remembered that my performance affected other people getting home. If I didn’t perform well, then my teammates would be affected and I didn’t want to do that to them. When you are that tired and that hungry and that beat down, we really have more in common than we do differences,” Blount said.
Since 2015, when all combat jobs were opened to women, Blount has often been the only female working with male soldiers.
“I feel motivated to pull my own weight so I can be an equal member of the team,” she said. “It’s about personal courage and a strong work ethic, not about male or female.”
If doing her best helps women who follow her to be respected, then it is worth whatever pain she has to go through, the 29-year-old said. For motivation, she turned to the 91 female Ranger-qualified soldiers who came before her.
“They have been so helpful; they have a Facebook page,” she said.
“We are sisters-in-arms. They answered my questions no matter how small,” she said. “They gave me their phone numbers and encouraged me. I couldn’t have done it without my teammates and the females who went before me.”
At Ranger School, females are not given any special treatment.
“There are physical standards that have to be met and if you can’t meet them, you can’t participate, whether you are male or female,” Blount said of Ranger School. One of her biggest hurdles to overcome was the fact that everyone at the school arrived with a shaved head. Blount’s honey-colored hair fell to the middle of her back.
“I had really long hair, and I cried when I shaved it … one of the biggest mental hurdles as going completely bald. I have about 1.5 inches of hair now,” she said.
Nearly two months after completing Ranger School, Blount is enjoying her time in South Korea, learning about the country and enjoying its food.
“It wasn’t my first choice, but since the Army made the decision for me, I’m glad they did,” she said. “It’s a part of the world I would not have seen on my own.”
Being Ranger-qualified will no doubt help Blount’s military career and set her apart from her peers, but what about her dream of serving in the FBI?
“I haven’t decided on the FBI,” she said. “I’m going to see where the next few years take me.”
To reach reporter Millie Rothrock, call 276-613-0289, ext. 573, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.