Five years ago, social media was abuzz with attacks and support as the first women moved through U.S. Army Ranger School.

It was a distraction — and a window into how deeply people felt about the cultural and organizational changes happening in the military.

Emotions around the first women to enter the U.S. Army Ranger School were running high in the spring of 2015.  The 19 women, that was cut down to three who finally graduated, were part of a gender-integration pilot program in the most difficult combat training school the Army offers.

There were a lot of opinions. 

“In previous generations those conversations happened at the water cooler or maybe down at the bar after work,” said retired Col. David Fivecoat, the former commander Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade. “They now happen on social media and have a much wider impact.”

And it became obvious the leaders at Fort Benning were going to have to react. They opened the school to unprecedented real-time media coverage in an effort at transparency. They allowed the Washington Post, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor and Columbus Ledger-Enquirer inside the Ranger training camps at Fort Benning and in the mountains of North Georgia and the swamps of the Florida panhandle.

The Army was also forced to become social media savvy.

“The approach we took and it’s something I have adopted since then. Just make sure you stay with the facts,” said Gen. Scott Miller, now the commander U.S. forces — Afghanistan, but was the commanding general at Fort Benning in 2015. “Don’t let a fact-free environment stay out there. There was a lot of misinformation out there… You can ignore it but conspiracy theories build up fast and you need to address them early.”

Fort Benning and the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade took a few different tacts to monitor the comments and conversations happening online. The Fort Benning Public Affairs office dedicated an employee to monitor all of the comments posted on the official Fort Benning sites.

Members of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade staff were on closed Facebook pages and would inject facts into the conversations when misinformation was being spread.

Some of the attacks were vicious and the rumors about the women getting special treatment while in Ranger School were unfounded.

The first three women to graduate — Kristen Griest, Shaye Haver and Lisa Jaster — were isolated from the vitriol while in the school. After they graduated they saw and felt it.

“They don’t attack you directly,” Griest said. “You see an article come out and you see a bunch of nasty, usually uninformed comments. Or misinformed.”

Haver has taken a different approach to the online backlash.

“I have chosen not to have personal social media since I graduated from West Point,” she said. “It’s wise for me to do that.”

Some of the critics have come around over the last five years. Griest and Haver both say that men who were not in favor of the gender integration have offered praise after watching them perform.

Jaster and her husband, Allen, a Marine colonel, often confront the haters online.

“My husband talked to one guy,” Jaster said. “He had years worth of posts. He deleted all of his posts. Deleted everything negative he said about me after a discussion with Allen on Facebook.”

Note: Series video editor Karien Graf