Recruiting and training the best soldiers possible to thrive in the face of challenging and often unforeseen circumstances should always top any wartime military’s priority list. But until recently, American women were officially barred from combat, which restricted their training options and prevented the U.S. military from accessing their broad range of skills—including but not limited to their gender. The full integration of women into combat roles could potentially fulfill a pressing need for new exceptional talent in the military.
“Our talents aren’t being used to the best benefit of ourselves or the military,” acknowledged Jennifer Hunt, Civil Affairs NCO at the Truman National Security Project. Hunt, along with other former service members—Alex Horton, Sebastian Bae, and Elizabeth Verardo—spoke at a recent event at New America about their experiences as (and with) women in combat.
In 2010, the U.S. Special Operations Command created Cultural Support Teams (CSTs), a pilot program that aimed to fill the talent gap by putting women on the battlefield alongside Special Forces. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon chronicles one all-female team’s experience in this program in her new book Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.
According to Lemmon, who is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and was also part of the conversation, “This story starts with some of the most seasoned Special Operations community leaders asking themselves, 'how do we win this war without women?'” Lemmon wrote Ashley’s War as a story that would remind people about the stakes of the men and women who fight America’s wars and help expand the stereotypically masculine image of heroes.
The prevailing conclusion drawn by the leading service members was that in the Afghan and Iraq wars, women were an untapped asset because they have the innate capability to operate in spaces where men cannot. “In a conservative traditional country like Afghanistan,” Gayle emphasized, “you needed women to talk to other women.” In a war fought amongst the people, women often hold critical intelligence about the movements and whereabouts of insurgents; sometimes they even hide weaponry on their person because they know they won’t be searched.
This concept wasn’t a novel idea. As foreign men, soldiers often experienced difficulty navigating gender relations to retrieve information from women on the ground.
“When I was trying to get information from women,” recalled Horton, a former U.S. Army infantryman, “there was a whole segment of the population that we couldn’t talk to. We just didn’t have women on our side.” During a fifteen-months tour,” Horton pointed out, “I went on patrol with two women the entire time – two people who could talk to women. I encountered probably hundreds of women who could have helped us, but it [the opportunity to engage with them] was lost forever.”
Some units mitigated this issue internally, ignoring policy and bringing women on night walks with them. Through her description of how women are secretly taken on missions, Hunt revealed that because women don’t have the proper training for these missions, their safety was potentially at risk.
“I know as a civil affairs person in Afghanistan, I was grabbed by our infantry element that we supported,” she remembered. “He was just like, ‘hey, you’re going with us, you’re going to search these women.’” “I thought I was building schools and police stations,” joked Hunt about the difference between her mission on the books and her duties on the ground.
Hunt’s experience was common and shows that keeping women out of combat roles formally did not prevent them from being used as resources on combat missions. On the contrary, all it did was prevent them from receiving the proper training to be able to conduct those missions safely and with equal expertise with their male counterparts.
Though, as Hunt pointed out, women were able to prove their significance inside and outside of CST programs, their contributions to the unit were not always welcome.
Reflecting on an incident that occurred while deployed to Ramadi, Former Sgt. Squad Leader of the U.S. Marine Corps Sebastian Bae described the challenges women face in programs like CST that expose women to traditionally male-only missions, where they are often treated as liabilities rather than assets.
When women arrived to his unit in Iraq, the men were warned by an officer in the presence of their staff sergeant to treat the incoming women as any other Marine. Once the officer left the room, however, Bae’s staff sergeant delivered a different message.
“Don’t interact with these women,” he instructed, according to Bae. “Don’t talk to them. Don’t be in the same room. Don’t ever have a closed door. Talk to them if you need to, but only business. If they come up to you to talk about something social, leave,” Bae recalled. To Bae, the implication was that the women would be a distraction to the male soldiers and socially engaging them could potentially expose the unit to allegations of sexual harassment.
Bae’s anecdote, as well as the experiences shared by the other event speakers, is the opposite of the inspiring experiences of the women depicted in Lemmon’s book. While Ashley’s War tells a story of combat, camaraderie, and unit cohesion, the experiences of women in these programs—as the discussion among the panelists indicated—varied widely.
“We had a post-wide mentorship group for everyone in Jalalabad, and we invited these women that were part of CST teams that were working with one of the special operations teams,” Captain Elizabeth Verardo remembered. “We asked them, so what’s it like, do you guys get to go out a lot? Frankly, they had mixed reviews in terms of their utilization.”
Despite the variations in experience reported by women and the men who serve alongside them, the question how women should enter combat isn’t going away. Recently, the military conducted several experiments to test the level to which women should be integrated into combat roles in compliance with a 2013 order by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta amending DOD's Direct Combat assignment Rule (DGCAR) that bars women from direct combat missions. According to this amendment, gender restrictions to combat units must be eradicated by January 1, 2016, unless the services are able to justify an exemption.
One theme that emerged from the discussion was the possibility that the issue of women in combat—because dialogue surrounding the debate is highly politicized—is being framed the wrong way. The discussants seemed to agree that rather than being about gender, the conversation should be about equipping our military with the tools to fight future wars.
Horton said it best, acknowledging about women in combat that “this is a national security issue – to draw women in.” If the military doesn’t find a way to integrate women into combat, he continued, “we are going to get further and further away from that talent pool. If we can’t figure out how to utilize people to the best of their ability, we’re always going to be playing catch-up.”