A U.S. Army cultural support team member with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force scans the terrain while sitting in a Humvee in Sarobi district, Kabul province, Afghanistan, Dec. 6, 2013.
U.S. Department of Defense

By January 1, 2016, all positions in the U.S. military, including frontline combat roles, will become open to women—that is, unless the services seek exceptions before October 1. Whether they do will drastically shape the future of the U.S. military.

The exclusion of women from combat in the United States and elsewhere has persisted primarily because of myths and stereotypes associated with female and male capabilities and the military’s “band of brothers” culture. The most persistent of these myths—that women are physically unfit for the demands of war, that the public cannot tolerate female casualties, and that female soldiers limit the cohesion of troops in combat—have been rigorously dismantled by scholars and female soldiers alike in recent years. Today, most Americans support the inclusion of women in combat.

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Sienna De Santis and U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Heidi Dean on a patrol in Sangin Valley, Afghanistan, October 2010.
U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Sienna De Santis and U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Heidi Dean on a patrol in Sangin Valley, Afghanistan, October 2010.
David Hernandez / DOD photo / Handout / REUTERS
But as the services prepare for female integration, a new myth has come to dominate the debate around the subject: that women who have already served in combat situations—including those who were part of frontline, female-only teams in Afghanistan and Iraq—were in fact deployed primarily to build relationships with local communities and to add a “soft touch” to counterinsurgency operations. Women in the U.S. military, this line of thinking holds, serve as "lady soldiers," not as true combatants.

In discussions of this myth, the cultural support teams (CSTs), the small female-only units attached to Special Forces and Ranger teams in Afghanistan and tasked with both combat and civilian engagement, have attracted particular attention. Although CSTs were assigned to units on some of the most dangerous combat missions in Afghanistan, claims from public figures that these women took part in the war to “soften” the presence of U.S. troops have contributed to false perceptions that female soldiers remained far from hostile action and that their primary contributions to war relate to their gender, not their capabilities.

Media and military characterizations of CSTs tend to focus on their supposed deescalating effect in hostile areas, their roles in winning "hearts and minds," and their capacity, to use one common trope, to employ “tea as a weapon” to improve ties with Afghan civilians. Even Eric Olson, a former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and one of the architects of the CST program, claimed that the CSTs’ role “was to be women, not to be combat soldiers.” “The first thing they did when they fast roped out of the first helicopter," Olson said at the 2015 Aspen Security Forum, "was to take their helmet off, let their hair down, and corral the women and children.”

Women in the U.S. military, this line of thinking holds, serve as "lady soldiers," not as true combatants.
Such “lady soldier” arguments serve an important purpose for policymakers resisting the further integration of female soldiers. Yet as Olson’s statement demonstrates, this position is empirically weak. To claim that women fast roped out of helicopters only to let their hair down is akin to arguing that women took part in night raids so that they could help tuck Afghan children into their beds.

SERIOUS CONTRIBUTIONS

CSTs who fought alongside men in Afghanistan were integral to the combat performance of their units, not hearts-and-minds eye candy. So when it comes to the integration of female soldiers, the services have a great deal to learn from their experiences.

At a three-day workshop in Washington, D.C., organized by the nonprofit Women in International Security (WIIS) in July, former members of CSTs described their experiences working with all-male teams. The stories I heard from CSTs blew myths about women and combat out of the water and countered claims that these women were "lady soldiers" on "lady missions."

The first clear message to come out of the workshop was that women had actively served in hostile combat operations—up to 160 raids per eight-month deployment, according to one former CST. Although their stated mission was to engage with and search Afghan women and children, the unpredictable nature of counterinsurgency meant that many of the 20 CSTs in attendance at the conference saw direct combat and faced the same grueling conditions as their male counterparts. All of the CSTs the WIIS researchers and I surveyed identified as combat-tested soldiers, and the events in which they took part, including firefights, lengthy foot patrols, and night raids, proved this. CSTs were in the same dangerous environments and often accomplished the same demanding physical tasks—from carrying equipment to operating .50-caliber machine guns—as their male counterparts. One former CST said that she served as the primary gunner for her Special Forces team over the last three months of her deployment.

U.S. Army soldier SPC Katie Luna at a memorial service for SPC Brittany Gordon at Camp Nathan Smith in Afghanistan's Kandahar province, October 2012.  
ERIK DE CASTRO / REUTERS

Most of the CSTs who served in Afghanistan received combat action badges. Some were wounded and received Purple Hearts. And two were killed during direct action raids. “I feel like I’ve seen as much, if not more, combat than a lot of infantry soldiers,” Captain Meredeth Mathis, a former CST, said during the conference.

If women actively participated in combat missions, they also improved the broader capabilities of the Ranger and Special Forces teams with which they served. Indeed, CSTs who attended the July workshop reported that they were able to better access local civilians than many of their male counterparts. Before CSTs participated in raids, for example, Afghan women and children would tend to panic, screaming so loudly that U.S. soldiers had trouble communicating over their radios. But after the CSTs began participating, according to one CST deployed with Rangers, Afghan women and children were calm enough to provide valuable information to the CSTs, including the locations of weapons caches and hidden insurgents. Although women may bring specific capabilities to a military team, their broader contributions are far from gender-specific.

To claim that women fast roped out of helicopters only to let their hair down is akin to arguing that women took part in night raids so that they could help tuck Afghan children into their beds.

CSTs lived with their Ranger or Special Forces teams for months at a time in remote and austere conditions. Their accounts of their time in the field dispel claims that female soldiers have special hygienic needs—a long-standing perception that still exists in the military today. Captain Allison Lanz, for example, described living "in the middle of nowhere," washing her clothes in a stream, and going without a shower for nearly 50 days. Chief Warrant Officer Raquel Patrick described eating frozen corn dogs for days while waiting for a resupply mission. And Captain Victoria Salas described sharing a bathroom with the male members of her team, saying that her colleagues' initial hesitancy quickly gave way to routine. For these women and for many others, the persistence of the myth that females demand greater access to comfort than men do is a frustrating, outdated, and inaccurate representation of how women really operate in the field.

Most CSTs acknowledged the perception, common in both the military and the general public, that women cannot compete physically with men on the battlefield. And although CSTs recognized some differences between male and female bodies, many of them reported that they were able to accomplish the same grueling physical tasks as men. First Lieutenant Christina Trembley, for example, directly countered the common claim that women lack the strength to drag wounded comrades to safety during combat. “I watched one of my teammates carry a 200-pound girl and her rucksack and the other girl’s rucksack and her weapon,” Trembley said. “I didn’t see one female [on CST teams] who couldn’t have passed the [military’s physical fitness] test at the male standard.” Indeed, every one of the CSTs surveyed at the conference reported that they would like to see a single job-based standard applied to both men and women. They believe that those women who want the military’s most demanding jobs will rise to the occasion.

U.S. Marine and Female Engagement Team leader Sgt. Sheena Adams (L) and H.N. Shannon Crowley from First Battalion, Eighth Marines in an armored vehicle in Afghanistan's Helmand province, November 2010. 
Finbarr O'Reilly / REUTERS

Failing to acknowledge women’s contributions to combat can limit their careers after deployment. This has particularly been the case with CSTs, who unlike Special Forces and Rangers do not return from deployment with units familiar with their combat experiences. Instead, CSTs rejoin their original units, which have tended to lack knowledge of their experiences in combat and of the skills they had developed during their time with Special Operations troops. Worse, some women said that military health-care professionals discounted their combat experiences when they returned from deployment. One staff sergeant we spoke with said that a mental health specialist she saw encouraged her to modify her responses on a medical questionnaire so that they would not “raise red flags” and so that she could avoid counseling. According to the specialist, the woman could not have experienced combat and therefore should not have suffered from postcombat stress or trauma. Yet like so many other CSTs, that staff sergeant had in fact served with Rangers on dangerous armed raids in Afghanistan.

READY TO FIGHT

The first place to which the services should look as they prepare for gender integration is the experience of women who have already served in combat. Yet rather than acknowledge the stories of women who have served on teams such as the CSTs, U.S. military leaders continue to perpetuate the myth that these women were simply “lady soldiers” doing lady missions. This position undermines the contributions women have made in the United States’ recent wars, including their physical sacrifices in combat. It also reinforces the false idea that men are the military’s “real” fighters, to the exclusion of women.

In just a few months, some of the services and the Special Operations Command may submit requests for exceptions to gender integration. Such exceptions would exclude women from some of the roles that CSTs have already proven females can fill. Yet neither the army nor SOCOM has shown interest in learning about the challenges female soldiers faced on all-male combat teams, their responses to those challenges, or the psychological effects of their experiences after deployment. Policy discussions, in other words, are proceeding without a full consideration of the CSTs’ experiences. That is unfortunate. The integration of women in the military should be based on a complete understanding of women’s capabilities and contributions—not on myths.

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  • MEGAN H. MACKENZIE is Senior Lecturer in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney and the author of Beyond the Band of Brothers: The U.S. Military and the Myth that Women Can't Fight.
  • More By Megan H. MacKenzie