This Memorial Day, as we honor the United States servicemen and servicewomen killed in our country’s history, the debate surrounding women’s role in combat rages on. From World War I and II to Vietnam to the Persian Gulf War, women have demonstrated time and again their ability to hold their own on the battlefield.
And yet historically, more effort has been expended on suppressing their accomplishments and limiting their capacity to serve—to the point of flat-out exclusion. Just last year, women occupied a mere 14 percent of active-duty military positions. This limits women’s opportunities for advancement within the ranks and restricts their access to positions offering better compensation, more responsibility and more authority.
In 2010, after nearly 10 years of boots on the ground in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the military began to reconsider the value of women in combat. Frustrated by male soldiers’ difficulty collecting intelligence about Afghan insurgents from civilian women because of rigid religious restrictions on male-female social interactions, the United States Army Special Operations Command launched a pilot program called Cultural Support Teams. Attached to Special Operations teams like the Navy SEALS, the Green Berets and the Army Rangers, and accompanied by a translator, CSTs gathered women from across the U.S. armed forces and trained them to facilitate relationships between American soldiers and Afghan civilians, building trust, negotiating cultural clashes and often uncovering vital information regarding the location of Afghan insurgents and danger in the field. Their presence provided much-needed support for the combat units to conduct thorough raids of suspected insurgents’ compounds.
Though CSTs were not the first to bring women to the battlefields of the Middle East—the Marine Corps debuted the Lioness program in 2003 and later experimented with Female Engagement Teams (FETs) in 2009—they are arguably the most well-known, due in part to the story of 1st Lt. Ashley White-Stumpf, a 24-year-old Ohio native whose small stature and gentle nature camouflaged a fierce warrior spirit. As journalist and Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow of Women and Foreign Policy Gayle Tzemach Lemmon details in her new book, Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield, Stumpf was one of about 60 women soldiers selected to participate in the first CST deployment to Afghanistan in 2011.
More than 100 women from across the armed forces competed to participate in the program, enduring intense physical training including a punishing “100 hours of hell” prior to their deployment. “These women were recruited to come to the battlefield by the most tested special operations leaders in the United States,” Tzemach Lemmon tells the Ms. Blog. “They answered when America [asked], ‘Who wants to go?’… and not one of them asked for anything other than the chance to serve their country on a mission that mattered.”
Fortunately, the women’s courage and sacrifice on the battlefield did not go unnoticed. In 2013, then-Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta lifted the official ban on women in combat, rescinding a 1994 rule restricting women from artillery, armor, infantry and other combat roles. According to the Pentagon, Special Forces will have until January 1, 2016 to open their doors to women, making available to them more than 200,000 positions, or provide valid justification as as to why they cannot comply.
Lemmon hopes that sharing Stumpf’s story and the experiences of her fellow CST soldiers will further the national conversation about women in combat and illuminate the contributions military women have made and continue to make on the battlefield. “This is not a story about what women could do or should do,” says Lemmon. “It’s one story of what they have done.”
Photo courtesy of U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School licensed under Creative Commons