On January 1, the US military will open all of its positions to women — including combat duty — unless the individual services prove they should be exempt from the edict. Many consider this a groundbreaking moment for female troops, but women have already served with elite combat units. The upcoming deadline has become, in some sense, more about acknowledging reality than imposing change.
In 2011, all-female Cultural Support Teams (CSTs) were deployed to Afghanistan as "enablers" who kept women and children safe during nightly raids, and served as important resources for gathering intelligence. But these female soldiers were not just communication facilitators — they were part of a team embedded with the military's elite Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).
Women have been officially banned from serving in combat roles since the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule, but a 2013 announcement that required all positions to be fully inclusionary by 2016 effectively repealed the ban.
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As the integration deadline nears, two women have advanced to the final phase in the Army's Ranger School. Parachuting into the swamps of Florida and slogging their way out is now the last challenge standing between them and graduation from the elite school, which would make them the first women to succeed in the rigorous program.
"Even if only one woman were to pass, it would negate all those arguments that they're incapable of keeping up," Katherine Kidder, Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told VICE News.
As of now, these women would earn the prestigious Ranger Tab — a qualification earned by just 3 percent of the Army — yet even after graduating from Ranger School they will still not be allowed to join the 75th Ranger Regiment, which performs Special Operations missions, since that would violate the 1994 ban on assigning women to combat positions. Apparently that's an entirely different thing than assigning women to positions that may entail combat.
'It's not necessarily a conversation about equality, but about how do we make our force as effective as possible.'
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News the January 1 deadline "would be a big barrier broken" that could erase the last barrier that prevents women from serving in the elite Ranger Regiment.
This not the first time female soldiers in the US have been in a position to demonstrate their mettle. While the combat ban was in place, nearly 200 female troops died while deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, including two who were killed while serving on CSTs.
The war in Afghanistan highlighted the important role women could play in fighting insurgents and operating within other cultures. Male troops couldn't talk to Afghan women, roughly half of the country's population, because of cultural and religious norms. By excluding women from missions, the US faced immense losses in intelligence gathering, and it took longer to find insurgents as a result.
The situation created a demand for female soldiers who could interact freely with locals. Women assigned to the CSTs were tasked with engaging with and talking to the female population, earning their trust, and finding out where insurgents were hiding. "Those teams were created because Rangers needed women to help them get the job done," Lemmon said.
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In an odd twist, the Taliban, known for its oppressive treatment of women, actually forced the male-dominated US defense establishment to do what many have been advocating for years: Allow women to be assigned to combat roles. "There's a true irony in the system," Kidder told VICE News. "The Taliban, who are repressing women on the one hand, in this strange way have opened the door for American women."
The role of the CSTs hasn't escaped the notice of senior Pentagon leadership in the broader debate about assigning women to combat roles. Admiral Eric Olson, then-commander of USSOCOM, appeared before Congress in 2011 and called the CST program "effective and long overdue," and urged all services "to recognize the capabilities of CSTs as essential military skills."
In addition to bridging cultural gaps on the battlefield, CSTs may have played a similar role within the Department of Defense (DOD). In January 2013, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey made the historic announcement that women will be able to fight in combat positions. In a letter to Panetta, Dempsey wrote that for this initiative to be successful, the service branches "will need time to get it right."
The 2013 announcement was important in that it opened up avenues for training and qualification that were previously unavailable, as the services sought to get qualified female troops fully trained and ready to step into their roles before the 2016 deadline.
At the Special Operations Forces Training Facility in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, CST recruits had to go through the Rangers' infamous "100 hours of hell," a physically and mentally intense Special Ops selection process.
'The Taliban, who are repressing women on the one hand, in this strange way have opened the door for American women.'
In her book Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield, Lemmon tells the story of CSTs in Afghanistan — and makes clear that they were capable of not only keeping up, but fighting with a unit of elite Special Operations soldiers. "Sarah, like all the CSTs, understood that contact could come at any time on any night, on any mission — they were never safe, and they accepted that," she wrote about one of one female soldier.
Another program blazed a trail for the CSTs years before they deployed to Afghanistan. In 2006, the Army created the gender-neutral Human Terrain Teams (HTTs), composed of groups of American social scientists that helped the military understand the foreign cultures and customs they were dealing with overseas.
But much as US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan had difficulty navigating local religious and cultural norms, the social scientists of the HTTs faced culture clashes while embedded with the US military.
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While the HTTs were deployed to "win the hearts and minds" of the foreigners, they were not intended to gather intelligence, according to Cynthia Hogle, who was part of an HTT embedded with the Army in Afghanistan in 2012. But that mission and fighting a war were tough to combine. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates defended the Human Terrain Teams in a speech in 2008, but by June 2015, the DOD officially announced the end of the program.
Hogle recalls how hard it was for her to gain the respect and trust of male soldiers. "The military as a whole is narrow-minded, not just when it comes to women," she told VICE News. "But I think all these programs are going to have a ripple effect."
Kidder believes that allowing women in combat positions is about something more important to the military than whether women are as capable as men. "It's not necessarily a conversation about equality, but about how do we make our force as effective as possible — regardless of gender," she said.
Follow Jenny Leonard on Twitter: @jendeben
Photo via US Army/Flickr