By Jackie Munn, Creative Writing Alumna
Feb. 5, 2019
Article originally published in the New York Times. You can read the full article here.
In November, a former Special Forces team leader with whom I had served in Afghanistan sent me an article announcing another milestone for women in the military. For the first time, a female soldier had passed Special Forces Assessment and Selection, a grueling preliminary step to becoming a Green Beret. “Awesome news,” he wrote. While I agreed, my own experience had left me feeling skeptical. The article quoted prior remarks from then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who had said “the jury is out” on integrating women into infantry roles and that the Pentagon was trying to “give it every opportunity to succeed if it can.” As a woman who had worked in Afghanistan alongside two teams of Green Berets — one open-minded and mission-oriented, the other prone to sexism and insularity — my success had been dependent on whether I was supported and respected by my male colleagues. This servicewoman’s advancement would likely rely on the same thing.
I began working with the first team of Green Berets in 2012 on Combat Outpost Herrera in Paktia Province, a remote base in eastern Afghanistan occupied primarily by a company from the Fourth Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division out of Alaska. The Green Berets’ mission was to reduce the influence of the Taliban by improving local development, security and governance. They worked well with the district governor, the police chief and other officials. But the team was made up entirely of men, and they could not interact with the women in their area, leaving them unable to interact with half the population. Knowing this, they requested a Cultural Support Team, a small all-female unit trained to engage Afghan women and children.
I led the Cultural Support Team, which consisted of myself; Leigh Murchison, an Army master sergeant; and a female interpreter. Winnowed from a group of 280 female soldiers and officers who had volunteered, Leigh and I were two of the 28 who had passed a series of “physical, mental and intellectual evaluations,” completed training at Fort Bragg, N.C., and had been selected to work with Special Forces. As an intel analyst and a logistics officer, Leigh and I studied Afghan and Islamic culture before deploying, and we refined the military skills needed for an assignment alongside elite troops, including weapons use, trauma care, radio communications, intelligence gathering and driving the vehicles used by Special Forces teams in Afghanistan’s harsh terrain. The Army, following the counterinsurgency doctrine of the time, expected us to help all-male combat units identify causes of instability, in part by meeting with influential villagers and officials, and also by meeting with local women who were not accessible to these male units.
We joined that first team of Green Berets two months into their deployment. On our first day, Leigh and I explained who we were, how we had trained and how we could help. We met the nine-man infantry squad that helped them with security, and we went to the range for target practice. The Green Berets gave us refresher training in trauma care followed by an intelligence brief and introduced us to their partners, a 12-man Afghan Special Forces team. Two days into our integration, we observed Nowruz, the New Year feast celebrated in Iran and Afghanistan. Sitting in a plywood hut filled with plush mattresses, my team was surrounded by more than 30 Afghan and American men. Together we ate piles of rice, fresh bread and stew from a goat the Afghans had slaughtered hours before. Leigh and I took turns talking with the Afghan Special Forces leader, Captain Abdul, and the police chief, Commander Naim. They were gregarious men who seemed open-minded and excited about the prospect of working with us.
For nearly six months, our small group worked closely together toward the same mission. Leigh and I taught medical seminars at the hospital and in villages. We partnered with schools and teachers to bring school supplies to rural areas. We searched women during night raids, looking for weapons or intelligence items like cellphones, documents or memory sticks. We worked with the Afghan radio station, broadcasting stories about the police and development projects. We walked miles over mountains, carrying the same equipment as the men. We faced the same dangers as our male peers; our gender did not protect us from mortars, bombs or bullets. Afghans were curious that we wore head scarves and carried M4 rifles, not quite sure what to make of women wearing the uniforms they associated with men. Our Special Forces team cared only that we could carry our weight, keep up and help the mission.
On clear nights we would gather around a fire on Adirondack chairs that Leigh and I built from spare wood and talk about families back home or admire the silhouette of the Spin Ghar mountains. Some of the men smoked cigars, the aroma briefly covering up the stench that seemed to emanate ceaselessly from the outpost’s nearby burn pit. Every few weeks, thanks to care packages my mother sent from the States, we cooked pancakes for our Afghan and American peers. Everyone would gather at a table — infantry soldiers, Green Berets and Afghans — passing around plates of food.
This feeling of belonging and purpose did not last. After six months, that team was replaced by a fresh group of Green Berets led by another Army captain. This officer was also supportive of women working within the Special Forces community. Unfortunately for Leigh and me, not everyone on his team was as professional. Their sexism changed the experience of our tour. Not long after the second team arrived, Captain Abdul, the Afghan Special Forces leader, asked why Leigh and I had missed a meeting with the new guys and the police chief. He seemed confused, and perhaps insulted. We had spent months working together, and our absence was noticed. I told him that we hadn’t been invited.
Eventually, the disrespect got more direct. A sergeant with the new Green Beret team broadcasted over the team’s radio frequency that Leigh and I had better have his laundry done before he got back from mission. My first reaction was an urge to find a pair of scissors, retrieve his laundry and cut it to pieces, but I knew better. Years later I learned that the team leaders had reprimanded him for his behavior. In hindsight, I wish they had told us about this at the time. It would have taken away some of the sting and signaled that we were valued as soldiers.
Over time, Leigh and I left the outpost less often. Even though we had more experience in the area than the new team, experience that could provide continuity and benefit the Green Berets’ mission, we were excluded and felt marginalized. Our engagements with hospitals and schools dwindled. Out of boredom and a desire to contribute, Leigh would drive vehicles for the team while I managed radios at the outpost. Occasionally, we would attend meetings with the district leadership, but nothing like we had done before.
Two months later, it was our turn to go home. As we waited for the helicopter, we watched as two Special Forces sergeants took sledgehammers to the wooden Adirondack chairs Leigh and I had made. Next they demolished the hut that had been our home. We were told they had orders to close the outpost, but their timing and their visible smiles signaled more than that. We were unworthy of goodbyes in their eyes. We departed alone as they eagerly rid themselves of the remnants we left behind.
My team’s experience taught me that the ultimate obstacle for women in combat roles is not what weapons they must carry or the terrain they must traverse. Women have shown that they can meet what the standards demand. For them to succeed in Special Forces, they will need to be mentally, physically and emotionally capable. And so will the men they work alongside.
Jackie Munn is a West Point graduate and former Army captain who deployed to Iraq in 2009 and to Afghanistan in 2012. After her service, Jackie became a Pat Tillman scholar in 2015 and currently works as a nurse practitioner.