The New York Times: The Women of the Army Rangers’ Cultural Support Teams

September 14, 2015

Two women have now earned the Army’s elite Ranger designation. A third is in the final phase of Ranger School, the humidity-soaked “swamp phase” that ends later this month.

In the wake of this history making, Ranger School is now officially opened to women. And now Navy leaders say they are on track to open their arduous basic underwater demolition/SEAL training course to “anybody who can meet the gender non-specific standards” early next year.

Yet in this case the schoolhouse lags behind the battlefield. Women have served, taken fire and sacrificed their lives alongside the Army Rangers of the 75th Ranger Regiment for years.

I had no idea of this fact when, in 2012, a Marine told me about First Lt. Ashley White and her band of teammates who had been recruited for Ranger and SEAL combat missions a year earlier. They were part of what would come to be called cultural support teams, or C.S.T.s, a benign name for a groundbreaking concept.

“What about the combat ban?” I asked, full of disbelief since I had not heard about this story despite having reported from Afghanistan for years.

Her response was the equivalent of my mother-in-law’s frequently issued “bless her heart,” a verbal pat on the head offered to those clueless souls lacking in awareness of just how much they do not know.

“Just check it out; you’ll see,” she said.

I did. And with each interview I finished, I realized that I had stumbled across a community of women recruited to “become part of history” and to join combat operations back in 2011, first by the United States Special Operations Command and then by the Army Special Operations Command. All while the combat ban remained very much in place. These soldiers and service members (not all were Army) could be there, legally, despite the ban on women in ground combat because they were “attached” to special operations teams, just not “assigned” to them.

Battlefield needs drove the decision to recruit, train and deploy this band of teammates who became friends and, ultimately, family. Special operations leaders believed America would never kill its way to the end of its wars. It needed more knowledge, and the knowledge held by half the population remained out of reach; because of Afghan cultural traditions, women could not and would not speak to male soldiers. All that these women saw, knew and heard remained out of reach. That fact led the head of joint special operations command to request a team of American women soldiers fit and skilled enough to serve alongside his highly trained and tested men.

So the call went out and a team of women from across the Army, Guard and Reserve, and some from the Air Force and Navy, answered after a selection process lovingly termed “100 Hours of Hell.” Twenty or so of these women would accompany Rangers, SEALs, and other special ops teams on “direct action” missions, including nighttime raids aimed at keeping pressure on the blossoming insurgency. They boarded the helicopter in the night’s starry blackness every evening like any other member of the team. And on the objective, they would take fire, find people and things and gather information aimed at accomplishing the night’s mission.

They served their country and they placed themselves in harm’s way each night. And on Oct. 22, 2011, Lieutenant White was killed in action on a combat operation alongside two Rangers, Sgt. First Class Kristoffer Domeij and Pfc. Christopher Horns. Sergeant Domeij was on his 14th deployment; Lieutenant White and Private Horns on their first.

By the time I met them in 2013, Lieutenant White’s teammates had returned from war. They mourned their beloved teammate and they vowed to keep her memory alive. But they also mourned the battlefield camaraderie, the shared experience and the concentrated purpose of serving America on the front lines of its longest war.

Their friendship was a living, breathing thing. I saw that immediately as I sat around a kitchen table in Fayetteville, N.C., and watched six or seven of these teammates snack on Triscuits and cheddar cheese and talk about their time in Afghanistan with their Ranger platoons and other special operations units. They finished one another’s sentences, stepped on one another’s jokes and pushed fast forward on each other’s stories.

They would not talk about themselves, but they praised each other. “I was so proud the night the Rangers gave Isabel the award,” one of them said to me of her partner in southern Afghanistan. “Just to be sitting there and seeing how much respect they had for her because she had made a difference that night.”

Another team member chimed in and interrupted and I realized only later, when reviewing my notes, that I had to write faster than I normally did because almost no one could finish a sentence without her teammate interrupting to add to the story.

“Yeah, remember the night we went out on mission together with your platoon and the woman told us all about the I.E.D.s and her grandmother got so angry that we knew?”

“I would stay up every night to make sure all of you guys got back from mission,” another said.

It went on like that, that night of conversation and many, many others that followed, with me asking questions of one woman, and her friend and teammate answering with the full story. Frequently they made me laugh, such as when discussing the utility of Spanx (undergarments that the women would wear to make their made-for-men uniforms fit better), the questions they received when traveling together (were they nurses or softball teammates?), and just how they dealt with using the restroom on missions (there is a device called a Shewee, though few used it).

But the one question, aside from Lieutenant White’s legacy, on which each one was eloquent on her own behalf was what it had meant to lose the link to the Rangers and others special operations teams they served alongside.

“It was awful, like all ties just cut,” said one team member, a West Pointer and military police officer. “Those guys are your brothers and then they’re gone.”

It is not that they won immediate acceptance from the Rangers and SEALs alongside whom they served. At the outset, skepticism at having to offer up a precious seat on a helicopter to a soldier with a different training cycle, recruiting process and a mere six-week train-up for the mission abounded – especially given that that soldier was female.

But these men had adapted repeatedly to the shape-shifting nature of the post-9/11 wars. And by that point in the war, most everyone wanted solutions and battlefield advantage. The cultural support team members understood they would have to earn their place, and all they sought was a fair shot at doing so. That they received. One skeptical team of SEALs expressed doubt about taking its C.S.T. member on a mission, until she found the intelligence item they were looking for to connect an insurgent to recent attacks wrapped up in a baby’s wet diaper. The soldier had helped accomplish the night’s mission and that is what mattered.

The rotation was only one year, but it had quite clearly changed the women’s lives forever. It had ushered them into a special operations community in which they would serve on a mission they felt mattered, alongside the best of the best, at the heart of America’s effort in Afghanistan. And then it had sent them back to their regular Army roles once their time was up. That left them only with one another – their memories, their war stories, their battlefield accomplishments – to remind them that their deployment, their time on the frontlines of battle, had actually happened.

And from that shared experience of war they had forged a family unto themselves and built a community of friends and sisters stronger than nearly any other tie they had without, at least until that point, anyone noticing.

But what these women had done and sacrificed on the battlefield had not gone unnoticed by military leadership. And in June 2013, Lieutenant White and her teammates received a nugget of credit few noted then in a story playing out now.

“Quite frankly, I was encouraged by just the physical performance of some of the young girls that aspire to go into the cultural support teams,” then-Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick of Special Operations Command said at the time at a Pentagon news conference on the opening of combat roles previously closed to women. “They very well may provide a foundation for ultimate integration.”