This Memorial Day is the first in which the ban on women in ground combat is history. Last month, West Point celebrated 40 years of women in its ranks. And the first women to graduate from Army Ranger School last year have now become part of the new old guard.
Last summer, Capt. Kristen Griest and Lt. Shaye Haver (now a captain) shifted the conversation from “if women could meet the standard” to “now that women have met the standard.” In the process, they became unintended celebrities among the young women who have sought to follow in their footsteps.
At a women-in-uniform event I attended last fall at the Washington Convention Center, Army soldiers swarmed Griest and Haver to snap selfies they would swiftly share with friends and family on social media. Smiling and hugging the new Ranger School grads, soldiers told them how much those achievements meant to them personally.
While the two West Point graduates would not grant national media interviews and reiterated that they had not sought the spotlight, only a spot in Ranger School, they quickly — and keenly — came to understand their new position as role models for the next generation.
Stories of today’s warriors become tomorrow’s histories. They become part of our national lore.
And until now, that national lore has largely left women out.
Silent bystanders in our stories
Women in uniform have often been silent bystanders in our stories of battle in the post-9/11 era, even as they have taken on an ever-greater share of the fight. By seeing only a sliver of the story, we have overlooked a growing number of warriors sacrificing for their country and for one another.
The combat ban didn’t mean women weren’t out there on the front lines serving America, receiving Purple Hearts, Silver Stars, and Bronze Star Medals with the “V” Device signifying valor. It just made them harder to see. And that made them harder to remember and to memorialize and, most critically, to aspire to be.
But that is changing. Now soldiers such as Griest and Haver — and Maj. Lisa Jaster, the 37-year-old West Pointer who graduated from Ranger School last October — are acting as the “if you can see it, you can be it” examples for women who will now go on to fill roles which until now have been off-limits. In April, Griest became America’s first woman infantry officer.
She will not be alone for long: 22 young women are about to be commissioned as infantry and armor officers as they graduate from West Point, officer candidate and R.O.T.C. programs. They face rigorous tasks, but if they meet the challenge and pass their remaining courses, they will be in line to become platoon leaders in infantry and armor battalions that have seen a great deal of combat, and casualties, during this past decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The military — influenced by the performance of women on the front lines since 9/11 and by these first women Ranger School graduates — is on the verge of assigning women to command young men “outside the wire” in infantry and armor platoons, with the same risks and responsibilities as male officers.
In future years some of these women may make it to company commander, leading 200 combat troops at a time, and perhaps some years after that, some will become battalion commanders, responsible for as many as 1,000 combat troops.
Paving the way
This shift has not happened overnight. Before the ban on women in ground combat ended, women on Cultural Support Teams, (CSTs) were paving the way. Starting in 2011, they worked on the battlefield alongside Army Rangers and Navy SEALs on special operations combat missions; in 2015, I published a book, “Ashley’s War”, about a CST team and the soldier at the heart of the story, 1st Lt. Ashley White.
Lt. White was part of a groundbreaking band of sisters, bound by love, friendship and what they saw and did at the tip of the spear — all while women remained officially banned from ground combat. Special operations leaders recruited White and her teammates from across the Army, Guard and Reserve to join the ground-pounding Rangers on combat operations in Afghanistan in order to access the half of the population that previously had been out of reach to U.S. forces: women.
Each night, the CSTs would board the helicopter alongside their Ranger platoon, carrying their weapons and gear, and head to the home of a suspected insurgent alongside some of the most tested special operations forces. On October 22, 2011, White became the first member of her team to be killed in action when she died in an explosion in a booby-trapped compound on a nighttime combat mission in Kandahar alongside two Rangers: Sgt. 1st Class Kristoffer Domeij and Prc. Christopher Horns.
White is remembered on the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s Memorial Wall at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina and she and Capt. Jenny Moreno, a CST sister who died two years later, also in Kandahar province, became the first two women to be remembered at the National Infantry Museum’s Memorial Walk in 2013, at a time when women remained barred from the infantry.
Col. David Fivecoat, an infantryman who served three combat tours in Iraq, led a battalion in Afghanistan and later oversaw the Ranger training program that included the three female graduates, recently praised the CSTs in a speech at the National Infantry Museum on Ft. Benning, home of the Army’s infantry school.
Speaking to a theater that included members of the Army Ranger Hall of Fame, Fivecoat said that the story of Ashley White “opened many eyes to what was happening on the battlefield and the charade many of us played with the direct ground combat rule. As a battalion commander in Afghanistan, prior to even the existence of the CST program, I put two women to work side-by-side with each and every Rifle Company. Women, like Ashley, made real contributions in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
This little-known line of history links the Lioness program in Iraq with the women who served under Col. Fivecoat in Afghanistan and the Female Engagement Teams and CSTs in Afghanistan with the Ranger School graduates at Ft. Benning.
Soon it will also include the women who are about to become the nation’s first infantry and armor officers. Now, with young women on the verge of making life or death decisions on the front lines of ground combat — offering praise and punishment, and helping decide who gets promoted or not — this history is about to emerge for the entire nation to see.
The work of our stories is to connect our past to what is up ahead. The arrival, officially, of women into ground combat roles, will eventually shrink the visibility deficit facing America’s women in uniform. And the end of the “charade” may mean the start of more war stories with women at their center.