I have often written about and posted articles on this site regarding women in direct ground-combat roles—Army and Marine infantry, armor, and artillery billets. And of course, in special-operations ground combat. All this may be for naught as there’s an expectation that the new administration’s Department of Defense may reverse the Obama DoD ruling that opened these combat billets to women. Please note that I did not call these positions “jobs.” That’s never seemed appropriate to me. Since the January, 2016 DoD ruling that opens these combat roles for women, there have been a number of books and articles contending women in direct combat is nothing new—that they’ve been engaged in close ground combat for some time. Among the most popular of those has been Gayle Lemon’s book, Ashley’s War. The focus of Lemon’s book is the Cultural Support Teams, units composed of women trained to embed with our special-operations direct-action teams, as a way to deal with women and children on target. While these Cultural Support Team (CAT) members and other servicewomen have found themselves in harm’s way and acquitted themselves well, they have served only in combat support roles, not direct ground-combat billets. Retired Admiral Eric Olson, former Commander, US. Special Operations Command, recently weighed in on this issue:
The creation of the CSTs was very specifically to prepare women to support combat operations as women who would immediately identify themselves as women to the indigenous women and children on the objective. As female soldiers, they could more acceptably protect and interact with the local women and kids, and learn things and search places that that the male operators couldn’t. This was their primary purpose and value. They were essential because no man could reasonably perform that mission.
The women in the CSTs were all volunteers who were specially assessed, selected, trained, and equipped so as to not be a tactical liability in a firefight. There was a high attrition rate in the CST selection and training pipeline, on the order of our toughest male operator courses.
I left Special Operation Command soon after the first CSTs deployed so I was never on the ground with a CST, but I tried to track their progress. I’ve been told that in most cases, the CSTs were enormously helpful. By many reports, CST actions on the objectives uncovered intel that helped save lives and enable mission success. The women were typically quite courageous and often heroic. Several earned the Combat Action Badge. Two of them (including 1st Lt. Ashley White) were killed on SOF operations. When caused to fight, they fought.
But to imply that this was an example of females assigned to fight on the front lines as infantry-like combat soldiers twists the truth. Although some of them did unavoidably engage in close combat as attachments to the SOF tactical elements, that’s not why they were there. They proved their worth, for sure, but it was primarily as women being women on the objective and not as women intentionally put in a position to either kill first or die first.
The CSTs were dismantled a few years ago. I don’t know why.