Small Wars Journal

A Reconsideration of Women’s Role in Special Operations: Critical Questions, Mooted a Decade After the Fact

Mon, 02/19/2024 - 8:02am

A Reconsideration of Women’s Role in Special Operations: Critical Questions, Mooted a Decade After the Fact


By al Dhobaba


In August of 2023, U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) updated its 2021 study, "Breaking Barriers: Women in Army Special Operations."1 According to an Army News Service article, the study "outlined 42 recommendations... to better address obstacles facing female Soldiers serving in special operations units and to retain its top talent," and its "findings will guide USASOC in optimizing female warfighters while noting their physical and anatomical differences." The study's focus group responses highlighted "equipment fitting, childcare, gender bias, social support, sexual harassment, pregnancy and postpartum, and morale and wellbeing." According to the USASOC commander, Lieutenant General Jonathan Braga, "Although disappointed by some of the findings and comments in the study, we are committed to addressing these issues with candor and transparency."2


Anyone who has followed the Army's integration of women into the special operations forces (SOF) ranks since mid-2015 should either be laughing or crying at this juncture.


The study reported no decline in morale arising from the integration of women into SOF units. However, among other findings, "80% of men reported that gender-related concerns had no impact on their decision to remain in special operations forces." The implication, of course, is that the within the community of Army personnel who are the most difficult and expensive to recruit, evaluate, train, and especially retain, one in five were willing to answer that gender-related concerns negatively impacted their interest in remaining in the USASOC ranks. Citing USASOC Command Sergeant Major JoAnn Naumann, the article claims that "researchers found most gender-biased comments and attitudes during the study came from senior NCOs, indicating a difference in generational views," the obvious insinuation being that these "differences in generational views" will gradually diminish. Presumably, these are the sort of comments that "disappointed" LTG Braga: skepticism from old-timers whose opinions result from "gender bias," but who will age out of the Army over time.


To be fair, a distinction must be made between the study, which encompassed female soldiers in all roles in USASOC, to include support roles; and the more contentious issue of female soldiers serving as actual special operators. However, contrary to both the study's intent and the clear bias of USASOC leadership, the implications of the issues noted in the study necessarily reintroduce the argument about what roles women should -- or should not -- play in the SOF ranks.


Let's backtrack a bit.


In 2011, the Washington Post reported that female candidates for assignments in support of SOF underwent an exhaustive selection process.3 Then, in August of 2015, amid great controversy, the Army graduated its first female Ranger School candidates, Captain Kristen Griest and First Lieutenant Shayne Haver.4 Two months later, Major Lisa Jaster, a 37-year-old mother of two, became the third female Ranger School graduate.5 The admission and subsequent graduation of female candidates occurred at a time when women were still excluded from combat arms careers, the subsequent end of which appeared to result from political pressure more so than any military justification. Unsurprisingly, this effort to graduate female candidates from Ranger School generated a heated debate between passionate supporters of gender integration, and those who were adamant that the only way to do so was to compromise the high standards that set the SOF community apart from conventional units. Conspiracy theories about relaxed standards for Griest and Haver were fueled by a lack of transparency by the Army, leading one Congressman -- a Ranger School graduate himself -- to demand that the Army release the records from the female candidates' Ranger School class.6, 7 This request allegedly revealed that the Army had destroyed some of the records in question.8 As one anonymous commentator noted at the time:


"Are the results of the pilot/assessment published? Lessons learned? Applicability of the findings to the larger question of assigning women to [Direct Combat Probability Code] slots? Hell, did they even collect any data? You know, the sort of stuff that was the public rationale for this move in the first place? Or, was all that just a cover story for a policy shift that was a fait accompli? I am not against women in Ranger School and I don't buy the claim that this process was rigged for the [female] soldiers who graduated, but the route the Army took to get here, as a matter of process, looks sleazier by the minute. This clamming up on what the hell this assessment was may hold up, but my gut tells me there is a hell of a backstory here."


In fact, despite having been sold as a pilot program to study the issue and produce hard data, no data appears to have been collected, nor has a study been published for independent review. Instead, the Army seems to have seized every opportunity to appear malfeasant. This raises two questions, both of them pertinent to the future of the SOF community writ large, and the Army's SOF units more specifically. First: how does this relate to the future of Ranger School? Second: what role will women play in the foreseeable future of SOF? Relative to the first question, another commentator discussing the first female graduates noted:


"That is the million dollar question and the reason for a majority of the angst, [in my opinion]. [Ranger School] morphed into a 'leadership' school. Because of this I think the school has been schizophrenic over the years; only volunteers, all commissioned officers, back to volunteers, only combat arms, branch immaterial, yes desert phase, no desert phase, etc. The screwy thing is that a whole lot of the supporters of integration can't seem to fully articulate what should be going on. There is a lot of talk about 'maintain the standards,' but the logical question is why can't we create a leadership course that physically stresses a 5'2" 130 lb. female at the same rate as a 6'2" 210 lb. male? So then my question becomes, if everyone who attends has to hump the machine gun with a winter packing list in the mountain phase when half the squad goes on sick call, because of 'standards,' is this really a 'leadership' school at all? See my reference to schizophrenia above."


Another anonymous commentator, whose remarks focused upon Major Jaster's graduation, was more direct: "If a 37-year-old mother of two can graduate from Ranger School, it's not hard enough." Several years after her graduation from Ranger School, Captain Griest published an essay opposing the institution of gender-specific fitness standards.9 However, during an August 2015 interview with NPR's Rachel Martin, the Christian Science Monitor's Anna Mulrine offered what seemed to be an unintended admission that Captain Griest and Lieutenant Haver were not meeting the same physical standards as their male peers:


"They're proving themselves in other ways because these big guys kind of prove their worth by carrying the big guns. You know, they can haul a lot of stuff. You know, not all women can do that. They're physically smaller. They have to find other ways to prove their worth. And that's what these women have been doing."10


This underscores the anonymous commentator's question: is Ranger School a "small unit tactics and leadership course" for the entire Army? Or is it a key element of the training and promotion pipeline for soldiers who might be referred to as "entry level special operators"?


The logical answer is simple and straightforward: what has heretofore been referred to as "Ranger School" should be reconstituted as the Army Leadership Academy, and act as a deliberate leadership course, stripped of any vernacular connection to the Rangers. Its standards and curriculum should be adjusted to focus on training and evaluating candidates for leadership positions. The 75th Ranger Regiment's commissioned and junior non-commissioned officers should still attend -- as should any commissioned and non-commissioned officers who wish to remain competitive for promotion, particularly in the combat arms occupational specialties -- but all efforts should be made to discontinue the seemingly deliberate linguistic confusion.


This leaves the second question: what role will women play in the foreseeable future of SOF? As women were poised to graduate from Ranger School, the individual service branches considered whether to request waivers for new regulations requiring the gender integration of combat units. Of the four service branches, plus U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), only the Marine Corps sought a waiver for some occupational specialties.11 During this period of projected integration, a great deal of ink was spilled in discussing the relative merits and shortcomings of gender-integrating combat occupations.


While women have provided indirect support to SOF units for many years, questions arose during the course of post-9/11 operations for several reasons.12, 13 First, as evidenced by the high profile 2003 capture of Specialist Shoshana Johnson and Private Jessica Lynch, the character of modern warfare now forces rear echelon units into situations that may be exposed to danger from enemy forces.14 This line was further blurred by the recruitment of female soldiers and Marines to serve in Female Engagement Teams (FETs) and Cultural Support Teams (CSTs).15, 16 To some degree, this reflected the failure of the DoD's Human Terrain System. Unfortunately, these developments further confused the rhetoric on this issue by affording gender integration advocates the opportunity to claim that women had "fought alongside SOF personnel," even though their training and tasking were not equivalent. Women were not raiding terrorist strongholds, and insinuations to the contrary are disingenuous.


Another lingering question of note is the alleged benefits of gender integration, particularly in SOF units, which remain ephemeral when weighed against the tangible costs of integration. In late 2020, the first (and apparently sole) female Green Beret graduate faced misdemeanor charges for a negligent firearm discharge.17 By mid-2021, the Navy had graduated a single female candidate from its Special Warfare Combatant Crewman (SWCC) training pipeline.18 Without detracting from these graduates' accomplishments, one could reasonably question whether this statistically negligible influx of female personnel warranted the significant effort required to provide them the opportunity to qualify, or the inevitable disruption to SOF units' critical morale and esprit de corps.


While open criticism of SOF gender integration from the active duty ranks has been sparse -- accusations persist that any who would care to express their concerns would jeopardize their careers -- the debate in the veteran community has raged. Notably, the aforementioned documentation request by Oklahoma Congressman and Ranger School graduate Steve Russell inspired a group of female West Point graduates to file a Freedom of Information Act request for Russell's own service records.19 In a 2016 study cited by the Washington Post, a sample of nearly 54,000 Marines opposed gender integration for ground combat units: two of every three male Marines, one of every three female Marines, and 76.5% of infantry Marines surveyed.20 A 2021 article seeking to highlight gender bias in the SOF community nonetheless highlighted the frustrations expressed by special operators with being part of a "social experiment," widespread perception in the ranks that female personnel plan their pregnancies to avoid deployment, and fear among special operators that social interactions with female colleagues could threaten their careers.21 While some of these factors are disputed, their impact upon unit cohesion, morale, and esprit de corps is indisputable. Writing in 2014, Professor Anna Simons of the Naval Postgraduate School noted:


"Dig beneath the political correctness that those in uniform know they better parrot, and it quickly becomes apparent that academics have split an impossible hair. For instance, U.S. Army Special Forces Command has been waging a quiet dissuasion campaign against Special Forces soldiers joining motorcycle 'clubs.' And though some wonder why any special operator would feel the need to join a bunch of wannabe outlaws when SF teams already constitute the 'baddest' gangs around, operators enamored with biker subculture are clearly seeking something SF does not provide. For many that something is camaraderie."22


This is to say nothing of the military's perpetual challenges with sexual harassment and assault. A detailed discussion of these issues falls beyond the scope of this discussion, but must at least be acknowledged in passing. Decades after widespread gender integration in mainstream units, these second order effects remain so disruptive that Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention (SHARP) training requirements compete for precious training time with actual operational training. These ongoing challenges represent yet another obstacle to the gender integration of the SOF community. Given the publicity that the Pentagon's efforts to curtail these problems has received, proponents of gender-integrated SOF have no grounds to deny this issue’s gravity.


Another factor, discussed by one of two female Marine officers who expressed their concerns about infantry gender integration in writing, is the statistical disparity between men and women with regard to significant injuries. In her 2012 article for the Marine Corps Gazette, Katie Petronio recounted her experience on deployment to Afghanistan:


"By the fifth month into the deployment, I had muscle atrophy in my thighs that was causing me to constantly trip and my legs to buckle with the slightest grade change. My agility during firefights and mobility on and off vehicles and perimeter walls was seriously hindering my response time and overall capability. It was evident that stress and muscular deterioration was affecting everyone regardless of gender; however, the rate of my deterioration was noticeably faster than that of male Marines and further compounded by gender-specific medical conditions. At the end of the 7-month deployment, and the construction of 18 [patrol bases] later, I had lost 17 pounds and was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome... which was brought on by the chemical and physical changes endured during deployment... I can say with 100 percent assurance that despite my accomplishments, there is no way I could endure the physical demands of the infantrymen whom I worked beside as their combat load and constant deployment cycle would leave me facing medical separation long before the option of retirement. I understand that everyone is affected differently; however, I am confident that should the Marine Corps attempt to fully integrate women into the infantry, we as an institution are going to experience a colossal increase in crippling and career-ending medical conditions for females."23


She went on to note:


"[W]e need only to review the statistics from our entry-level schools to realize that there is a significant difference in the physical longevity between male and female Marines. At [Marine Corps Officer Candidate School] the attrition rate for female candidates in 2011 was historically low at 40 percent, while the male candidates attrite at a much lower rate of 16 percent. Of candidates who were dropped from training because they were injured or not physically qualified, females were breaking at a much higher rate than males, 14 percent versus 4 percent. The same trends were seen at [The Basic School] in 2011; the attrition rate for females was 13 percent versus 5 percent for males, and 5 percent of females were found not physically qualified compared with 1 percent of males. Further, both of these training venues have physical fitness standards that are easier for females; at [Infantry Officers Course] there is one standard regardless of gender. The attrition rate for males attending IOC in 2011 was 17 percent. Should female Marines ultimately attend IOC, we can expect significantly higher attrition rates and long-term injuries for women."


In a subsequent Gazette article, Lauren Serrano summarized this impact:


"[L]ong infantry careers for female Marines will eventually lead to career-ending medical conditions as they get older and their bodies are unable to withstand the years of constant infantry training. For the already fiscally strained military, this will lead to an increase in medically retired Marines who rate medical financial support for the rest of their lives."24


These articles by Petronio and Serrano preceded the 2015 release of a Marine Corps study that concluded that units composed solely of male Marines performed better across the board than gender-integrated units, even if the exclusively male units consisted of average or below-average Marines.25, 26


Additionally, the aforementioned case of Shoshana Johnson and Jessica Lynch, coupled with both old and new reports from the Middle East, necessarily raise political questions about what would happen if female SOF troops -- or even women in support roles -- were to be captured by enemy forces. Other notable cases in this regard include the numerous reports of egregious sexual assaults by Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives connected with the October 7th, 2023 attack on Israel. Additionally, women captured by Somali pirates and militias have reported systematic sexual assault during their prolonged captivity; and Islamic State members' sexual assaults against Kurdish Yazidis, in addition to captured Western women like Kayla Mueller, reached a point of infamy.


At a tactical level, integrating women as operators raises the question of what situations could unfold in manners different than those that one might expect of exclusively male teams. At a strategic level, one might suggest that the same activists who continue to advocate for women's integration into SOF units are likely to oppose the escalation of conflicts, but might very well find themselves witnessing precisely such an escalation if the American electorate learned that female special operators -- or even embedded support personnel -- had endured sexual violence at the hands of unscrupulous enemy captors.


Reasonable Americans might expect that questions such as these had been raised years ago, when the Army first started augmenting field units with female soldiers, or when the first female candidates were being considered for Ranger School. The Army's conduct, resulting either from the malfeasance following from a politically-mandated "fait accompli," or from run-of-the-mill procedural incompetence, lays those expectations to rest. A military justification for gender integration in the SOF community has not been developed, and the Army -- and arguably, the entire Defense Department -- continues to muddle through even basic logistical and administrative requirements.


One would be foolish to deny that a truly egalitarian military, built on adherence to standards, represents a noble and desirable objective. However, at its core, military service requires individuals to subordinate their needs and desires to the good of the unit, and ultimately the country, for the purpose of defeating America's enemies in battles, campaigns, and wars. Proponents of integration have failed to demonstrate that women add value to the SOF enterprise by serving in the same capacity as traditional special operators. Instead, all objective evidence, to include the manner in which they were actually employed in recent overseas theaters, demonstrates precisely the contrary: that women add value by providing the unique capabilities that only they as women can provide, rather than by joining the SOF ranks in the minimal numbers that may be able to meet a minimum standard at the cost of lethality, morale, and their long-term physical health. As the army seeks to develop a coherent concept to this end, leaders should emphasize these unique capabilities that women can provide, while seeking to protect the morale and esprit de corps of those traditionally gender-exclusive special operations units that have played such key roles in recent decades, and which are poised to continue acting as spoilers in projected conflicts.



1) Breaking Barriers: Women in Army Special Operations; United States Army Special Operations Command; originally published December 2021, updated August 18, 2023;


2) Lacdan, Joe; USASOC study outlines measures to optimize female Soldiers; Army News Service; Washington; August 22nd, 2023;


3) Maurer, Kevin; In new elite Army unit, women serve alongside Special Forces, but first they must make the cut; The Washington Post; Washington, DC; October 27th, 2011;


4) Neuman, Scott; First Female Soldiers Graduate From Army Ranger School; National Public Radio (NPR); Washington, DC; August 21st, 2015;


5) Martinez, Luis; Mother of 2 Becomes Only Third Woman to Graduate From Army Ranger School; ABC News; October 12th, 2015;


6) Keating, Susan; Was It Fixed? Army General Told Subordinates: 'A Woman Will Graduate Ranger School,' Sources Say; People; N/A; October 25th, 2015;


7) N/A; Congressman continues push for records of Ranger School classes with women; Stars and Stripes; N/A; October 15th, 2015;


8) O'Connor, Phillip; Russell says female Army Ranger records destroyed; The Oklahoman; N/A; October 15th, 2015;


9) Losey, Stephen; Pioneering Female Ranger School Grad: Lowering Fitness Standards for Women Is a Bad Idea;; N/A; February 25th, 2021;


10) Martin, Rachel; Two Women On The Final Stage Of Army Ranger Training; Weekend Edition Sunday, National Public Radio (NPR); N/A; August 16th, 2015;


11) Baldor, Lolita C.; Officials: Marine commandant recommends women be banned from some combat jobs; Marine Corps Times; Washington, DC; September 18th, 2015;


12) Alexander, Nicole and Kohistany, Lyla; Dispelling the Myth of Women in Special Operations; Center for a New American Security; Washington, DC; March 19th, 2019;


13) Kent, Joe; Women in special operations is nothing new; Military Times; N/A; February 28th, 2020;


14) Collins, Elizabeth M.; Life as first African-American female POW; Soldiers Magazine; Washington, DC; February 29th, 2012;


15) Rivers, Eileen; Beyond the Call: Three Women on the Front Lines in Afghanistan; Hachette Books; New York City; November 6th, 2018;


16) Tzemach Lemmon, Gayle; Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield; HarperCollins; New York City; April 21st, 2015;


17) Cox, Matthew; 1st Female Green Beret Faces 'Minor Misdemeanor' Charge for Accidentally Firing Gun, Police Say;; N/A; December 31st, 2020;


18) N/A; First woman completes Navy special warfare training; The Associated Press; Washington, DC; July 15th, 2021;


19) Mellen, Ruby; West Point Women Hit Back At Congressman Questioning Female Ranger Graduates; The Huffington Post; N/A; September 25th, 2015;


20) Lamothe, Dan; How big is opposition to women in combat units among Marines? This report explains.; The Washington Post; N/A; March 10th, 2016;


21) Britzky, Haley; ‘Stop the social experiment’ — New survey spotlights bias against women in Army special ops; Task and Purpose; May 18th, 2021;


22) Simons, Anna; Here's Why Women in Combat Units is a Bad Idea; War on the Rocks; Washington, DC; November 18th, 2014;


23) Petronio, Katie; Get Over It! We Are Not All Created Equal; Marine Corps Gazette; Quantico, VA; July 3rd, 2012;


24) Serrano, Lauren F.; Why Women Do Not Belong in the U.S. Infantry; Marine Corps Gazette; Quantico, VA; September 2014;


25) Bowman, Tom; Marine Corps Releases Results of Study On Women In Combat Units; National Public Radio (NPR); N/A; September 10th, 2015;


26) Davis, Paul O.; Sports Science, Physiology, and the Debate Over Women in Ground Combat Units; War on the Rocks; December 1st, 2015;



About the Author(s)

Al Dhobaba (“The Fly”) is the pseudonym of a freelance foreign policy analyst and military historian. Having trained as a naval officer, a congenital medical condition prevented him from commissioning, leading him to pursue an ongoing career as a security practitioner. His professional experience includes providing force protection training for deploying soldiers, managing physical security at a DoD activity in the USCENTCOM theater, and advising federal, state, and private sector organizations on information security management. He holds a bachelor’s degree in History and a master’s degree in International Relations.