Three women who served overseas on cultural support teams in battle alongside U.S. special operators shared their experiences during a panel discussion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here April 27.
The trio -- an Air Force officer, an Army noncommissioned officer, and a former Army NCO -- participated in a daylong review of the roles of women in combat, following the 2013 repeal of the Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule, which had excluded women from serving in combat since 1994.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of the recently released book titled “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Operations Battlefield,” was the panel’s moderator.
The cultural support team pilot program was underway when Army 1st Lt. Ashley White-Stumpf was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province during an Oct. 22, 2011, night raid while her unit was embedded with the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment.
“These women were bonded and had a sisterhood like none other,” Tzemach Lemmon said. The story of cultural support teams, she said, is “one of purpose; a heroes’ story we haven’t heard as a country … and about people who wanted to do something with a real-value mission as the women who served alongside the best of best.”
Servicewomen who have served on cultural support teams have been hailed as warriors by senior military leadership, said Tzemach Lemmon, adding that through her book research, she learned doing a job in combat comes down to the best person who could do it.
“So many leaders would say, ‘I know what the regulations are, but this is a war we’re fighting. We have to be innovative and use the best people,’” she said.
Women came into the program after special operations officials discussed its legality with military lawyers, Tzemach Lemmon learned. “They said, ‘Yes, you can attach [women] to special operations units. It’s perfectly legal,’” she said.
Those Who Served Gained
Army Sgt. 1st Class Meghan Malloy, Air Force Capt. Annie Yu Kleiman and Army Sgt. Janiece Marquez served with White. All attended the cultural support team school at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to learn about medical civic action programs, searches and seizures, humanitarian assistance and civil-military operations, basic human behavior, tribalism, Islamic and Afghan cultures, and the role of women in Afghanistan.
Malloy was an Army medic with three deployments when she learned of the CST program and felt driven to become a part of it. “I jumped on it and would do it again in a heartbeat,” she said.
Kleiman’s husband flew reconnaissance aircraft providing over watch for the teams who encouraged her to apply to the CST school. She didn’t believe woman in battle existed, she said.
“I had this weird cognitive dissonance going on,” said Kleiman, who recalled thinking, “I’m not going to be in combat. The objective is going to be secured before they bring us in.”
During training, the women thought they would walk with the platoon leader and be separate from the assault element, Kleiman added.
“We all bought into the combat exclusion thing and thought we wouldn’t be in combat,” she said. Now, Kleiman recalls bullets zipping past her from distances of 50 to 100 feet.
A Role with a Purpose
With the support of a superior, Marquez said, she fought her way up the chain of command to gain acceptance into the program.
“I finally had a purpose,” she said of her new role on the cultural support team. “It wasn’t just being in the military following everyone else. I was able to be a pioneer in a program that hadn’t started yet … a brand-new concept of putting women on these teams and being able to fight on the front lines. It was exciting.”
The women rehearsed with the special operations forces, Marquez said. “And there were times when I was the gunner. [That’s what] I did the entire last three months of my deployment,” she added.
Malloy and her female cultural support team partner worked hard at performing better.
“We’d wonder, ‘What can we do for this team?’” she said. “How can we gather intel? How can we gain a bond with the women and children so they’re willing to give us this info that would potentially help out the team?”
Malloy said that kind of thinking has helped in her career, because she looks at issues from a leadership perspective.
Confidence in Performance
Serving on the cultural support team has provided “through the roof” confidence to Marquez, she said.
“A lot more doors are open that wouldn’t be if I didn’t have the combat experience,” said Marquez, who’s now working in South America.
Marquez said senior leaders put their confidence in her because she was willing to put herself up front to fight and learn.
“Foreign military commanders invite me into their offices and talk about how to fix their programs because of what I’ve done,” Marquez said. “Had I not been a CST [member] and fought on the front lines, I wouldn’t have the clout that I do.”
Women in the cultural support team program learn things that are completely new to them, Marquez said.
“And you go out there and put your best foot forward,” she said.
(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkDoDNews)