The military often promotes a culture of hypermasculinity and is largely seen as a “man’s world,” which is not surprising given that the overall number of active duty women officers and enlisted across all military services is 16.6 percent. The special operations community is disproportionately affected by these stereotypes and perceptions, since women service members, both active duty and reservists, comprise an even smaller percentage of the total U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) enterprise. The Director of Intelligence for USSOCOM is Brigadier General Michelle Schmidt, making her the senior intelligence officer for the entire USSOCOM enterprise. Much attention has been paid to the women who are assessing and selecting into the previously closed combat positions, such as U.S. Navy SEALs, U.S. Army Rangers, and U.S. Army Special Forces (SF), commonly referred to as Green Berets. Coverage that “these are the first women in Special Operations” is factually incorrect.
Women served in the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Department of Defense Special Operations, during WWII. Although the majority of the 4,500 women of the OSS served in support roles based in Washington D.C., about 900 of them served in overseas postings and several were recognized for their unique capabilities and attributes in operating behind enemy lines in conventional warfare. Women have served in modern special operations units for decades and fought the United States’ wars across multiple combat zones. But their contributions remain largely untold, or they are often viewed as “extras” rather than mission-critical members of the team. In reality, women serve not only as enablers or in support roles, but also as branched members of the special operations community and have led and commanded across the special operations enterprise.
Women have been and will continue to be vital and inspirational members of SOF who serve with distinction, and they deserve to be recognized as members of the special operations community.
Women serve as commanders, senior enlisted advisors, pilots, analysts, civilian-military coordinators, and in many other vital roles of special operations. Modern media, Hollywood, and many male special operators themselves have set the public narrative, reducing the common perception of special operations to include only men, whether as SEALs, Rangers, or SF. While these men and the roles they fill are critical to special operations missions, the Special Operations Forces (SOF) capabilities and scope of their operations extend far beyond the direct-action raids against terrorists and insurgents that are typically covered in the news and that often become the centerpieces of movies and popular shows. Special operations missions also include foreign internal defense, Civil Affairs (CA) operations, Psychological Operations (PSYOP), special reconnaissance, aviation, and even forward surgical teams. While some of those missions are conducted by the commonly referenced Green Berets, Rangers, and SEALs, some are executed solely or jointly by CA soldiers, pilots, intelligence analysts, PSYOP soldiers, and a variety of other career fields and specialties. Thousands of active duty and reservist women make up the career fields of special operations as either branched members of the community or critical enablers who execute special operations every day. By limiting the special operation narrative to male-centric stories of “door-kickers,” our society has become dismissive of the women (and men) serving in other career fields, both inside and outside of SOF, that are vital to the special operations community and to U.S. national security.
There are opportunities to correct these misconceptions and deepen the understanding of women’s vital role in special operations by changing the narrative, focusing on leader development, and prioritizing diverse mentorship relationships.
The Women of Special Operations
Journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s book Ashley’s War brought much-needed attention to women’s contributions to U.S. national security on the special operations battlefield by highlighting the Army’s cultural support teams (CST). While those women enabled and supported the successful execution of myriad operations in Afghanistan, the CST program was experimental and a “creative” way of attaching women to SF teams and SEAL or Ranger platoons before the combat exclusion law was repealed. The women came from non-SOF branches of the military and if they stayed in the military after they completed their CST rotation, some transitioned into actual SOF branches where women had served for years, such as CA and PSYOP. By contrast to their work in CSTs, where their role was to bridge the cultural divide in Afghanistan by accessing Afghan women and children, the women in special operations who are branched in SOF have led their soldiers in ground combat, executed combat aviation missions, and in the case of one of the authors, had tactical authority of SEALs and Green Berets overseas.
The Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) has had the most success in integrating women as leaders throughout their SOF ranks. AFSOC has female wing commanders, AFSOC operations chiefs, squadron commanders, command chief master sergeants, and first sergeants. For example, Lieutenant Colonel Allison Black is nick-named the "Angel of Death" for her skills while flying an AC-130 gunship into Northern Afghanistan’s insurgent territory in 2001. She provided critical cover and fire to the U.S. special operations teams and Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance fighters on the ground. Additionally, she has gone on to serve in many leadership roles across AFSOC, including as the 319th Special Operations Squadron commander.
Brigadier General (select) Brenda Cartier, the current AFSOC Director of Operations, has paved the way for hundreds of women within AFSOC and joint commands around the world. Colonel Tracy Onufer is an electronic weapons officer and current Special Operations Command Chief of Staff. And Colonel Shelly Rodriguez is an MC130P/J pilot and has commanded in various positions throughout AFSOC. On the enlisted side there are women like Chief Master Sergeant Hope Skibitsky, the Command Chief for 27th Special Operations Wing and the first woman to hold that position. Doctors like Major Regan Lyon fill the critical role of saving lives on special operations surgical teams, treating patients on everything from a stretcher in a house to a CV-22 Osprey aircraft. These are just a few of the thousands of women serving as members of AFSOC.
Women are also integral members of the Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) and whose branches all require an assessment, selection, and qualification course pipeline. The aforementioned PSYOP and CA branches have been open to women for decades. These branches execute core special operations tasks critical for influencing international partners, adversaries, and the local civilian populace in a dynamic threat environment and on battlefields where the demographics are continually changing. Colonel Bethany Aragon is serving as the 4th PSYOP Group (Airborne) commander in charge of over 700 soldiers serving around the world. Colonel Aragon trained and led PSYOP soldiers who used targeted messaging to take down Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa. Under her command, soldiers analyzed adversary social media operations and directly influenced civilian populations to alter behavior.
In CA, women are leading small teams in ground combat and coordinating humanitarian assistance after deadly natural disasters. Major April Moore was recognized as the top SOF graduate from the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, has led CA teams in combat, and worked alongside the interagency community in responding to the Syrian crisis. Additionally, as the former commander of the 96th CA Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Angela Greenwald commanded hundreds of CA soldiers operating throughout the Middle East and previously led CA teams in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This summer, another woman CA commander is projected to have tactical command of SF, PSYOP, and CA teams deployed overseas.
The recent tragic death of Navy Cryptologic Technician Senior Chief Shannon Kent brought to light the growing number of women in the Navy’s special operations community. Senior Chief Kent mastered signals and human intelligence and throughout five combat deployments persuaded government and tribal leaders, along with merchants and soldiers, to give her information. Her intelligence work eventually led to the death and capture of some of America’s most wanted foreign adversaries.
Women in the Navy have served alongside Navy SEALs for decades as enablers. The Navy has both an enlisted warfare qualification process and a series of Navy Officer Billet Codes/Additional Qualifying Designators to permanently note this in a sailor’s record. Enlisted sailors, regardless of gender, may earn the Expeditionary Warfare Specialist badge. Since 2003, officers have had the opportunity to earn these codes in their records that show both assignment and leadership roles within Navy and joint special operations units.
Women serving in these units in both leadership and frontline roles is routine. The assistant operations officer position on SEAL teams is often held by surface warfare officers and has been held by women before. The Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community has two special reconnaissance teams (SRT), one of which Senior Chief Kent served in. Navy Lieutenant Andrea N. Goldstein, an intelligence officer, led over 60 sailors as a troop commander in one of the SRTs. Currently serving SEALs confirmed that two female aviators, both non-SOF careerists, served as troop commanders in charge of close to 75 sailors in an SRT. One of these women also deployed to a combat zone as a platoon commander in charge of special operations aviation personnel at three different sites. There is currently at least one female Navy officer qualified as an NSW Joint Terminal Air Controller (JTAC). Furthermore, enlisted and officer women have also served as explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technicians, a community considered by the Navy to be special operations.
The Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC), established in 2006, is the newest addition to the special operations community. There are women serving both overseas and stateside as members of the MARSOC Raider Regiment, but there is no documentation or details about their service. However, over the last year there has been media coverage of the four women and their five attempts to assess and select into the MARSOC training pipeline, unfortunately none have been selected. While acknowledging the need for operational security, stories of women leading within MARSOC could inspire talented, capable Marines to join the MARSOC ranks.
These are only a handful of the thousands of women who serve as special operations forces and in the special operations community. Women have served and succeeded for years in special operations. Despite the attention and often negative commentary around women joining the SEALs, SF, or Ranger career fields, the number of women in special operations is increasing. Society should heed the opinion of senior military leaders like General Votel who acknowledges that “SOCOM needs diversity, we need people of color, we need men, we need women to help us solve the problems that we deal with today.” Today’s problems stem from long-term strategic competitors, rogue regimes, and trans-national threats operating in every domain. As General Thomas, the Commanding General of USSOCOM, said in his February 2019 USSOCOM Posture Statement, “SOF’s worldwide access and placement and our networks and partnerships enable the Department to understand adversary actions and intent and to respond across the spectrum of competition.” The battlefield has evolved and will continue to change, implying that the United States must execute the entire spectrum of special operations in order to compete against its adversaries. Research shows that gender-diverse teams make better decisions up to 73 percent of the time; that number increases to 87 percent if there is gender, age, and geographic diversity on the team. Research also shows that diverse and inclusive teams improve employee satisfaction and reduce conflict between groups, improving collaboration and loyalty to an organization. The bottom line is that diversity and an inclusive culture accelerate innovation and decision making, whether in business or the military. To successfully execute global missions across multiple domains against both radical extremists and near-peer competitors, the force must be diverse and inclusive to generate and implement innovative solutions.
Call to Action
Women are critical to the success of special operations, whether they are an enabler or a branched special operations force member. Like any organization, the recruitment and retention of these highly qualified individuals must be prioritized. Equally important is the realization that everyone, including civilians, has a role in the recruitment and retention of women in special operations and the military at-large. By changing the narrative, developing leaders, and making mentorship and sponsorship a priority, the special operations community can contribute to an organizational culture that recruits and retains innovative leaders who will leverage the diverse workforce needed to address complex national security challenges.
At the most basic level, changing the narrative about women in special operations includes acknowledging that there are women in the community. While incredibly inspiring, the discussion and media attention regarding women in special operations must expand beyond the women attempting to join the SEAL, SF, and Ranger communities. As noted, there are already women significantly contributing to special operations, and their service should be duly recognized by the media and researchers. This recognition should in no way betray the special operations notion of “quiet professionals” who serve out of honor and duty and do not seek awards and accolades. However, the special operations community should find a way to balance the notion of quiet professionalism with ensuring that segments of the force are not excluded from the narrative. Women must receive the recognition they have earned and deserve for special operations mission success. For every direct-action mission executed by a SEAL, Green Beret, or Ranger, there are dozens of other SOF and special operations enablers in the United States and deployed around the world executing the full spectrum of special operations. There are many powerful, positive, and inspirational stories that challenge the existing narratives of “special operations,” “service,” and “veteran.” As global audiences hear men and women in special operations champion and acknowledge female leaders, their stories can serve as an example of inclusive leadership not just in the military but in all industries.
Dynamic programs and initiatives to mentor, develop, and sponsor (champion) leaders are also essential components for optimizing the recruitment and retention of women in special operations. But developing leaders does not just refer to female-specific programs, and it isn’t accomplished through existing military sexual harassment and assault response programs (SHARP) or equal employment opportunity programs. Leader development initiatives and programs need to be a mix of discipline-based skills, relational communication, and perceptual skills. These initiatives should give both male and female service members and government employees the tools to communicate effectively, combat bias, and develop inclusive cultures. However, to reap the benefits of the individuals they’ve consciously developed, senior leaders must also make highly visible organizational changes that create the conditions for the individual leaders to then comfortably apply the training and education gleaned from these leader development programs. Great talent – those you want to recruit and retain – are attracted to leaders and organizations who value and emphasize individual development and innovative cultures. Given that men make up the majority of the senior leaders in special operations, men must also be willing to engage in cross-gendered and diverse mentorship relationships and leader development initiatives.
Women have been and will continue to be vital and inspirational members of SOF who serve with distinction, and they deserve to be recognized as members of the special operations community. Media, researchers, society, and the military must take an active role in changing the narrative about the thousands of women serving –past, present, and future –and their critical contributions to solving the nation’s most complex national security problems. Without changing the narrative, developing dynamic leaders, and promoting inclusive mentorship and sponsorship opportunities the military risks even lower recruitment and retention rates of women in special operations and the military writ large. A homogeneous force will inevitably lead to suboptimal results. But a conscious and deliberate focus on diversity will accelerate innovation, contribute to improved decision making, and lead to powerful effects in countering U.S. adversaries and strengthening the nation’s security.
On a personal note, the authors serve as members of the special operations community. Nicole is a U.S. Army Civil Affairs officer who spent six years in the conventional forces as an engineer in a combat engineer battalion and has been a member of the Special Operations Forces in the CA branch since 2010. She has worked alongside SF in Paktika province, Afghanistan, not just leading her own patrols but also leading one of the village stability operations platforms (during split-team operations). She is serving overseas as a commander and has tactical command authority for Navy SEALs, Army CA, SF, and PSYOP soldiers executing the full spectrum of special operations. Lyla served as a U.S. Navy surface warfare officer before transferring to the intelligence community and deploying with Joint Special Operations Command to Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2005 as a counter-terrorism analyst. After transitioning to the private sector, Lyla has enabled numerous special operations missions, advised countless commanders –from O-3 team leaders to a two-star joint headquarters – and held analytical and cultural advising positions with the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan and the Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan. Together, we co-founded PROMOTE, an organization developing diverse and innovative national security leaders and organizations to meet the security challenges of today and tomorrow.
Nicole Alexander is an Army civil affairs officer married to a special forces officer; they have two daughters and she is the director of Strategic Initiatives/Co-Founder of PROMOTE.
Lyla Kohistany is a Navy veteran, a cultural advisor for U.S. Special Operations Command, a diversity and inclusion strategist with the Cultural Intelligence Center, and the President/Co-Founder of PROMOTE.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the. U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Read more in the CNAS Military, Veterans and Society Program's "Supporting the Military Community" commentary series.
Image Credit: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Heather M. Paape, U.S. Navy
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