In March 2020, Military.com announced that, for the first time ever, a female had been selected for Special Tactics, an elite Air Force organization that conducts challenging missions in some of the most dangerous parts of the world. However, outrage over women’s integration into elite special operations units has flared up once again.
In early January, Instagram user @bkactual posted a letter written by an anonymous combat controller accusing the Special Tactics schoolhouse — 352nd Special Warfare Training Squadron — of giving preferential treatment to the female trainee. The author accused the candidate of quitting repeatedly, and receiving an unprecedented number of opportunities to continue. The AFSOC commander responded with a Facebook post, stating that “the standards — which are tied to mission accomplishment — have not changed. However, there is a difference between standards and norms.”
According to a memo written by the student in question that was obtained by Air Force Times, a communication failure led to other students believing that physical fitness standards had been lowered for her.
As a service member, I’m puzzled that the idea of women in special operations remains a source of controversy, despite the 2016 Department of Defense policy that opened all military jobs and schools to women and the fact that women have been in Special Operations units for years. The current fiasco is reminiscent of a previous accusation that the Army had lowered standards for the first female Rangers, levied by then Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) who famously demanded to see the women’s training documents.
As the owner of a small business that provides women with tactical fitness training programs, I can say with confidence that no one who is seriously vying for admission into these notoriously competitive schools, irrespective of gender, wants the standards lowered for them. I have never encountered a woman inbound to an assessment or selection that wanted handouts. Serious candidates want to earn the privilege to serve in those jobs, and to avoid the stigmas associated with special treatment. Reduced standards for females would, in Ranger-tabbed Kristen Griest’s words, “reinforce the belief that women cannot perform the same job as men, therefore making it difficult for women to earn the trust and confidence of their teammates.”
I am also familiar with the two main ideological camps that have emerged as the result of these controversies. One side is outraged by the perceived lowering of military standards — former Navy SEAL and Republican Texas Representative Dan Crenshaw is a sympathizer. In response to the release of the anonymous letter, he posted to his Twitter account that “We cannot sacrifice training standards. Ever. Full stop.” Though he added that “there are lots of females that contribute enormously to Special Operations missions,” his support of the letter only encourages those who oppose the integration of women into special operations. I am skeptical of the opinion of any politician who hasn’t witnessed the changes that have taken place in special operations training environments since they became fully integrated, or frankly, anyone who wasn’t at the Special Tactics schoolhouse to watch events unfold.
The opposing camp decries perceived tab-protecting, or the practice of elite military communities blocking otherwise viable candidates from attending or graduating from these crucible schools. This practice is not publicized for obvious reasons, but it still happens to both women and men attempting to undergo elite training. We all know it can happen. Of course, cadres in these schools are the true arbiters of what passes muster. Nonetheless, the degree to which personal biases impact a decision to keep or scrap a struggling candidate remains a valid concern.
Regardless of these polarized opinions, only those that were witness to the female trainee’s performance know the truth. It’s also reasonable to assume that across the military, some degree of both standard adjustment and tab-protecting might happen, just as there are schools and assessments that maintain long-standing requirements and treat all candidates equally. And we can all agree it’s just as bad to push an unprepared student through a brutally difficult training course as it is to create artificial barriers for those who deserve an opportunity to be there.
So what’s the bigger picture?
The problem is that we may be rushing the process. Assuming the accusations and the airman’s statements are both true as reported, both the student and the unit are probably victims of a politicized, heavy-handed policy that has been applied like a hammer to a task for a scalpel.
Rushing to Failure
It is no secret that Congress exercises enormous influence over the military — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Department of Defense has struggled to eradicate sexual misconduct in the ranks for decades, and Congress recently intervened. The downside is that Congress is quick to tighten the purse strings when they’re unhappy with DoD practices or expenditures. Though no commanders I know ranked O-6 or above could ever openly say it without facing reprimand, special operations leaders are probably under immense congressional pressure to put more women in the most elite military jobs.
Why would this be the case? First of all, it’s been policy to allow women in top tier jobs for 6 years. Any shrewd governing body would expect its commanders to fall in line. Secondly, all branches of U.S. government are subject to the National Security Strategy, the interim version of which promises to protect “equal rights of […] women and girls” and expressly states “we will work to ensure that the Department of Defense is a place of truly equal opportunity.” It also mentions gender equality twice. The addition of a proposal to add women to the draft in the National Defense Authorization Act, though it was removed last December, is further evidence that the Biden administration is taking integration and equality seriously. Congress has more reason than ever to ask senior military leaders hard questions around integration. But instead of asking why more women aren’t in combat roles and elite Special Operations Forces units, they should be asking, “what can we do to help?”
It was likely this pressure that led to the first female Special Tactics student being publicly sacrificed. But there must be a first, right? Maybe the command felt pressure to push a female through to set the precedent. Perhaps it was willing to adjust norms so that she and subsequent females could snag a win for the unit.
Of course, the training unit has every right to change its practices. The question remains whether these new norms were already in place and well-understood, or if they were first implemented when the female candidate arrived at the school. The latter could easily create the perception that she was given special treatment, and subsequently destroy the instructors’ trust if they were ordered to push her through. Norms aside, units also reserve the right to change their standards within their command’s procedural requirements, regardless of public outcry. If the standards no longer make sense for how we fight today, they should be revisited to ensure recruitment of the best candidates for the job.
I can understand why the author wrote the anonymous letter; he or she likely felt there were no options left to bring attention to an issue which caused them major concern. While it may be factually correct, it has unfortunately ruined the opportunity for a closed investigation, which would yield the most nuanced and candid findings. Conversely, to maintain credibility in the public eye, the command may have to remain silent or boil findings down to a one-liner that fails to paint the full picture. The public always wants simple answers. It will not accept a nuanced explanation of changing norms, training adaptations, exceptions to policy, communication gaps or pressure from the chain of command or Congress.
Rushing the process of integration has set women and elite units up for failure. It also erodes trust and unit cohesion at all levels. When we rush it, otherwise admirable and capable women are dragged through the mud, and commands are forced to make important decisions under pressure. The fallout ruins the candidate’s credibility, causes the training cadre to question their leaders, and violently yanks elite units into the spotlight.
Real change takes time. Patience may have yielded a better result in this case. It was only a few short years ago that the first female Rangers received their tabs; now there are nearly a hundred. There are also now females currently serving as Army Green Berets. More women are serving in elite combat roles than ever before. Every few weeks, a story comes out of yet another woman earning entry into an elite unit.
We can’t deny that precedent matters; news outlets cover every milestone of women in American elite units because it’s exciting, and it shows other women that the door is open. With some patience, perhaps another viable female candidate will present herself in the next six months, or year, who would complete the training without the cloud of vitriolic publicity. (In spite of how events unfolded, and for what it’s worth, I deeply admire the anonymous female trainee who went through this whole ordeal for her fortitude and integrity.)
If integration were done right, we’d see an organic, gradual, and enduring increase of women in elite units. And if our lawmakers want lasting and meaningful female representation, they should allocate the necessary resources. Investing into programs that facilitate unit cohesion, team-building and productive cultural change would help. So would investment in programs such as the Army’s Holistic Health and Fitness and the Special Operation Command THOR3 performance program to improve training that is specific to the individual, female or male, accounting for biology, physiology, and previous fitness experience. Female athletic and tactical performance is a woefully under-researched arena even in the civilian world. These efforts would be an investment in the future of American security.
At the unit level, commanders should encourage their fittest and most gritty females to assess and go to elite schools training the Army’s Special Forces, the Navy SEALs, or Air Force Special Tactics. Candidates should be connected with those who have completed these pipelines and given opportunities to train and compete. While commanders must prioritize the needs of the unit first, they are also the gatekeepers for their subordinates’ professional advancement. Commanders should be sending the signals up to Congress and the Biden administration for gradual and intuitive integration of women in America’s deadliest units: otherwise, institutional integrity and unit cohesion are under threat. To find the right people, we must be patient. Perhaps the politicians need to be reminded that “Special Operations Forces cannot be mass-produced.”
I look forward to the day when female firsts are no longer making headlines — when the trails have been blazed, gender no longer dictates fitness for service, and the door remains open for the next lethal American to walk through and take up the burden of serving as a special operations warrior.
Maj. Meg Tucker has been in the Army for eleven years, serving as a Kiowa Warrior pilot and Army Special Operations as a Psychological Operations officer. She has deployed to Southern, Central and Indo-Pacific Commands and taught in the PSYOP school. She has been published in Special Warfare Magazine and Small Wars Journal. She owns and operates The Valkyrie Project and is currently pursuing a Master of Science degree in Information and Political Warfare at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
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