In new elite Army unit, women serve alongside Special Forces, but first they must make the cut

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Congress bans women from serving in combat units. The restriction is a Defense Department policy, not an act of Congress, and it applies to direct ground combat units and specialties such as infantry, armor and Special Forces. This version has been corrected.

October 27, 2011

The medics helped Sgt. Janiece Marquez into a chair and started to treat her sprained ankle. Marquez, 25, had tripped over a rock on one of the dark paths in the camp. She had just run two miles during the physical fitness test and marched at least six miles carrying a 35-pound rucksack that evening. Now she could barely walk.

One of the medics looked at her ankle.

“Are you going to be able to ruck tomorrow?”

“Absolutely,” Marquez said.

“What if I tell you the next day you’re going to go about 25 miles? Are you ready for that? Do you think you can physically do it?”

What Marquez knew for certain was that she wasn’t going to quit. And that refusal to give up was what the evaluators, all special operations soldiers, were looking for in the 55 selectees here at Camp Mackall, a former World War II training base near Fort Bragg tucked into the pine forests of central North Carolina. They were being considered for elite, all-female teams trained to build relationships with Afghan women.

The evaluators wanted the Army’s best female soldiers. The toughest — mentally and physically — and the sharpest intellectually. The next 100 hours would not only test the soldiers’ ability to run and march, but also how well they thought on their feet and adapted to the unknown.

With a throbbing ankle and many more back-breaking marches with heavy rucksacks and lung-burning runs ahead of her, Marquez got up and limped across camp.

* * *

While Department of Defense and military department policies still restrict women from serving in combat units, the soldiers selected from this group will serve alongside the Army’s most elite units on the battlefield. The Army has never selected women to do a mission because of their sex, until now.

It is recruiting female soldiers to work closely with Special Forces teams and Ranger units during raids. Because women and children are often held in a separate room while soldiers search the compound, these teams go into villages in Afghanistan to build rapport with women, as it is culturally inappropriate for male soldiers to talk with them.

“We’ve been missing out on half of the population in Afghanistan because of cultural taboos,” said candidate Meghan Curran, a West Point graduate and first lieutenant in the artillery.

Female Marines began meeting with women in southern Afghanistan two years ago. Then in spring 2010, retired Navy Adm. Eric Olson, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, issued an order to create these Cultural Support Teams.

The teams are trained to have a deeper understanding of Afghan culture and to connect with women in the villages to gather information on enemy activities. The teams aim to create a dialogue between U.S. forces and Afghan women, which can help in medical clinics or building governance.

The teams have been deployed to Afghanistan for more than a year. While Army officials have praised the program, it is unclear how they are measuring its success except for anecdotal stories and requests for more CSTs by commanders in Afghanistan.

So far, 156 out of 233 candidates have been selected.

Until Maj. Patrick McCarthy became the architect of CST selection, no one in the Army had created an assessment course for women. McCarthy was a unit commander during the so-called surge in Iraq in 2007 and 2008.

The selection process borrows from his experience in Iraq and from some of the same problem-solving and physical tests used to weed out Special Forces candidates. Selection tests a soldier’s ability to maintain composure, apply logic, communicate clearly and solve problems in demanding environments. It’s as much a mental test as it is a physical one.

“The unique perspective of females in military operations, particularly unconventional situations, is an untapped and underappreciated capability within the Army,” McCarthy said. “These teams are important — not only for the Army, but for the success of military operations as a whole.”

That is why McCarthy makes getting on a team difficult. In fact, he calls selection “100 hours of Hell.”

* * *

Sunday morning, the first day of assessments, the candidates got off the bus and quickly changed into shorts and running shoes. The 55 women, a mix of officers and enlisted soldiers and one Air Force major, grunted their way through two minutes of push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run. Each rep was measured with by-the-book standards. Six candidates got cut right away.

Next, candidates were separated into five teams. They wore digital camouflage uniforms with tape on their arms and legs showing their roster number, so it was impossible to tell who was an officer and who was enlisted. That afternoon, the team members got a first assignment but also spent time getting to know one another and forming a bond that they hoped would help them through.

“It has always shocked me how close a group of soldiers can become in such a short amount of time,” said 2nd Lt. Alex Horton, a Team 2 member. Horton, 23, from Hermosa Beach, Calif., grew up with a hippie mom and a Navy father. She joined the Army after completing her degree in criminal justice at Western Michigan University. She sees the Army as a short-term job.

“After I get out, I’ll join the Peace Corps,” she said. “I want to have both aspects and have that to look back on. A soldier and a hippie.”

She selected the intelligence branch in the hope it would give her a future with the FBI or CIA. With only a few months in the Army, she was already restless. That’s why she was at Camp Mackall.

“I realized that sitting at a computer is not my thing,” she said. “I really didn’t feel like a soldier being an intel officer.”

Team 2 was made up of six officers, including Horton, and four sergeants. Marquez, from Bosque Farms, N.M., wanted to be in the infantry when she walked into the recruiter’s office in 2005. The recruiter pointed out that women can’t join the infantry, so she became a linguist and interrogator.

Marquez was deployed to Khost, Afghanistan, in 2008 for 15 months. That tour should have been her chance to use her interrogation skills, but she felt stifled and bored working with the 101st Airborne Division. “I like very intelligent, driven people,” she said. “And I can’t say that about the people I was working with out there, and because of it, my deployment was kind of tough.”

The times she did get to use her skills or build rapport with the Afghans, though, made her believe she had the skills to carry off the CST mission.

* * *

None of the candidates was allowed to wear a watch. Instead, they relied upon a large, white dry-erase board near their tents to tell them where to be and what to do. The directions were sparse — “Pack a rucksack with 35 pounds” — and designed to make the candidates prepare for the unknown.

Racing to the board a few hours after the physical fitness test, Meghan Curran saw that the next event was a road march: a brisk jog. There were no orders on distance. Just directions to bring a pack and enough water to stay hydrated.

She and her teammates marched silently, crossing over the sandy hills. Many leaned forward under the weight of their packs. Few women could keep up with Curran. The 24-year-old from Chelmsford, Mass., excels at runs and ruck marches.

“Physical parts are easy. I know that is one of my strengths,” Curran said. But she admits to not being the smartest student, especially compared with her classmates at West Point, from which she graduated in 2009. Curran used to listen to her father talk about his stint in the Marines, and she wanted to serve, too.

All of Team 2 completed the march. None had as much trouble as 42-year-old Air Force Maj. Sarah Cleveland, on Team 3, who marched until her legs stopped working. Cramping up so badly she couldn’t walk, she fell onto the dirt road.

“I can’t quit!” she screamed between moans of agony. Her legs kicked out as if she was fighting off an attacker.

“Don’t worry about that right now,” said McCarthy, in a rare crack in his gruff demeanor.

“My legs are really bad,” Cleveland said.

Medics swarmed around her and applied cold compresses on her legs and arms. One medic slid a needle into her left arm and started an IV fluid bag. Clearing the seats out of a Ford cargo van, they hustled Cleveland into the back and drove her to a nearby clinic. The next morning, she joined her team.

Two other candidates fell out during the march, making eight washouts before the end of the first day.

* * *

On Day 2, Team 2 walked gingerly across the gravel on the parade field trying to keep pressure off the blisters on their feet.

“I am like an old car that can’t go any faster,” 1st Lt. Amy Steffanetta said. “I’m stuck in second gear.”

Steffanetta, 24, was the only other candidate who went to West Point. When she was in middle school, her U.S. history teacher kept talking about all the Civil War generals who went to the military academy. Steffanetta concluded that people who do big things in the world went there. She graduated in 2009 as a military police officer.

“If you really make a difference and are the most trained and qualified, you have to make the sacrifice and go the hard route,” she said.

The day’s obstacle course was a mix of physical tests, such as climbing over a wall, and problem-solving exercises, such as disarming a make-believe bomb blindfolded. Between each obstacle, the team hiked a few miles with their heavy packs and mock rifles.

On one of the last obstacles, Team 2 had to climb from one concrete pedestal next to an imaginary river (really just dirt and sticks) to another concrete pedestal using planks and rope. Huddled around the pedestal, the soldiers strained to keep the almost 10-foot-long wood beam from touching the ground as they slid it to another pedestal. Steffanetta and Horton tried to keep the beam up by pulling back on the rope, while the others tried to shove the beam forward.

“Push. Push!”

Their teammates held onto Steffanetta’s and Horton’s belts, trying to keep them from falling off the pedestal. Together, they looked like an all-female Iwo Jima Memorial.

“Push. Push!”

Finally, the lip of the beam landed on the pedestal. Horton, a former gymnast, started easily across the plank, which was slightly smaller than a balance beam. But when she got to the middle, the beam tipped into the river.

Failure.

“That was like giving birth,” one of the soldiers said as they walked back to the tent city, tired and demoralized.

* * *

Ordered into the back of a truck Wednesday (after Tuesday’s tests and psychological evaluations), Team 2 looked nervous. A truck could mean many possibilities: a respite for their worn-out feet, or a long ride and an even longer walk back. Horton’s boots had already rubbed off a three-inch spot of skin on her foot. She had blisters covering her toes, still painted with a bright red polish.

The evaluators sealed the back flap so it was impossible for the candidates to see where the truck was headed. Some candidates tried to sleep, their legs draped over the rucksacks that covered the floor.

When the flap was finally flipped open, 1st Lt. Leslie Johnson saw the SURF, the Soldier Urban Reaction Facility, and knew exactly what was in store. The SURF was created to focus on building rapport in a foreign culture. Using cameras, the instructors can watch how the soldiers might handle different worst-case scenarios, staged in each of the four rooms. Built out of wood with faux arches and a crescent hanging over the opening, it looked like a cheap, rundown amusement park, but it is intended to resemble the Middle East. Rugs covered the floors. Pillows lined the walls of one room. In the center of the third room was a low table covered by a maroon cloth.

When the test started, Marquez knocked softly on the door and was greeted by seven female soldiers posing as villagers.

“How is everyone?” Marquez asked, taking a seat on the floor and laying her rifle nearby.

The “villagers” started speaking at once. Their husbands beat them. One said she didn’t want to be a sex slave around to only make babies. The “villagers” demanded education. Freedom. Equality. The pleas were lost in a shrill wall of sound.

“Ladies, I can only speak to one of you at a time,” Marquez said calmly.

But before the meeting could get going, two soldiers acting as husbands burst into the room. Screaming and waving an AK-47 rifle, the men chased their wives into a back room. Marquez, startled, jumped up and snatched her rifle. Holding it in both hands, she backed away from the men, who were huge, compared with her.

“Why are you in my house?” demanded Spc. David Atkinson. “Who let you in here? Which one?”

As Atkinson yelled, his partner, Staff Sgt. Mike Ward, started hauling the women out. Holding the women by their hair and “slapping” them, Ward screamed at Marquez. She raised her rifle and ordered the men to get on their knees.

“Are you here to execute us?” Atkinson screamed.

“Lay down,” Marquez said, grabbing Atkinson’s AK-47, which had been dropped in the commotion.

The men acted stunned, but they complied. After kneeling and stretching their arms out across the table, they began to yell at Marquez.

“Why are you in my house?”

“I am here to listen to your concerns,” Marquez said, her rifle still trained on them.

“This is how you help people?” Atkinson screamed. “By coming into my house and making me get on the floor? You want to keep disrespecting us?”

Her training as an interrogator kicked in.

“Right now, you’re under an insurgency,” she told them. “We fear for not only you but your wives. I am here to help people.”

The exercise ended with the standoff. No feedback, no time to decompress. Minutes later, it was Curran’s turn. The scenario started the same way. A wave of complaints, followed by shouting husbands.

“Now she is not going to be able to cook today because she won’t be able to see out of her eye,” Ward screamed at Curran.

Curran retreated from the angry husbands. As the chaos swirled, she just stood motionless.

“I was totally off my game,” she said back at the tent. “It was eye-opening.”

* * *

Late Wednesday night, Team 2 marched across the camp to a spartan tent and tried to present a brief on how their military specialties — artillery, intelligence, communications, veterinary — contributed to the counterinsurgency fight. One by one, they stood in front of McCarthy, Master Sgt. Gabriel Fabrizio and Capt. Chris Rhoades and made a case for themselves.

From behind a table, McCarthy and the others scribbled notes between long glares at the candidates. After four days of intense scrutiny, the members of Team 2 wilted under the gaze. They stammered, struggled to answer simple questions and came off as punch-drunk.

Afterward, they retreated back to their team tent.

“You have to keep a positive attitude. They are just trying to play mind games and see how you react,” Horton said.

Curran broke into tears. She was convinced that she wasn’t going to make it.

* * *

Team 2’s Thursday started at 3 a.m. The test was to carry an ammo crate using two heavy poles and rope. Johnson and Curran took the crate, sliding the metal pole through the rope handles on either side. The rest of the team carried the second pole and rope and started toward the finish, spelling Curran and Johnson along the way. The march would take almost an hour. But with no idea how far they were going, they tried to take their minds off the grueling march.

“I want to take my motorcycle and go for a long ride,” Johnson said.

“I want ice cream,” another soldier said.

The crisp night air made the march bearable. Team 2 soon passed Team 1. Cresting a hill, Team 2 came up on an instructor with a riddle about compass points. Each candidate read the riddle and gave an answer.

The right answer would cut a few miles off the course for the soldier. The wrong one would just add to it.

Each candidate got the riddle wrong.

Team 2 was soon spread out with some, like Curran, reaching the next test well before her teammates. As they waited, Curran and Johnson talked again about food and home. Sgt. Sheree Lapointe read her Bible.

Horton had her boots off, looking at her bloody sock.

“If I don’t make it, I am going to ask my major if I can wear flip-flops to work,” she said.

When all the other team members caught up, they pulled on their rucksacks again and continued to march down the sandy track. After a while, the chatter stopped, replaced by the shuffling of boots on the dirt road and the sloshing of what was left of the water in their canteens. Even Marquez, one of the serial talkers, was quiet. Everybody had the same anguished look on her face.

* * *

On the last day of selections, the soldiers filed into an auditorium in Bank Hall, the main classroom building for special operations training at Fort Bragg. The five teams waited impatiently to see if they’d made it.

Marquez alternated between being confident to talking herself out of being selected to soften the blow.

After a McCarthy pep talk, the soldiers were called individually into a room. Inside, the cadre discussed each candidate’s strengths and weaknesses before telling her whether she had been chosen. Those selected went out a side door and to the left. All the non-selects went out the door and to the right.

“You’d see people walking, and you had no idea why they were going,” Marquez said. “Finally, you get out there and turn to the left. And you see some of your friends have made it.”

Meghan Curran and Amy Steffanetta also turned left. Steffanetta laughed and hugged her other teammates. She was thrilled for them but equally frustrated for those, such as Lapointe, who weren’t selected.

Lapointe, 25, was shocked. “I know it wasn’t a team assessment, but we pulled together,” she said. “Each of us brought something to the team. I am just glad I helped get them selected. I know I left everything out there. I cried. It hurt. I wanted to be with my teammates.”

Out of the 10 Team 2 soldiers, only three didn’t make it. Horton was rated the best candidate by her Team 2 peers and was in the top five in the entire class. She was the most natural leader, the instructors told her.

Cleveland, the Air Force major, was also selected. She had been the first inter-service member in the course.

“She indirectly paved the way for other services to participate,” McCarthy said.

That night, the selected candidates either headed for Fort Benning, Ga., to start their deployment paperwork before returning to Fort Bragg for six weeks of training or headed back to their old units only to return in the fall for training.

After leaving Fort Bragg, Steffanetta’s bus stopped for dinner at Subway. Filing back on the bus with armfuls of sandwiches, chips and cookies, the soldiers began to eat, resting their heads on the comfortable seats or on the windows. The only movie on the bus was “Black Hawk Down.” Soon, the soldiers started to doze off to the soundtrack of machine-gun fire during the Battle of Mogadishu. For most of them, it was the first restful sleep in 100 hours.

Kevin Maurer has covered the military for eight years. He is the author of three books including “No Way Out,” a story of heroism in the mountains of Afghanistan, which will be published in March. He can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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