When Janiece Marquez arrived in Afghanistan in 2011 as a member of a cultural support team working alongside Special Forces, she had high hopes that she would contribute. But the initial team she was assigned to was reticent to put women in combat situations, leaving her team sidelined much of the time, she said.
Things improved partway through the deployment when a new Special Forces team arrived. Its soldiers had received more training about cultural support teams, and they not only allowed her to speak to Afghan women in the Pashto language she had learned, but also to take on dangerous jobs traditionally assigned to men.
“I thought I would be out to engage with women and children and be with the mission commander kind of standing away from everything, but that’s not how it ever was,” she said Monday. “There were times where I was the gunner. Actually, for the last three months of my deployment, I was a gunner, and then I would still go into these villages and talk to women and children, and go into their homes.”
Marquez, who left the Army in 2012, and two other women detailed their experiences serving in cultural support teams before a crowd of about 100 people at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Northwest Washington on Monday. The event, “Women in Combat: Where They Stand,” was heavily attended by female veterans and service members, and it underscored one of the major voices in the ongoing argument over whether women should serve in all jobs in combat: female veterans who have served proudly and can’t stand the restrictions.
The Pentagon dropped a longtime ban on women serving in direct combat units in January 2013, but it gave the services time to research whether they want to leave some jobs, such as infantryman, closed to women. The services have until later this year to request exceptions that would keep some jobs closed.
The event was sponsored by several organizations all in favor of fully dropping the ban on women in combat. Its supporters included Reps. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), both of whom are vocal critics of existing restrictions on women in the military.
One of the centerpieces of the argument for allowing women in all military jobs is that they have been serving in combat for years, including in cultural support teams. The units, established by Special Operations Command, put women in direct combat missions at times, including “direct-action” operations in which units go on the offensive against enemy forces.
The panel discussion Monday was moderated by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, the author of the new book “Ashley’s War,” which details the life and death of 1st Lt. Ashley White-Stumpf. A cultural support team member, she died Oct. 22, 2011, in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province when the assault force she was deployed with triggered an improvised explosive device.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Meghan Malloy, a cultural support team member in Afghanistan in 2013, said her assignment while deployed alongside Special Forces was straightforward while on direct-action assaults. A medic, she patched up soldiers who got hurt and was told to shoot back at insurgents who shot at her.
The cultural support team’s role was a little more murky when working in Afghan villages as part of stability operations, she said.
“At one point when we first got out there, they were like, ‘You need to make yourself more important than the working dog,’ because the working dog had the spot on the team to go out,” she said. “So we had to make ourselves more valuable than him. Because that’s the only way we’re going out on a mission.”
Air Force Capt. Annie Yu Kleiman deployed with a cultural support team in 2012. She said she had a “weird cognitive dissonance” at first that she could be in combat. She joked that she thought she’d be in a “rear guard” until it was safe, but it didn’t turn out that way.
“There were bullets flying,” Kleiman said. “There wasn’t bullets flying directly at me, but they were, you know, 50 feet, 100 feet away.”
Kleiman said that after serving alongside special operations troops, life took on a different perspective.
“Everything else is just a little easier,” she said. “I’m in grad school now, and if I don’t get my paper perfect, no one is going to die. No bullets are flying.”