CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command is making women an integral part of spec ops teams in Afghanistan, where they’ll be used to develop a rapport with Afghan women and, it is hoped, build broader support for the frail Afghan government.
MarSOC’s first female engagement team — comprising a captain, two corporals and a Navy corpsman — will spend about nine months with 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion, which is scheduled to take command of a task force later this year that will oversee U.S. spec ops forces in northern and western Afghanistan.
By attaching female troops to spec ops teams, officials hope to better navigate local Afghan customs that often prohibit interaction between women and men who are not members of their families. Just as soon as MarSOC was notified that 1st MSOB would deploy as a task force, officials made preparations for an engagement team.
“The whole goal is recognizing that the battle in Afghanistan is getting the people to buy into the idea of a state,” said an operations officer with the Marine Special Operations Regiment, a lieutenant colonel who asked that his name be withheld for security reasons. “You’re not going to get that buy-in by appealing to half the population.”
Federal law bars women from serving in ground combat units, including front-line spec ops forces such as MarSOC teams. But in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the front lines are often blurred, female service members have found themselves dodging rounds and joining firefights alongside men.
Officials said only that “a lot” of women expressed interest in joining the team after a word-of-mouth campaign alerted them to the opportunity.
Those selected had to meet specific criteria, which included having a first-class physical-fitness test score of 225 or higher and prior combat deployments.
They train to the same standards as MarSOC “enablers” — everyone from radio operators to engineers — who deploy with spec ops companies or adviser groups. That training requires them to master two weapons, the M4 carbine and 9mm pistol. Once they join their units, they’ll do unit-specific training, learning how to approach an Afghan village, for example, and how to respond to an ambush.
Hosptial Corpsman 2nd Class Jessica Ramon, a member of MarSOC’s support group, was selected for the first engagement team. She said she and the other women have learned some Urdu and Pashto, common languages in Afghanistan, but will rely on interpreters to communicate.
“I’m kind of a little nervous just because I haven’t been there before,” Ramon said. “But I want to go, and I’m ready to go.”