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.