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Women in military special operations still face 'intense' sexism

East Coast-based Navy SEALs train at Fort Pickett, Virginia, Nov. 16, 2022.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Katie Cox
Naval Special Warfare Group 2
East Coast–based U.S. Naval Special Warfare Operators (SEALs) conduct patrol movement operations as part of a Non-Combatant Evacuation training scenario during Exercise Trident 23-2 at Fort Pickett, Virginia, on Nov. 16, 2022.

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A report recently released by the U.S. Army shows women still face intense sexism in the special operations community.

Crystal Ellington, an Army special ops veteran, said she agrees.

She served as a helicopter mechanic with the 160th Aviation Regiment, a unit called the Nightstalkers primarily stationed in Kentucky. Ellington now lives in Florida.

In 2019, she deployed alongside Army Rangers in Iraq.

“I would have superiors say things to me like, 'I miss the good old days when women couldn't serve' and 'You know you're only here because we had to check a box,'” she said. “Hearing those types of things on a day-to-day basis made me wonder if I had made the right decision.”

Overall, women make up roughly 9% of special operations, though women are roughly 20% of the armed forces, according to a separate report by the General Accounting Office released in December.

Comments similar to the ones Ellington heard in Iraq were documented in the recent Army report. It pointed to several issues women face, including isolation in special operations and more serious ones — like sexual assault.

Ellington said she cut her Army career short when command mishandled her sexual assault case.

“The mishandling of my case was something that made it very hard to do my job and made it hard to come to work and feel like I wouldn’t be heard and understood with the emotional battles that I was having,” Ellington said.

The Army's report cited "benevolent sexism" and surveyed 5,000 men and women in special operations, including civilians.

Nearly half of men surveyed felt the standards had been lowered to allow women.

One warrant officer told researchers that women should never be on the elite special operations teams — saying, “We have enough problems. We don’t need females to make more.”

A senior sergeant said he decided to retire “so I don’t have to lead a team containing a female.”

Another senior non-commissioned officer accused women of looking for boyfriends and husbands, rather than being seriously interested in being members of the team.

“There's a difference between being welcoming and being inclusive,” she said. “So being welcoming is kind of showing that warmth and friendly nature. But right underneath the surface, it's still those attitudes that women aren’t equal. Women need to be coddled. Women need special treatment.”

“I do believe that the vast majority of the negative comments unfortunately did come from senior noncommissioned officers. And so it does seem to indicate that it is generational,” said Army Special Operations Command Sgt. Maj. JoAnn Naumann, who presented the report.

The report admonishes SOC for not identifying and addressing the barriers faced by women, as well as the Pentagon for not creating a plan of action to address the problems.

A woman with a reddish bob haircut is seen wearing military fatigues.
United States Military Academy
Lt. Col. Lisa Jaster was 37 years old and a mother of two when she graduated from Ranger School in 2015. She was the first female Army Reserve Soldier to earn the Ranger tab and the third female overall. Jaster graduated from West Point in 2000 and branched engineers.

Kris Fuhr is a 1985 West Point graduate who helped open up Army Ranger School to women after all combat positions were extended to women in 2015.

She now runs a mentorship program for women attending U.S. Army Ranger School. She said noncommissioned officers have lots of influence over young soldiers and could help change sexist attitudes.

“It's important for senior NCOs to tell junior soldiers, 'Hey, you don't hunt among your team. You know, these women are not targets. These women are your teammates,'” she said.

Fuhr said in her career, some of the worst comments she heard came from special forces veterans, or gray beards.

“When the first women graduated from Ranger School, General Scott Miller invited anyone who thought that the standards had been changed,” Fuhr said. “He said, 'The door's open, come back and go through the course with women. We’ll gladly run you through Ranger school again. And then you can tell us if you think we changed the standards.' There were no takers.”

The study results were originally compiled in 2021 but Fuhr says attitudes are virtually unchanged.

The Army's recent report looked at other issues that disproportionately impact women soldiers, like childcare and equipment issues, like packs that don't fit properly.

The Army is participating in the Naval Health Research Center study into equipment issues for women throughout the services.

“They always get very focused on women and their bodies," Fuhr said.

"What they really need to focus on, and this report addresses it, is bias and issues within the culture,” she said. “If you don't have a culture that is receptive and understands the value of all teammates."

Fuhr said despite the report's findings, she believes the Army is actually ahead of other elements of special operations.

At least 121 women have made it through Army Ranger School.

Fewer than 10 women have become members of the elite Green Berets, but no women have become Navy SEALs. In 2021, a woman did graduate from the demanding 37-week training course to become a Naval Special Combatant Craft crewman — a separate special operations unit that often works with the more famous SEALs.