The 22 women, who gathered voluntarily to share their experiences, came from of a pool of nearly 200 women who deployed as members of Cultural Support Teams (CST) alongside SOF from 2010 until the CST program ended in 2014.
After reviewing Gayle Tzemach Lemmon's book, Ashley's War, which highlighted the experiences of the CSTs, Ellen Haring, retired Army Col. and senior fellow at Women in International Security (WIIS) in Washington, DC, realized that no one had ever asked the CSTs about their experiences integrating into all-male combat units.
In January 2013 Defense Secretary Leon Panetta officially overturned the 1994 Combat Exclusion Policy, giving military units until January 1, 2016 to fully integrate or to provide a good reason why they could not allow women into their ranks. Haring felt that the military was missing out on a critical population in their integration efforts and took on the CST interview project herself.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Raquel Patrick, an electronic systems maintainer at the Ordnance Electronic Maintenance Training Department at Fort Gordon, Georgia describes the gathering of women. "These are females that were specifically assessed, selected, trained and educated to support special operations," she said.
Haring planned and hosted the four-day event, which included representatives from the Army Women's Museum, the Service Women's Action Network and the American Civil Liberties Union. "The purpose of the conference is to try to learn from women who have combat experience, and in particular to record the stories and the experiences of what [the CSTs] could teach us about integrating combat teams," said Haring.
Her three research goals during the conference included finding out why women want to fight in combat, dispelling current myths about women in combat, and figuring out how to train senior military personnel to lead newly integrated units.
Tracy Bradford, the education director at the United States Army Women's Museum in Fort Lee, Virginia, helped document the oral histories of the CST women for inclusion in their permanent collection. In addition to educating thousands of soldiers each year, she hopes to help the Army as they work towards integration.
"We would love to be a part of gathering data and reporting back to the Army or being a repository for that information so that we can be an aid to the Army in its efforts to move forward," said Bradford. "It's significant because of the current climate in the Army with all of the amazing changes that are happening for women."
Capt. Victoria Salas, an Army nurse at the Indianapolis Medical Recruiting Center in Indianapolis, Indiana said, "If we don't take the opportunity to actually capture the information and capture the experiences, then it's going to be gone. We've kind of been in silence. We haven't really had the opportunity to share our experiences or our stories."
As the Army approaches the 2016 integration deadline approaches, how integrate women and prepare leaders are still hot issues. Having served directly with elite ground combat units, many of the CSTs recognize the unique challenge the military has ahead of them.
Capt. Samantha Nicoll O'Rourke, a civil affairs officer with 445th Civil Affairs Battalion in Mountain View, California said, "There were some challenges. I don't think that the challenges were insurmountable by any means. There are some questions and obstacles that we are going to address and have and open, honest dialogue about."
1st Lt. Christina Trembley, a military police officer with the 151st Military Police Battalion in Dunbar, West Virginia maintains a less complex perspective on integration. "In some ways, it's a matter of just doing it," she said. "Soldiers are soldiers."
Women have served in the military in every major American conflict since the Revolutionary War, many of them in combat.
According to WIIS' 2015 Combat Integration Status Report, 22 specialties and 176,600 duty positions remain closed to Army women. Amongst all the service branches combined, over 250,000 positions remain closed off to women.
Salas shared her vision for the future after integration is complete. "What I would like to see are the norms changing, […] that it is the norm to see women in leadership roles in some of the combat arms branches."
Despite the challenges that lie ahead, Haring, too, remains optimistic and driven towards her goal of seeing complete gender integration.
"My vision of the future military is where all jobs are open to men and women on an equal basis, that we have clearly defined, gender-free occupational standards," says Haring. "That anybody, man or woman, that meets the standards of an occupation can have that job. That's all I want. That's all I've ever wanted."