CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – When Shelane Etchison first joined the 75th Ranger Regiment, some male soldiers understood her and became friends. But mostly, she faced a cold reception as one of the first women to take on a combat role.
“A lot of people were very skeptical about what women would be like…with these units,” Etchison, a former special operations soldier, told Fox News. “There was a lot more scrutiny and skepticism about how we would perform.”
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Etchison was a member of the inaugural Cultural Support Team, a 20-woman fighting force attached to the 75th Ranger Regiment in 2011. That made her one of the first women in US history to fight alongside men. on the front lines before the Department of Defense. she lifted a ban on women’s sparring in 2015.
“It wasn’t an easy road,” Etchison said. “It took a while to change some hearts and minds within our own special operations forces.”
During the War in Afghanistan, special operations forces hunted high-value targets for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But the all-male teams were not allowed to speak to women and children due to cultural norms, causing the US and Afghan militaries to lose critical intelligence.
As a result, the all-female Cultural Support Team was formed. Before long, the women proved their worth and won over not only the Rangers with whom Etchison was embedded, but also the higher-ups in the Pentagon.
WATCH TO LEARN MORE ABOUT ETCHISON’S POST-MILITARY LIFE:
FORMER SPEC-OPS SOLDIER RETURNS TO IRAQ, BUT THIS TIME WITH HIS TEACHERS AT HARVARD
“There was such a change in attitude,” Etchison told Fox News, noting that some of the men began to question why the women were not allowed to attend Ranger school. “When I left, one of the Rangers gave me her patch and said ‘it would be great if you became a Ranger one day’.”
The initial success of the Cultural Support Team led special operations forces to train a covert unit of female Afghan soldiers, ultimately called the Female Tactical Squad program, Etchison said. The military unit provided a service similar to that of the Cultural Support Team, gathering intelligence by searching for and questioning women during high-risk nighttime raids.
Together, the teams pushed the needle for women in combat.
“A lot of what we showed we could do there played a big part in the Department of Defense finally striking down the ban on fighting women,” Etchison said. “The same goes for these Afghan women and them proving themselves on the battlefield right there with their male Afghan counterparts.”
The women from both shows trained together, became friends and demonstrated the importance of their unprecedented roles. Etchison emphasized the additional danger facing Afghan women.
“The roles were essentially the same,” Etchison said. “However, what was different was the level of courage that I think it takes to raise your hand and do that job.”
Afghan men who aided the US military or played a role in the country’s government were already among the Taliban’s top targets. But given the regime’s brutal oppression of women, prohibiting them from even traveling without a male escort or receiving an education, members of the Women’s Tactical Squad had an even bigger target.
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“There’s a lot more risk that they’ll agree to partner and do this work,” Etchison said. “A job that is leaps and bounds from what Afghan women are doing in society, let alone in the military, let alone in the higher echelons of their military.”
“I want these stories to reach the next generation of service women,” Etchison said. “Hopefully they’ll be inspired by that.”
To hear more from Etchison on advancing women in military combat roles, click here.