U.S. Army report shows women serving in the special forces face intense sexism
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A recent report from the U.S. Army shows women face intense sexism in the special forces. These are elite units that have only made room for women over the past eight years. Watchdog groups want the Pentagon to address their conditions. Steve Walsh of WHRO reports.
STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Crystal Ellington served as a helicopter mechanic with an Army unit called the Nightstalkers. In 2019, she deployed alongside Rangers in Iraq.
CRYSTAL ELLINGTON: I would have superiors say things to me like I miss the good old days when women couldn't serve, and you're only here because we had to check a box. And so really hearing those types of things on a day-to-day basis made me wonder if I had made the right decision.
WALSH: Comments similar to the ones Ellington heard in Iraq were part of a recently released Army report which pointed to several issues women face, including feelings of isolation in special operations. Ellington says she cut her Army career short when her command mishandled her sexual assault case.
ELLINGTON: 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 would be heard and understood with the emotional battles that I was having on a day-to-day basis.
WALSH: The Army did not respond to our request for comment. Ellington, who is Black, says it was also disappointing that the Army still hasn't addressed how race can be just as large a barrier as sexism for women. She did see what the report called benevolent sexism.
ELLINGTON: There's a difference between being welcoming and being inclusive. 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.
WALSH: The internal Army report surveyed 5,000 men and women in Army special operations, including civilians. One warrant officer told the researchers that women should never be on 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, quote, "I didn't have to lead a team containing a female." Army Special Operations Command Sergeant Major JoAnn Naumann helped unveil the report.
JOANN NAUMANN: 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.
WALSH: Kris Fuhr is a 1985 West Point graduate.
KRIS FUHR: The problem is those senior NCOs have a tremendous amount of influence on the young soldiers as they enter the force.
WALSH: For the past eight years, Fuhr has run a mentorship program for women attending U.S. Army Ranger School.
FUHR: 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.
WALSH: Though over 100 women have made it through Army Ranger School and a handful have become part of the storied Green Berets, sexism is still rampant in special operations. The results were originally compiled in 2021, but Fuhr says attitudes are virtually unchanged. Nearly half of men surveyed felt standards had been lowered to allow women, though some of the worst comments she says she's encountered come from special operations vets.
FUHR: When the first women graduated from Ranger School, General Scott Miller invited anyone who thought that the standards had been changed. He said, the door's open, come back. Come and go through a 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.
WALSH: Nobody took up the general's offer. Currently, roughly 9% of special operations are women, though women make up roughly 20% of the armed forces.
For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.
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