Cambridge, Mass. When Shailene Aitchison was first drafted into the 75th Ranger Regiment, some of the male soldiers were understanding and befriending her. But mostly, she received a cold reception as one of the first women to play a combat role.
“A lot of people were very skeptical about how women … would fare with these units,” Aitchison, a former special operations soldier, told Fox News. “There was a lot of scrutiny and doubt about how we would perform.”
Watch one of the first American women in war describe her experience:
See more Fox News Digital Originals here
Aitchison was a member of the inaugural Cultural Support Team, a 20-woman combat force attached to the 75th Ranger Regiment in 2011. She became one of the first women in American history to fight alongside men on the front lines of the Department of Defense. In 2015, the combat ban on women was lifted.
“It hasn’t been an easy road,” Aitchison said. “It took some time to change some hearts and minds within our own special operations forces.”
During the Afghanistan War, special operations forces hunted high-profile Taliban and al-Qaeda targets. But the all-male teams were not allowed to speak with the women and children due to cultural norms, which deprived American and Afghan soldiers of vital intelligence.
As a result, an all-female cultural support team was formed. In no time, the women prove themselves and defeat not only Rangers Aitchison, but also the top brass of the Pentagon.
For more on Aitchison’s post-military life, see:
Former special operations soldiers return to Iraq – but this time with Harvard master’s degrees
“There was a change in attitude,” Aitchison told Fox News, noting that some men began to question why women weren’t allowed into Ranger school. “When I left, one of the rangers gave me his 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 secret unit of female Afghan soldiers, eventually named the Female Tactical Platoon Program, Aitchison said. The military unit provided services such as the Cultural Support Team, which gathered intelligence by searching and interrogating women during high-risk raids at night.
Together, the teams moved the needle for women in combat.
“A lot of the things we proved we could do there, the Department of Defense ultimately played a big role in getting women off the combat ban,” Aitchison said. “The same goes for these Afghan women and they are proving themselves on the battlefield alongside their male Afghan counterparts.”
Women from both programs trained together, becoming friends and proving the importance of their unique roles. Aitchison emphasized the additional risk faced by Afghan women.
“The characters were basically the same,” Aitchison said. “What was different though was the level of courage that I think it takes to put your hand up and do this work.”
Afghan men who supported the US military or played a role in the country’s government were already among the Taliban’s top targets. But given the brutal regime’s persecution of women, who were forbidden to travel or even study without a male escort, female tactical platoon members had an even bigger bull.
Click here to get the Fox News app.
“There’s too much risk for them to agree to engage and do this work,” Aitchison said. “A job that goes way beyond what Afghan women are doing in society, let alone the army and let alone the top officers of your army.”
“I want these stories to pass down to the next generation of servicewomen,” Aitchison said. “Hopefully they’ll be inspired by it.”
To hear more from Aitchison on the advancement of women in military combat roles, click here.