Debate swirls: Can women make cut in elite ranks?

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot
© February 2, 2013

A bruised and bloodied female recruit pulls herself to her feet, spits out a mouthful of blood and shouts an unladylike insult at an abusive master chief, instantly earning respect from her male teammates as she becomes the nation’s first female commando.

The dramatic scene from “G.I. Jane” suggests that integrating women into a special operations unit is as simple as finding a physically fit woman willing to shave her head and put up with misogynistic jerks.

That was just a movie. This is real life.

Special operations chief Adm. Bill McRaven told a Washington audience this week that he supports allowing women into elite military units, including the SEALs. The comments, made days after defense officials ended the ban on women serving in ground combat, ignited fresh debate among the ranks over whether women could – or should – serve alongside America’s elite warriors.

There’s long been skepticism over whether women can meet the grueling physical standards of special operations. Of those fit enough to make it to Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training – an achievement in its own right – only about 1 in 3 of them become Navy commandos.

McRaven, a former SEAL commander, said it’s crucial that women be held to the same high standards as men and that he believes some “will do a phenomenal job.”

McRaven has until 2016 to report back to the secretary of defense with a plan to integrate his forces or apply for an exception to continue to restrict women.

His comments drew mixed reactions among former SEALs reached by a reporter this week. Several flatly rejected the idea of bringing women into the force; others said they were open to the idea as long as standards were not lowered.

Even those who oppose allowing women to join the teams concede that a select few would probably make the cut.

“I’m confident there are women who can pass the physical standards; there are women I’m sure that can pass the mental standards,” former SEAL officer Cade Courtley said. “But why would you add an element into the most elite special forces that could cause it to be less effective?”

Courtley, who spun his military experience into a reality show and book about survival tactics, imagined what would happen if a woman had been on the team of Virginia Beach-based SEALs tapped to take out Osama bin Laden and learned she was pregnant days before the raid.

“I’m not saying SEALs can’t adapt,” he said, “but why mess with something that’s working?”

Courtley also questioned whether women should train alongside men in humbling circumstances. He described pushing through “hell week,” a brutal five days of continuous training during the initial phase of BUD/S.

“At about night number four, when we’re lying on metal grates in nothing but our swim shorts, I’m spooning this guy next to me, shivering to death and just hoping that he has to pee because I’ll at least get a couple seconds of warmth,” said Courtley, who became a SEAL in 1995 and left the service in 2001. “That’s how far down we go. Are we really going to add women to that?”

Retired SEAL Don Shipley runs Extreme SEAL Experience in rural Chesapeake, a weeklong program for young men who aspire to join special operations forces. He has refused to open the course to women, despite several requests, because he fears it would deter men from signing up.

He expects the same would happen if women were integrated into SEAL training.

“You cannot even get the majority of the strongest guys in the nation to get through the training,” Shipley said. “You’re going to deter some those guys from coming out, and for what?”

Larry Bailey, a former SEAL commander who retired in 1990 after 27 years, said even if a woman meets the rigorous physical and mental requirements, she would not be suited for the job “by virtue of her anatomy.” The 73-year-old described a scenario in which a female SEAL and her team are swimming toward a target through shark-infested Caribbean waters.

“What happens if her female menstrual cycle starts?” Bailey said. “The sharks will be swarming. That sounds ridiculous, but I use that to make a point. Men and women aren’t built the same.”

Bailey’s hard-line stance doesn’t necessarily reflect the views among younger special operations troops, many of whom have served alongside women during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kevin Maurer, a journalist and Virginia Beach native who has embedded numerous times with special operations units over the past decade, said he has seen commandos come to respect women who often join them on dangerous missions as helicopter pilots or with cultural support teams.

“With special operations guys, everyone earns their place,” said Maurer, who co-wrote “No Easy Day” with an ex-SEAL who participated in the bin Laden raid. “It’s about earning the green beret, earning the trident. If you can earn it, and if you’re held to the same standards, then you will earn that respect.”

Lisa Barbarics, a retired Navy chief, worked with SEAL teams as a communications specialist during the late-1990s. She said she felt like she was welcomed as part of the Naval Special Warfare community, but she has doubts about whether a woman would be accepted as a SEAL. She questioned whether many women could make it to that point.

“Having worked with those guys, there may be a few women out there who are capable of meeting those standards,” Barbarics said. “I doubt there are very many of them.”

One recently retired SEAL who served on deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan said gender shouldn’t matter. He shared his views with a reporter on the condition that his name not be published.

Women can be “as ruthless and driven as dudes,” the ex-SEAL said in an email, “and once they have proven that they can pass the minimum standard, they should be allowed to roll with us.”

He acknowledged that his views are not typical of most of his former teammates. But as long as standards aren’t lowered, he said the training could be amended to allow women to participate without needlessly being forced into provocative situations. The change wouldn’t be unprecedented.

“When I went through training, we did every run in jungle boots, and we lost 25 percent of the class to shin-splints or leg fractures,” the retired SEAL said.

Now, SEALs do some training in running shoes – and no one accuses them of being soft.

Mike Hixenbaugh, 757-446-2949,

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