Crossing the Line of Departure as a Woman in Special Operations
Dense clouds filled the sky, suffocating all the light trying to break through. The February air that morning was cold and uninviting. He was standing in front of me in the parking lot at the flight line. Like the typical Mainer he is, everything about his demeanor was stoic. His body was lean; his face quiet; his mood calm, but reassuring. The C-17 loomed in the background. In just a few hours I’d be on that plane, heading to a combat zone—a land mired with IEDs, small arms fire, and mortar attacks.
I curled my hands into fists, clenching them against the bitter cold air, imagining various outcomes—mostly versions of what his life would be like if I were killed or wounded. I couldn’t help but to think of my fate, questioning this deployment.
What the fuck am I doing? He’s the Green Beret. Aren’t I supposed to be sending him off? Did I make the right choice?
I had written a parting love letter for him, tucking it away in my journal knowing my teammate would give to him in the event something happened to me. I prayed he’d never get a chance to read it. No one goes into war without questioning their own mortality at least once. At the very minimum, you’re required to plan your own funeral before a deployment—an effort to ease the burden on the military and family in the event the worst comes to pass.
We stood alone, isolated in the recesses of the airfield parking lot. He took my hands, held them tightly, pulling me closer. I just kept staring at my worn-out boots, taking note of their scuffs and frayed laces, tears welling dangerously in the corners of my eyes, one sad thought away from breaking down. I willed myself not to give into my heartache, sadness, or fear. If I gave in to my emotions, I would somehow bring shame to women in the military—my tears and heartache a form of weakness and proof that women don’t belong in combat or amongst elite Special Operations units. I’d heard countless times we didn’t belong. We had a place, and it wasn’t on the battlefield. We were weak. Inferior. Emotionally unfit. We’d impede the mission, cause a distraction. Crying tears over leaving my husband behind would just be ammo for their arsenal. On top of this imagined shame, I was also afraid if I gave into my worry and sadness that I would lose myself and my purpose, that I would forget exactly why I had signed up for this deployment in the first place.
Staring at my boots, I thought back to the first time I’d learned about the Cultural Support Team (CST) Program. It was midmorning in my Washington, D.C., office. I was a company executive officer for the Warrior Transition Brigade at Walter Reed and was checking emails after my morning meeting. I can remember the sun warming my back, shining brightly through my floor-to-ceiling windows when I noticed an email from my best friend. She normally sent messages to my personal account, so my interest was piqued.
She’d forwarded the message with a PDF flyer meant to recruit female soldiers interested in working with Special Operations units—U.S. Army Rangers and Green Berets in Afghanistan. She was currently in the process of applying and thought I should look into it too. Reading through the volunteer requirements, I knew I had what it took not only to succeed, but likely to thrive in such an environment.
Aside from meeting all of the prerequisites—female between the rank of E4-E8 or O1-O3 (I was an O3), secret clearance, PT score of 210 with at least 70 points in each event, and able to carry 35 pounds for six miles in at least one hour and 39 minutes—I knew I had the same ambition, tenacity, and professionalism as the men that filled these units. And yet, I also knew that same ambition and tenacity would bring me into an unknown world where the stakes were high and actual lives would be on the line. Unlike my previous deployment to Iraq—living on a large, drudging forward operating base—I’d be living in squalor in an unknown Afghan village on the Pakistan border as a CST. There was no such thing as front lines; no, instead, we’d immerse ourselves into the thick confusion of rural Afghan life, where we wouldn’t always be able to distinguish the friendly local shop owner from the neighboring budding terrorist.
Sitting in that sunlit office, I suddenly became aware of my body and surroundings, as though electricity had just jolted me awake. My heart pounded, my fingers tingled, and my mind focused on one singular thought: This is it.
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The day I read the CST PDF in my office seemed a lifetime ago. Between then and now had been a blur of sleepless nights, midnight ruck marches, unknown-distance runs, classroom lectures, weapons training, language lessons, and so much more to prepare us for the CST mission. Fast forward six months after I received the email from my best friend, and there I was standing in the flight line parking lot. The line of departure.
Staring down at my tan Nike boots, frayed and worn from countless miles, I kept avoiding his face. I knew the moment I caught a glimpse of his beautiful blue eyes I’d lose it completely. Instead, I focused my attention on my tattered laces while thinking the same tedious thought: Every day I’m out there will be an opportunity to lose everything I love; it’s also a chance to live each day to its fullest.
My entire universe felt perfectly paused in that one moment—the ominous clouds crowding the sky, the sleek and sterile C-17 waiting, and my husband standing before me. My past, my present, and my future all neatly compressed into that singular breath.
And that’s when the first tear broke free, speeding furiously down my cheek like a bullet aimed at my heart.
He pulled me into his chest, holding me tightly as the universe stood still. Fear, excitement, anger, hope; each heartbeat slowly overcame each emotion, and for a moment, I felt free. For a moment, there was no shame, no fear, no fate. Just the two of us hugging in a parking lot.
My fists loosened as I sank deeper into his chest. I closed my eyes, letting the tears flow freely down my cheek onto his neck. He pressed his face onto my forehead, wrapping himself tightly around me, and I felt the warmth of his tears as they washed me in loving absolution. And in that moment, I felt resolved. Come what may, I knew love. Real love.
Suddenly, we were jolted back to reality as my Timex watch beeped, my eyes opening to the reality of the moment. Its beauty and serenity fading into the clouds.
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Loosening our grasp, we pulled back slowly to look at each other, the first rays of the morning slyly making their way through the oppressive cloud coverage, fighting their way to shine through.
I looked up at him. Warm smiles crossed our faces because we knew. And so, together, hand in hand, we walked toward the tarmac, the sunshine caressing our backs.
Our time was up.