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Norway’s “Hunter Troop” The World’s First All-Female Special Forces

In the spring of 2014, Tora, a 20-year-old living in Norway, received a letter from the armed forces inviting her to try out for Jegertroppen, or the Hunter Troop, a new Special Forces unit and the world’s first all-female military training program. Tora, who had recently graduated from high school and had, out of interest in a military career, visited an armed forces open day, did not hesitate to apply. “I had been waiting for the armed forces to come up with a tougher specialty for girls,” she explained.

Norway, along with Israel, opened combat positions to women in 1985, but only 10 percent of its soldiers are female. Before 1985, women served only in support functions such as medics and engineers. For special operations, the number of female members is still zero: the country’s Special Forces is open to women, but few had applied and none had passed the admissions test. The lack of women has limited the Special Forces’ effectiveness in international operations. “In Afghanistan, one of our big challenges was that we would enter houses and not be able to speak to the women,” explained Captain Ole Vidar Krogsaeter, an officer with Norway’s Special Forces Operations. “In urban warfare, you have to be able to interact with women as well. Adding female soldiers was an operational need.”

Technological advances in weaponry are partly to blame for the low participation rate among women. “Soldiers carry more weight now than during the Vietnam War, primarily because their protective gear is heavier,” Colonel Linda Sheimo, the chief of the U.S. Army Command Policy Division and the former chair of the NATO Committee on Gender Perspectives, told me. In Afghanistan, for example, U.S. infantry soldiers typically carry 70 to 100 pounds of gear and equipment, much of which is lifesaving body armor. A decade ago, the U.S. Marine Corps, after noticing the large number of pelvic fractures suffered by women in its officer candidate school, calculated that the average female officer cadet was being asked to carry 58 percent of her body weight, compared with 40 percent for the average male cadet. And a study released by the Marine Corps last year reported that when negotiating over walls, “male Marines threw their packs to the top of the wall, whereas female Marines required regular assistance in getting their packs to the top.”

It’s no surprise, then, that of the women who join the military in Norway and other countries whose armed forces are now fully gender-integrated, so few are combat troops. For its part, Jegertroppen has pushed for a different admissions process for female candidates. Of the 317 women who applied for Jegertroppen’s initial class, only 88 (including Tora) passed the admissions test. After the exam, its members endured a grueling 10-month-long training in urban combat, counterterrorism operations, survival skills, and operations behind enemy lines.

Although the Special Forces Command has made some concessions—Jegertroppen members carry 60-pound backpacks instead of the 88-pound ones male Special Forces carry—the women face physical demands similar to those required of male Special Forces soldiers. For example, Tora and her Jegertroppen teammates had to operate for days without a meal. “We learned that we were capable of more than we thought,” Tora said. “It was really exciting to have to survive without food.”

Only 13 trainees made it to the end of Jegertroppen’s yearlong course, with most of them having failed or left voluntarily. But the high dropout rate is not unusual. According to the armed forces, the male Special Forces units have a similar attrition rate.

So far, Jegertroppen’s soldiers have excelled individually and as a team. “They work extremely systematically and conscientiously, and as a result they often get things done faster than male soldiers,” said Reichelt. “If that’s related to nature or nurture is hard to tell, but it’s the outcome.”

Tora agreed. “Everyone contributed. When I hit the wall, the others helped, and I did the same for them.”

Colonel Frode Kristoffersen, commander of the Special Forces, pointed out that Jegertroppen’s soldiers excelled in particular areas. They displayed superior shooting and observational skills, for example. Jegertroppen, initially a one-year pilot program, is likely to be extended for another three years.

Technological advances in weaponry are partly to blame for the low participation rate among women. “Soldiers carry more weight now than during the Vietnam War, primarily because their protective gear is heavier,” Colonel Linda Sheimo, the chief of the U.S. Army Command Policy Division and the former chair of the NATO Committee on Gender Perspectives, told me. In Afghanistan, for example, U.S. infantry soldiers typically carry 70 to 100 pounds of gear and equipment, much of which is lifesaving body armor. A decade ago, the U.S. Marine Corps, after noticing the large number of pelvic fractures suffered by women in its officer candidate school, calculated that the average female officer cadet was being asked to carry 58 percent of her body weight, compared with 40 percent for the average male cadet. And a study released by the Marine Corps last year reported that when negotiating over walls, “male Marines threw their packs to the top of the wall, whereas female Marines required regular assistance in getting their packs to the top.”

It’s no surprise, then, that of the women who join the military in Norway and other countries whose armed forces are now fully gender-integrated, so few are combat troops. For its part, Jegertroppen has pushed for a different admissions process for female candidates. Of the 317 women who applied for Jegertroppen’s initial class, only 88 (including Tora) passed the admissions test. After the exam, its members endured a grueling 10-month-long training in urban combat, counterterrorism operations, survival skills, and operations behind enemy lines.

Although the Special Forces Command has made some concessions—Jegertroppen members carry 60-pound backpacks instead of the 88-pound ones male Special Forces carry—the women face physical demands similar to those required of male Special Forces soldiers. For example, Tora and her Jegertroppen teammates had to operate for days without a meal. “We learned that we were capable of more than we thought,” Tora said. “It was really exciting to have to survive without food.”

Only 13 trainees made it to the end of Jegertroppen’s yearlong course, with most of them having failed or left voluntarily. But the high dropout rate is not unusual. According to the armed forces, the male Special Forces units have a similar attrition rate.

So far, Jegertroppen’s soldiers have excelled individually and as a team. “They work extremely systematically and conscientiously, and as a result they often get things done faster than male soldiers,” said Reichelt. “If that’s related to nature or nurture is hard to tell, but it’s the outcome.”

Tora agreed. “Everyone contributed. When I hit the wall, the others helped, and I did the same for them.”

Colonel Frode Kristoffersen, commander of the Special Forces, pointed out that Jegertroppen’s soldiers excelled in particular areas. They displayed superior shooting and observational skills, for example. Jegertroppen, initially a one-year pilot program, is likely to be extended for another three years.

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