JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. -- The recent decision to open direct combat positions to women in the military has sparked a lot of discussion. One might hear a casual debate at their workplace or favorite restaurant about women's capabilities to perform outside the security of an operating base. While the discussion is popular, it seems unlikely one would hear it debated around members of a U.S. Army Cultural Support Team.
Women have been going on missions as part of all-female cultural support teams, or CSTs, with special forces units in Afghanistan since 2011. For those female Soldiers, after two years of successfully completing missions, a debate regarding their capabilities probably seems outdated.
In fact, one of the reasons CSTs were implemented during deployments is because of the advantages that only come from an all-female element, said 1st Lt. Krista Searle, a Chesterfield, Va., native, and intelligence officer with 1st Battalion (HIMARS), 94th Field Artillery Regiment.
"[The military] found this niche where they see female Soldiers have an impact in establishing relationships with the (Afghan) female population, being able to build trust and talk to them and get kind of an inside look at what's going on in the civilian population," Searle said.
Searle is one of two Soldiers with 1-94 FA going through the selection process required to join a CST.
Sgt. Emmy Pollock, a Yates Center, Kan., native, and healthcare specialist with Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 1-94 FA, is the second Soldier from the "Deep Steel" battalion going through the CST selection process this month.
Pollock already attended CST selection when she volunteered in 2012 during a deployment to Kuwait. While she wasn't chosen to be part of a CST, she got a better understanding of what it takes to be selected.
Pollock previously focused on being physically fit and learning about the Afghan female population. With confidence high in those areas, she shifted her studies and explored how a CST fits into the big picture of counterinsurgency operations.
"I think that they're looking for very professional Soldiers, which they should be, " said Pollock.
"It's a high-visibility team, so they're looking for someone they know will represent them in the right light. Throughout different parts of the [first] selection course, I probably didn't present myself in that way," she continued. "So, this year, I feel I have a better idea of what they're looking for, focusing on just being a professional."
Armed with new knowledge, more experience as a Soldier and a recent promotion to sergeant, Pollock hopes she's developed the professional image it takes to make the cut.
Searle, on the other hand, was required to quickly develop professional qualities during her deployment to Kuwait in 2011 as a platoon leader for a high mobility artillery rocket system platoon. While she said the tour was relatively uneventful, it gave her time to train with her Soldiers and learn firsthand how to operate on assignment.
"When we were deployed, we did a lot of resourcing and communicating with outside units. It made me see that the Army is a lot like a family, just being able to communicate and build relationships with people you've never met before I think will benefit me in the selection process," she said.
Searle's experiences during deployment allowed her to grow as a leader and a member of a team. With those qualities instilled, she concentrated heavily on physical training and research of Afghan female culture during her preparation for selection.
Being able to physically keep up with Special Forces Soldiers is an unavoidable necessity for anyone in a CST, and one that Searle understands. When she played on the softball team for University of North Carolina at Wilmington, her coach helped her realize she could push herself physically, more than she ever tried before. That realization led her to train to a level where she could best contribute to her team, a concept she continued to follow in preparation for selection.
In addition to exercising twice a day, Searle immersed herself in literature and documentaries about Afghan culture, women and history.
While she was initially interested in volunteering for CST as a challenge and a new experience, her research has increased her aspiration to help Afghan women.
"Now that I've done more reading and I understand more of what women go through in Afghanistan, just being able to communicate and assist over there I think would be very eye opening and rewarding," Searle said.
Similarly, Pollock initially looked into volunteering for the CST course as a way to challenge herself, but realized new goals after working toward her application.
"The women in these villages are seeing [a CST member] as a respected female, educated, with a job, so just by being there I think it's making a difference," Pollock said.
But Pollock said she wants to go beyond that; she wants to make significant contributions to a CST and its mission to improve life in general for the Afghan population.
"I don't want to just make the team and be able to keep up physically or mentally," she said. "It would be a really cool thing if I was actually an asset to a team, as a CST member."