The True Story of the First Woman to Finish Special Forces Training

The True Story of the First Woman to Finish Special Forces Training

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On Tuesday, The Times reported that a National Guard soldier was set to become the Army’s first female Green Beret since the Pentagon’s opening of all combat jobs to women in 2016. She’ll be the first woman in history to finish the yearlong qualification course and be assigned to a Special Forces operational detachment. But 40 years earlier, another woman passed the course and fought for her right to be recognized.

Her name is Kate Wilder.

In 1980, when Wilder, then an intelligence officer, entered the U.S. Army Special Forces Officer Course, she had already been serving in the special-operations community for four years. It was normal for soldiers serving in her position to go through the course back then.

Wilder got an intelligence-officer job with the Fifth Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg in North Carolina in 1978 because she had the one qualification that was required: She was a graduate of the Airborne School. As a jump-qualified military intelligence officer, Wilder was sent to the John F. Kennedy Institute for Military Assistance at Fort Bragg and assigned as its adjutant. She quickly learned the ins and outs of all the Army’s regulations regarding special operations, and found nothing stating that Special Forces training was male-only.

So she applied. And after a long fight, she started the Special Forces Officer Course in 1980. Though she passed every single graded event, the head of the school called her into his office the day before graduation and told her she would not be graduating. Wilder was livid, and she fought back. The Army conducted an investigation, and in 1981, about six months after she finished the course, she was assigned the “5 Golf” code for Special Forces officers and sent a certificate of graduation backdated to Aug. 21, 1980. At this point, Wilder had left Fifth Special Forces Group. The Army said if she returned to a Special Forces unit, she would do so as a Green Beret. “Capt. Wilder, if assigned to a Special Forces unit, will be entitled to wear a Green Beret with the full-flash emblem when serving as a Special Forces officer,” an Army spokesman told UPI in February 1981.

Army regulations were changed after Wilder graduated, explicitly barring other women from attending the course — until 2016, when all combat jobs were formally opened to women.

Wilder never returned to a Special Forces unit. She eventually transferred to the reserve, where she retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2003 after 28 years of service. She proudly wore her Special Forces tab for the remainder of her career.

The Times called her on Wednesday night, and she had not yet heard the recent news of the servicewoman about to finish Special Forces qualification training, but she was happy to recount her own story.

Why did you join the Army?

The young man I was engaged to was drafted and killed in Vietnam. That was in 1969. Fast forward to the 1970s after college — I got very involved in the Equal Rights Amendment movement in New Orleans. One day I went to a local television station to respond to someone who had been on air the day before arguing against the Equal Rights Movement. I said: “You know, not only do we want our equal rights, but we are willing to share our equal responsibilities. And if one of those is the draft, we’ll do it.”

That guy came up to me afterward and said, “You women talk a big line, but I don’t see any of you joining the Army.” I was so mad — but there was truth in what he said. I thought that if I really believed what I professed to believe, I really had to do it before more years went by. Then I talked my sister into joining with me. Our father was a retired colonel in the Army, so I knew the life. He swore us in, and off we went.

At graduation I chose military intelligence for my branch, and got orders for jump school at Fort Benning. I was the first female officer to go through, supposedly. If there was someone who did it before me, I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.

How did you manage to get into the Special Forces Officer Course?

I pushed my way in. I had several jobs over the next four years that didn’t require Special Forces training, but most people in those jobs had gone through the course and were S.F.-qualified. Then I was picked by the head of the Fifth Special Forces Group to be his intelligence officer.

After about a year in the job, I put an application through, and it was denied. However, I’d found that nowhere did it say it was a male-only course, so I tracked down the office at the Pentagon in charge of Special Forces training, and I told them I was filling a spot that required knowledge of Special Forces, which I needed training for. At the time the combat-exclusion policy was in place barring servicewomen from any unit or job that was going to war. I told them in my paperwork that the policy did not apply in this case. I wasn’t asking for a job in a combat unit, I was just looking for a slot in an Army school, and I didn’t think anyone in a school was being shot at by an enemy.

How was the course?

Once I was in the S.F. school, the head of the school really wanted me out. Most of the instructors wanted me out. They were so against this thing. When it came to doing rucksack marches, my team was the only one forced to do rucksack runs — and this was in the summer with the temperature high enough that runs like that weren’t supposed to be allowed.

There’s a point in time where you’re doing physical stuff where you just want to fall out from exhaustion. Whenever your physical ability goes away, there’s something about the will to say, “I will not drop out.”

One day before a rucksack run I heard the head of the school tell my instructors that he didn’t want to see me with my formation when they finished. They didn’t do that kind of thing to the guys, but there were no rules when it came to me. The run was so bad that one of my team’s instructors, a sergeant who had served in Vietnam, dropped out. But I didn’t. I remember saying: “Dear God, let me die. But don’t let me drop out.” Things never got better.

The day before graduation, the head of the school called me into his office and told me I failed the last part of training — a field exercise called Robin Sage, where students have to raise and lead a guerrilla army. I argued that I had not failed, and I didn’t back down. He handed me a new instruction he had written that said if a student failed Robin Sage, they failed the course. My instructors had told me I passed Robin Sage, but he kicked me out anyway.

I went to the graduation ceremony anyway, and sat in the back behind my classmates. After several people came over and asked me why I wasn’t with my class, a row of women sitting in front of me turned around and said. “We don’t know what happened, but we’re with you.” They were secretaries at Bragg.

A JAG officer on base helped me file a complaint against the commander. There was an investigation, and the head of the XVIII Airborne Corps knew from the beginning that I was dealt a raw deal. The four-star head of Training and Doctrine Command wrote to me months later and told me that I had in fact graduated. He informed me that I had been assigned the “5 Golf” code for Special Forces-qualified officers, and I later received a diploma backdated to my graduation day.

Were the standards relaxed for you at all?

Not in my class. If anything, the physical standards were tightened up, and it was geared strictly at me. The rules in place were firmly enforced. I was the real McCoy. I was not the Ladies Auxiliary Special Forces.

When the S.F. course ended, I was about a month from my regular rotation to a new job anyway. I took orders to an advanced intelligence course in Arizona, and later went to Germany. A few years later when I was there, the commander of VII Corps came to tell me that the Army had created the Special Forces tab — like the Ranger tab. He told me I qualified, so I bought one and sewed it on.

What do you make of the people online who want to take away from what you accomplished?

I spent a lifetime with these jerks. We’re so far beyond the 1980s, and yet it seems to me that they have a fixation about me. I don’t get what it is. I think: My God, you guys, get a life!

What are your thoughts now that another woman is set to graduate from the course?

I’m absolutely thrilled. This is exactly what I wanted my accomplishment to bring about 40 years ago. When I went through that course and graduated, I was hoping that this would open the doors to other women. Unfortunately, it has taken 40 years to finally happen.

In this week’s account from “Beyond the World War II We Know,” a series from The Times that documents lesser-known stories from World War II, Joseph Shannon remembers being stationed aboard the SS Robert L. Vann, a Merchant Marine transport ship, when the ship struck an underwater mine in March 1945. Read his story here.

At least 133 pro-government forces and 53 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan so far this month. [Read the report.]

That’s the estimated number of women in Herat Women’s Prison in Afghanistan who have been charged with and in some cases found guilty of murdering their husbands. The Iranian-Canadian photographer Kiana Hayeri captured life behind bars for these women in a photo essay published by the magazine this week. Many of them felt more free in prison than they did in their own marriages. In a country where just 18 percent of documented murders of women led to legal action against the perpetrator, these prisoners took their future into their own hands. See the photo essay here with text by May Jeong.

Here are five articles from The Times that you might have missed.

“It would degrade the standard of training if the U.S. left.” The Pentagon and the State Department are sending mixed messages about reducing America’s presence in a region bloodied by terrorist violence. [Read the article.]

“We will not leave the blood of our brave soldiers on the ground.” Turkey vowed on Friday to resist further aggression against its troops in northwestern Syria, a day after Russian or Syrian air and artillery strikes killed 33 Turkish soldiers, bringing Russia and Turkey close to open conflict. [Read the article.]

A truce in Afghanistan is prompting introspection. “Who is it on the other side?” mused a 15-year veteran of intimate warfare. “They are not even from a different district.” [Read the article.]

“I just want my children to feel warm.” Nearly a million Syrians have fled toward the border with Turkey over the past three months. Iman Leila, just 18 months old, was one of nine children who died of exposure in recent weeks. [Read the article.]

“We had them practice on themselves so they would know what it felt like.” Testimony at Guantánamo Bay shows that C.I.A. black sites, where some detainees were tortured, amounted to test labs for unproven techniques, with shifting rules shaping operations. [Read the article.]

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