Story and photo by Capt. Saska Ball
U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne)
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - “I packed up my whole life. It’s all in storage right now so, if I didn’t make it through selection, I was literally not going back to anything,” said Staff Sgt. Rachel Fisher of the 448th Civil Affairs Battalion based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., and resident of Anacortes, Wash.
Fischer was one of 85 soldiers, and one of four with the United States Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne), who went through a 10-day assessment and selection process for a chance to attend a female-only program taught by the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School located here.
In its sixth class iteration, the Cultural Support Team program fills an important role within the Army’s special operations community.
“The CST course was developed to fill a need and requirement that two units essentially had,” said Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Barnes, CST Chief Instructor. “One being for the direct action assets, or surgical strike teams. The Ranger Regiment needed females on the battlefield to search women and children when they went into the objective. The other side, the special warfare side, the village stability operations, Special Forces groups and Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command needed females to interact with the female populace.”
Fischer first heard about the CST program from a fellow soldier while she was working as a subject matter expert at the civil affairs reclassification course in early 2012.
In November 2012, after obtaining her master’s degree in conflict archeology at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, she returned to the U.S. and applied for the CST program.
“They tell you it’s a physically demanding course and to be prepared mentally but they don’t tell you what to do,” said Fischer. “I kind of went with what I knew I needed to improve on personally, which was PT [physical training], and kept an open mind about everything else.”
In anticipation for the physically and mentally challenging selection process, Fischer prepared by hitting the gym for two hours a day and doing online army courses.
“I did a lot of PT! Mobility, cardio and regular strength training,” she said. “I read up a lot on the basic soldier skills and just knowledge about Afghanistan. I don’t think I could have prepared any differently.”
Out of the 85 that showed up for assessment and selection, only 37 were selected to attend the five-week cultural support training course.
“Going to selection was the first time I walked into a situation and couldn’t really prepare for it but you knew it was something that was going to test everything you had,” Fischer said. “Passing selection was the moment I said, ‘Wow! I can really do this!’”
Following assessment and selection, Fischer and the other females chosen to attend the CST training course began the classroom portion where they were taught everything it takes to be a successful member of a CST.
The CST training focused on the duties of a cultural support specialist, which is primarily engaging with the local population. The foundation of the CST training is built upon providing an understanding of human behavior, an appreciation for Islamic and Afghan culture and the role and history of women in Afghanistan.
In the classroom they learned about their role as a SOF enabler, their mission, how to use an interpreter, conduct tactical questioning, and become an adaptive thinker. Outside of the classroom they became familiar with the M4 carbine rifle, M9 pistol, medical training, how to conduct searches of people and buildings and moving as a team.
“My civil affairs experience has helped me a lot,” said Fischer. “I’ve had previous experience using interpreters, both good and bad. It has also helped a lot interacting with other cultures because I’ve done a lot of sit down meetings and interacting with people when I was deployed to Iraq. I’ve learned how to maneuver around different cultures, politics and religious views and still at the same time accomplish the mission.”
Aside from bringing her personal experience to help her through the course and applying what she learned from the classroom portion, there are also subject matter experts assigned to the CST program to provide assistance and real world experience.
“We’re here to basically give them an understanding of what we did downrange and some of our tactics, techniques and procedures that actually worked for us and different ways we were able to engage the population, whether it be male, female or adolescent,” said Master Sgt. Susan Letendre, who was a graduate of the fourth CST course and who recently returned from a deployment where she was attached to two operational detachment alpha teams in Afghanistan.
The final portion of the CST course is a comprehensive field training exercise.
“For the past few days we’ve been running through the surgical strike and special warfare lanes being tested on the skills we’ve learned so far,” said Fischer. “Basically it’s about building rapport and gathering information. They give us targeted goals and we try to achieve those goals within a time limit without insulting the people and their culture.”
“Staff Sgt. Fisher is one of my students,” said Sgt. 1st Class John Walker, CST team 2 small group instructor. “She’s doing very well. She’s taking what she knows as a 38B, civil affairs specialist and applying it to the scenarios along with her 68W, health care specialist background. She’s taking all of her skill sets and applying them into the course.”
Upon completion of the CST course, soldiers are awarded a professional development skill identifier and title of cultural support specialist. Those selected for a deployment are chosen to support one of two missions. They can be attached to a Ranger element to support the surgical strike teams or to a Special Forces element to support the special warfare mission.
Fischer completed and graduated the CST course, becoming only one of 13 female soldiers in the Army Reserve, and one of three in USACAPOC(A) to hold that distinct honor. She was selected for the Special Forces mission and will return to Fort Bragg, N.C., this fall to complete pre-mobilization training with 3rd Special Forces Group, followed by a deployment to Afghanistan.
“It’s been a great experience,” said Fischer. “It’s been really challenging but fun at the same time. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve improved on skills and learned whole new ones. I can’t wait to put them into play.”