An Air Force captain on Thursday became the service’s first female special tactics officer, donning the elite red beret after completing a grueling three-month training course.
Her journey to become a commando has sparked controversy over the past six months about how the Air Force enforces its most stringent training standards and whether she has enjoyed unfair flexibility while going through the pipeline.
The complaints began in January with an anonymous letter from a member of the special tactics community that was posted on social media, garnering widespread attention among defense watchers and in Congress. An Air Force inspector general investigation, published June 7, disputed those claims.
Air Force Times is not publishing the woman’s name in order to protect her privacy. The service is also keeping mum despite the historic nature of her accomplishment.
The beret ceremony marked the end of the woman’s second attempt at finishing the special tactics officer apprentice course (also known as Combat Control School) — a program that covers skills like land navigation, parachuting and assault zone reconnaissance — held at Pope Army Airfield, North Carolina.
The woman quit during a solo land navigation course on her first time through the course in 2021, but was allowed to try again this year. Air Force Times previously reported that screenshots of trainee records indicated the woman was struggling in some activities after she returned to Pope on March 31.
“On [April 12], you exhibited a failure to train by falling out of the land navigation formation ruck,” according to instructor comments obtained by Air Force Times. They note that she “failed to maintain an 18:30-minute-per-mile average pace.”
The comments argued that the female airman lacked motivation after she lagged behind the group, even after trying to lead the team.
“I do not believe this is a drive issue, but do concur this is a physical fitness issue,” the woman answered. “Can be mitigated by strength. Don’t believe this is an aerobic capacity issue.”
The Air Force declined to comment on those concerns.
“Due to operational security concerns, we will not disclose personal information or discuss future assignment or training details. … She has about 9-12 months of STO-specific training left to go,” Air Force spokesperson Capt. Savannah Stephens said Friday.
The female airman, whose background is in cyber operations, will head to an advanced skills course that hones airmen’s ability to parachute and dive, to coordinate airstrikes with helicopters and fixed-wing planes, and to conduct reconnaissance in the field.
Meanwhile, the Air Force will decide which operational unit the woman will join.
Special tactics is the Air Force’s name for commando jobs spanning combat controllers, pararescuemen and special reconnaissance airmen, who are all led by special tactics officers. It’s a small cohort within the far larger Air Force Special Operations Command, comprising roughly 1,000 operators, and is the service’s most decorated community since the Vietnam War.
The IG report into alleged favoritism found that leaders did not specifically lower qualification standards to benefit the woman.
However, the report said, an effort to capitalize on the airman’s unique perspective did afford her more access to senior leaders than most other trainees have. She was able to restart training multiple times since 2018 because of loopholes in, or favorable interpretations, of the rules, which it noted can also happen to male candidates.
The Air Force has said it would codify the steps that an airman must take to return to training after quitting.
Attempts to resolve conflicting fitness standards within the broader special warfare community, making some exercises slightly less difficult, further complicated matters.
Those updates are part of an attempt to modernize special operations and make airmen’s training curriculum more relevant to their everyday work. But some attributed the changes to her presence.
“I believe the change in standards invalidated me with a majority of my team,” the woman said in comments previously reported by Air Force Times. “We were not told any standards, and I lifted 250 lbs. Since I passed, they believed the standards had been bent for me.”
AFSOC and Air Education and Training Command “continue to work together to ensure the training pipeline meets the demands of what we need for the operator of today and into the future,” Stephens said.
Four other women are currently progressing through special warfare training as well. Two are also special tactics officer candidates, one is an enlisted special reconnaissance candidate and another is an enlisted tactical air control party candidate.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.