Beyond the Call

Three Women on the Front Lines in Afghanistan


By Eileen Rivers

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A riveting account of three women who fought shoulder-to-shoulder with men and worked with local women to restore their lives and push back the Taliban

They marched under the heat with 40-pound rucksacks on their backs. They fired weapons out of the windows of military vehicles, defending their units in deadly battles. And they did things that their male counterparts could never do–gather intelligence on the Taliban from the women of Afghanistan. As females they could circumvent Muslim traditions and cultivate relationships with Afghan women who were bound by tradition not to speak with American military men. And their work in local villages helped empower Afghan women, providing them with the education and financial tools necessary to rebuild their nation–and the courage to push back against the insurgency that wanted to destroy it. For the women warriors of the military’s Female Engagement Teams (FET) it was dangerous, courageous, and sometimes heartbreaking work.

Beyond the Call follows the groundbreaking journeys of three women as they first fight military brass and culture and then enemy fire and tradition. And like the men with whom they served, their battles were not over when they returned home.




Cannonball fire burst through the trees, and Private Robert Shurtleff felt the ground shake.

It was dark. Shurtleff ducked and lifted his arms to shield his face from the mounds of dirt flying through the air. He looked quickly to his left and watched Diston, a man he had grown close to in just a few months, begin to fall. Shurtleff wanted to lunge across the mud to save him, but enemy fire stopped the private from moving. Instead, he watched Diston’s lifeless body fall atop one of many others, Continental and British alike, scattered across the Revolutionary War battlefield.

Shurtleff was tough—lauded as one of the fastest, strongest, and most capable men in his scouting unit. He could read, a rarity in eighteenth-century America. He was the first to volunteer for dangerous missions. His fellow soldiers playfully called him Molly because of what they thought were slightly feminine characteristics—he had no facial hair and tended to shy away from the wrestling and roughhousing that other men participated in during brief moments of free time in the field.

It was 1782.

And what none of those soldiers knew was that the man everyone called Shurtleff, the one they loyally and fiercely followed into battle, was actually a woman.

Deborah Sampson was the first female known to have fought in an American war. She tried, but failed, to enlist twice (under different male monikers) before she perfected her ability to pass under the name Robert Shurtleff. Her work during the Revolutionary War proves that women have been capable of fighting in combat for the United States since the first group of men set boots to muddy ground for American freedom.


1775–1783: Although women are not allowed to join the military, not all females who believe in the quest for America’s freedom are as extreme in their desire for combat as Deborah Sampson. Hundreds of women serve openly during the American Revolution—not as soldiers but as civilian nurses, water carriers, cooks, spies, and in other support roles. Some follow their husbands to battle. Sampson’s actions, passing as a man, are illegal during the Revolution, and dozens of women are jailed for attempting it. A doctor discovers that Sampson is a woman after the private is shot and requires a long hospital stay. She is kicked out of the military and has to fight for years, with the help of her husband and other men, to get acknowledged for her service through a military pension.


1861–1865: Still unable to serve in the military but surely having heard about the work and accolades of Deborah Sampson (who became a brand, was the subject of at least one book, and toured the country lecturing about her experiences as a soldier), hundreds of women disguise themselves as men to fight in combat for both the Union and the Confederacy. As slave men sign up to fight for their freedom, slave women follow. Cathay Williams, a slave from Missouri, is forced to serve the Union Army as a cook. After her service was over, she disguises herself as a man (under the name William Cathay) and becomes a Buffalo Soldier. She is the only known ex-slave woman to have done so. She fought successfully for two years before a doctor discovered she was a woman and she was discharged. The Army refused to recognize her service or give her a pension.


1901: After three years of hiring female nurses as government contractors, the Army finally enlists its first group of women. In 1901 nurses become part of the regular Army. They are hired for three-year stints but are not allowed to become officers.

1908: The Navy establishes a nurse corps.


1914–1918: Some estimate more than thirty-five thousand women serve in the military during the war, with more than twenty-five thousand serving overseas throughout Europe as, among other things, nurses, secretaries, and phone operators.


1939–1945: These years saw some of the most significant advancements in military service for women. More than one hundred thousand women enlist in the Army, and roles for women expand for the first time under the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, created in 1942. Some female pilots take on stateside missions usually reserved for men through the newly created Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). But nursing is still by far the most popular military occupation for women. More than sixty thousand nurses serve during the war. Black women, who had been fighting for years to serve as nurses, are finally allowed to join the Army Nurse Corps in greater numbers. African American women also make other strides during the war. Heard of the Tuskegee Airmen? A woman, Willa Brown, aids the group. Brown started an aviation school with her husband and trained male pilots to qualify for advanced flying school at the Tuskegee Institute. Another black female pilot, Janet Bragg, trained at the Tuskegee Institute with male pilots. She was the only woman there and experienced a tremendous amount of discrimination from white and black men alike. A white male instructor failed her on the flight examination, Bragg said much later when recounting the experience during an interview with the Smithsonian Institution. She said the instructor told her after she landed the plane that she’d done as well as any man, but that he’d never given a colored woman a license to fly, and he didn’t intend to start that day. A racially segregated Army also denied the commercial pilot entry into the WASPs.

1948: Three years after the war ended, regular and reserve Army status is officially opened to all women.

The Women’s Armed Service Integration Act creates a female reserve for the Army, Air Force, and Marines. Six years earlier, the Navy Women’s Reserve Act created the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service).


1950: Female soldiers enter a combat theater for the first time as Army nurses, the only women allowed to do so during the war.

1951: Female reservists are forced into active duty for the first time.

1953: Fae M. Adams becomes the first female physician commissioned as an officer in the regular Army Medical Corps, as a first lieutenant.


1960–1973: Women serve in Vietnam as nurses training the South Vietnamese as early as 1956. By 1967 some five hundred thousand American troops, men and women, are on the ground in Vietnam. But the first female officer from the Women’s Army Corps actually landed in the country five years before that. By the end of the war about eleven thousand women (mostly nurses) had been stationed in the conflict zone. Just as during World War II decades earlier, the need for troops forces a boon in progress for women in the armed forces. By 1972 all noncombat jobs are opened to women, and women are allowed, for the first time, to command men. Nearly sixty thousand troops died as a result of the Vietnam War and eight of them were women. In 1967 rules for retirement and promotion are opened to female officers in all branches.

1970S AND 1980S

1976: Enlistment age is reduced for women.

1979: For the first time men and women have the same qualifications for enlistment. The Women’s Army Corps, no longer needed, was officially disbanded the year before. Women have been integrated into the regular Army and reserves for about thirty years.

1980: First women graduate from West Point.

1983: Four female military police officers deploy to an active combat zone; eventually one hundred women serve in Grenada. Females fly for the first time in conflict.

1988: Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci issues a Standard Risk Rule that “excluded women from noncombat units or missions if the risks of exposure to direct combat, hostile fire or capture were equal to or greater than the risk in the units they supported.” Six years later Defense Secretary Les Aspin rescinds the rule, allowing women to serve in any units except those “below brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.” This 1994 directive sets women up to serve in combat zones without acknowledging their combat roles through pay or title.

1989: Captain Linda Bray leads her military police unit on what is supposed to be a routine mission to capture a kennel of guard dogs in Panama. But when her unit arrives, members of the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF), which had been using the location as barracks, open fire. Bray tells her soldiers to return fire, becoming the first woman to command and lead a unit into battle. Bray and her thirty soldiers (both men and women) of the 988th Military Police Company fight for three hours during the December battle, which was on day one of the US invasion of Panama. The unit kills three PDF soldiers. Bray’s work, although applauded (not one American soldier died), forces public discussion about whether there is still a distinction between combat and noncombat units (tactical military police companies are supposed to fall into the latter category) during conflict. It is the first time the military questions whether “frontlines” still exist or shield women from direct combat.


1990–1991: The first war after which military commanders admitted that women were critical to combat readiness, the Persian Gulf War is also the first that openly diverges from conventional definitions of frontlines. Guerilla warfare puts the forty thousand women who serve at greater risk of injury and death. It is the first modern-day war in which women were held hostage—Major Rhonda Cornum and Specialist Melissa Coleman are held for a week and thirty-three days, respectively, as Iraqi prisoners of war. For the first time women take on virtually all combat roles in every way but name. They fly helicopters into combat, launch missiles, and command male soldiers.


1993: President Bill Clinton officially ends the exclusion of women on aircraft and ships that carry out combat missions, though women had already flown aircraft into combat zones.

1994: A shift in Department of Defense (DOD) assignment policy—one that had given units some leeway in assigning women based on billeting availability and physical requirements—opens some thirty-two thousand Army and forty-eight thousand Marine positions to women.

The Army chief of staff announces that all Army basic training will fully gender integrate. A gender-integration steering committee begins making recommendations for smooth transitions of all basic training units.

1994–1995: The Army once again begins experimenting with gender integration in basic training after initial experiments in the 1980s failed. Men and women participate in mixed-gender basic training classes for the first time in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

1998: The first woman takes command of a Navy combat ship.


2001–PRESENT: As combat roles for women have expanded, so has the necessity for women to fight. More than 11 percent of the forces deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have been women, and most of these women have served more than one tour.

2003–2004: The first group of women, known as Team Lioness, form a female engagement team that serves in Ar Ramadi, Iraq. The women, with little to no combat training, engage in firefights and are assigned to combat missions with male infantry units. The group of twenty women follow infantry units into battle to search and question Iraqi females, becoming an integral part of intelligence collection.

2005: Two women establish themselves as early heroes of the war in Iraq. Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester, of the Kentucky National Guard 617th Military Police Company, earns a Silver Star for valor in combat after leading military police officers in a counterattack against fifty insurgents who attacked their convoy. Specialist Ashley J. Pullen, of the same Kentucky National Guard unit, earns a Bronze Star for bravery.

2007: RAND National Defense Research Institute releases a report in which it states that both the Army and DOD policies that delineate when and how women can serve in combat and noncombat units are ambiguous and hard to understand. In Iraq, the report says, it seemed as if the Army was complying with some policies and not others and that some personnel were concerned that strictly following protocol would keep women out of operations in Iraq and hurt the Army’s mission. In other words, military personnel on all levels were defying the rules of engagement to use women in combat, as they knew women were mission critical. But without an official rules change, women are still not getting credit for combat duty. The RAND report states, “In many ways, the language and concepts in the current policy for assigning women do not seem well suited to the type of operations taking place in Iraq. The focus on a defined enemy and the linear battlefield… is inappropriate to Iraq.”

2009: The Marine Corps adopts the US Army’s Team Lioness program, renaming the groups of women who attach to infantry units female engagement teams (FETs). One of the earliest iterations of the FET program occurs with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment in Farah Province, Afghanistan.

2010: The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services and the Military Leadership Diversity Commission recommend eliminating combat exclusion policies and opening all military career fields and schools to women.

FEBRUARY 2012: The Department of Defense opens thousands of positions to women in all branches of service after striking down a 1990s policy that banned women from collocating with combat units and opening battalion-level positions to women in ground combat units.

NOVEMBER 2012: Marine Captain Zoe Bedell, Marine First Lieutenant Colleen Farrell, Air Force Major Mary Jennings Hegar, and Army Staff Sergeant Jennifer Hunt sue Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to open all combat positions to women.

2013: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff encourages Panetta to end combat exclusion for women.

JANUARY 2015: The Army misses its deadline to open all combat roles to women set by the Obama administration in 2012, though the Navy and Air Force have already opened nearly all combat positions.

AUGUST 2015: First Lieutenant Shaye Haver and Captain Kristen Griest become the first women to graduate from the Army Ranger School.

DECEMBER 2015: Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announces that the Pentagon will open all combat jobs to women by early 2016.

MAY 2017: More than two hundred years after Deborah Sampson, the first American woman to fight in combat, broke the law to defend American independence, eighteen women graduate from the U.S. Army’s infantry basic training, the first women to do so. They meet the same gender-neutral standards as their male counterparts. In a New York Times report Drill Sergeant Joseph Sapp referred to one of his female recruits as a “hoss”—a high compliment. “Forget male-female,” he said. “She’s one of the best in the company. She’s one you’re happy to have.”



If all that has been said by orators and poets since the creation of the world in praise of women were applied to the women of America, it would not do them justice for their conduct during this war.



CAMP DOHA, KUWAIT, 1997, 9 A.M.—A man’s voice—deep, panicked, choppy—cut through the static, and I pressed an old pair of headphones firmly against my ears, straining to catch every word. I translated his Arabic into English as quickly as my pen would allow.

My workstation, a narrow table, sat in front of a large whiteboard that was covered in a jumble of numbers and hurriedly scribbled notes. What looked like random text to most was the vital data that kept our military intelligence mission going—frequencies that allowed us to listen in on the phone conversations of enemy targets and potential terrorist networks.

I was one of five Arabic linguists the Army deployed to Kuwait to gather information. It was years after Desert Storm but only months after Operation Desert Strike—President Bill Clinton’s late 1996 cruise missile and air attack that hit Iraqi radar and communications sites in retaliation for the country’s threats against Kurds to the north. My deployment supported one of many operations that followed Clinton’s decision—operations that gave the US Army the chance to work with and train Kuwaiti forces. Notes from listeners like me were passed on to analysts, and their reports helped infantry units develop missions on the ground. The information could, among other things, give fellow soldiers warnings about the plots and locations of terror suspects. The goal was to help combat fighters head off attacks before they happened.

And until the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, those frontline combat missions would have been carried out almost exclusively by men.

But in 2010 an International Security Assistance Force directive ensured that infantry units brought a key group of women with them. The bands of combat fighters were known as female engagement teams (FETs), and their work has been among the most important in the modern-day campaigns to push insurgent forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Although women had been putting their lives on the line during previous wars, they generally fought as part of the second wave (troops that helped battle residual forces after the most dangerous frontline combat missions were over).

But for FET women, combat was much more gruesome. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and surprise village attacks meant that the frontlines were everywhere. The days of formal standoffs during which nations faced one another on a designated field of battle and fought until one side surrendered were long gone. Battle ready meant that everyone had to be prepared to fight at any time, any place. By 2010, the year female engagement and training became ubiquitous, nearly 130 women had already died as a result of direct combat. Yet there are men who still deny that women can and do fulfill combat missions. That repudiation is like a punch in the gut. It attempts to erase the work and the smarts and the perseverance that sometimes made female contributions harder fought than those of their male colleagues.

In the ground war to win over the hearts, minds, and trust of communities overrun by terrorists, FET women fought in a way that even the most skilled infantrymen in restrictive Muslim countries couldn’t—by gaining intelligence from the countries’ women. Before the FET, attempts by infantrymen to frisk and interrogate Iraqi and Afghan women breached cultural and religious norms and turned friendly villages into enemies.

At the start of both the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, members of Iraqi terror networks along with the Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan took advantage of religious restrictions, hiding important documents—bomb plots and enemy names and phone numbers—on their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters. They used female bodies as objects to harbor terror, slowing down efforts by American troops to pinpoint and destroy enemy targets.

FET women became the American military’s secret—and, in many cases, most effective—weapon.

I spent a year and a half learning Arabic at the military’s Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California. Other service members spent six months learning Spanish, nearly a year learning Russian. We did it so we could listen to targets all over the world. But even in the 1990s my classmates and I knew that methods of intelligence collection desperately needed to evolve. Using radio frequencies to intercept enemy communications was a practice that dated back to World War I. As technology advanced, so did the equipment, but the fundamental practice hadn’t changed: information gathering was mainly conducted by linguists at a distance and focused on listening to enemy combatants. I was often based miles away from my targets and the towns and villages in which the targets operated.

When I entered DLI in 1995 the internet was already being used as a means of terrorism recruitment. Guerilla tactics (a common approach among fractured, nonstate actors) meant that attack plans changed quickly. And that technology to share those plans was no longer limited to phones and radio frequencies. It was clear even then that strategies used by terror networks were shifting much more rapidly than long-held means of amassing and disseminating information about our enemies could handle.

But the FETs circumvented traditional means of intelligence collection used by linguists. With minimal language training (they used translators), they were able to gain information by doing what scientists say for women comes much more naturally than for men—having intimate conversations. They gathered information about terrorist activity not by listening to the enemy but by talking to the people who had observed the enemy most—the women who lived among them, were victims of their violence, and had spent years watching insurgents’ day-to-day activities.

FET members had tea with local village mothers and talked to them about their children and their medical needs. They brought them blankets, clothing, and feminine hygiene products, and they talked to women about when and where insurgents were infiltrating their neighborhoods. They asked whether their children or their neighbors’ children were in danger of recruitment. And in a matter of weeks they would have collected more immediate and actionable information than I would have in months as an Arabic linguist. As a listener, my job was a bit like throwing darts in the dark. I could spend hours, even days listening to targets who yielded no actionable information. Sometimes frequencies that appeared to belong to targets actually didn’t. Other times they did.

But in Afghanistan and Iraq the faces of FET women became the faces of trust. And trusting communities were willing to share information—the most important weapon for defeating any insurgency. Village women who had previously looked at soldiers with suspicion started welcoming FET women into their homes. Unlike their husbands, local women were willing to spill all they knew about the insurgents for fear that their sons would be recruited by them. Most Afghan women didn’t work. They spent days and weeks at a stretch inside their homes watching insurgent groups travel in and out of their communities. They had a wealth of information that their husbands lacked.

FETs picked up vital data about patterns of behavior—the roads insurgents used to enter villages, how long they stayed, when they regularly traveled through towns and when they left, and which boys insurgents attempted to recruit and their methods for doing so. FETs could tell, by observing the women, in which towns the American fight against the insurgents was working and where it wasn’t. Those were details that regular listeners couldn’t always provide. And field interrogators who didn’t have access to women in these Middle Eastern nations were having difficulty gathering the same kinds of information from men.

The moment FET members turned an old model of intelligence collection on its head marked a crucial turning point for the fight against terrorist insurgencies. The women helped build loyalty among villagers who, in some cases, picked up arms to assist the military in driving out terrorist groups. Some village elders went out of their way to help FET members once they saw the positive impact American women were having on local women. Experts in the intelligence community lauded the FETs as one of the primary examples for reshaping methods of information gathering.

FETs were among the last females to fight sexism under an American military system that refused to recognize women as combat soldiers. It was the FETs’ groundbreaking work that ultimately forced the Pentagon to end its big lie: one that denied women had been crossing into enemy territory and fighting US ground wars for decades.

But FET successes came with struggles.

FET programs were clearly making a difference, yet FET women struggled for equal rights and recognition among infantrymen. The military’s hypocritical approach to female recruits—its big lie—has haunted the institution for more than a century. Officers on the ground have always wanted to use the vital skills females provided, but the institution has rarely given women the protection, credit, and compensation they deserve. Even after the government opened full enlistment to females in the regular Army in 1948, it took another twenty years for women to get equal promotion and retirement benefits. By that time women had served as Army nurses and worked overseas as bilingual telephone operators as part of the Army Signal Corps. They went to Vietnam as early as 1956 but weren’t required to learn to shoot weapons for another two decades.

Military hypocrisy has gotten worse as the roles of women have expanded beyond operating rooms and onto battlefields. By the time FETs landed in Iraq and Afghanistan, institutional hypocrisy had reached its climax. FET women endured public comments that denied women were in combat and exclaimed they didn’t deserve to be. All the while women were committing acts of heroism that saved fellow soldiers from the rubble of IED blasts and defended men in infantry units during days-long firefights. And after the battles were over, some FETs were still denied the supplies needed to fulfill female engagement missions.


CAMP DOHA, KUWAIT, 1997, 6 A.M.—Flooding had begun 0n Camp Doha.

I made my way down the front steps of the warehouse where my team slept and headed toward the shower trailers located about a hundred feet away. The faint desert sun broke the coolness of the morning, and I felt a rush of warmth hit my skin as floodwaters bounced against my calves.

I looked to the right where, miles away, soldiers lived and worked in the kabal—a place that, as an Army linguist, I had only heard about and witnessed secondhand. I learned, since my arrival on the base, that it was rough: an area where men and women regularly got caught in sandstorms and fought harsh fifty-seven-mile-per-hour winds. The soldiers conducted training missions with Kuwaiti forces just fifty miles from Iraq’s border.

I had made the same morning trek from warehouse to trailer every day for weeks. But three days after the floods, the trek ended differently.


  • "A riveting story about three remarkable women soldiers and the incredible impact their service as a Female Engagement Team (FET) had on the war efforts in Afghanistan. They were able to win the trust of Afghan women and children, restoring faith in the future and improving quality of life...all this while still doing the heavy lifting required of a United States soldier in combat."--General Ann Dunwoody(U.S. Army, Ret.), author of A Higher Standard
  • "A compelling story, too long untold. Eileen Rivers reveals the power of women--of women in the U.S. military in Afghanistan, playing a crucial role in intelligence gathering that was impossible for their male counterparts. And the power of the Afghan women with whom they forged a bond. For the Afghan women, the war isn't over, of course. And the American women faced battles of their own when they got home. If you start reading Eileen Rivers's book, you won't be able to stop. Some of it will make you angry. Much of it will make you proud."--Susan Page, Washington Bureau Chief, USA TODAY
  • "Today, women are on the front lines of our nation's wars all over the globe. Yet little has been written about them or the struggles they endure--both on and off the battlefield. Until now. Eileen Rivers's account of three women who served in Afghanistan is both a gripping narrative and a sharp analysis of a historic cultural shift in our nation's military. We owe it to the men and women who serve in our armed forces to understand this pressing issue. This book is a great place to start."--Jim Michaels, author of A Chance in Hell: The Men Who Triumphed Over Iraq's Deadliest City and Turned the Tide of War
  • "[The] story of the fight for women's rights in a country where the male power structure opposes them...Compelling. The author's own military experience gives the book a perspective that is especially useful. A solid, fact-filled look at an underreported piece of the American military."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "As an intimate primer on the FET program, Rivers' account, which includes a historical overview of American women in combat, is of clear interest."
  • "Beyond the Call...makes an important contribution to understanding the evolving role of women in service to their country. [Rivers] ably documents how females in arms, who represent 16 percent of America's military, make their nation stronger."—USA Today
  • "Author Eileen Rivers, besides being an Army veteran herself, is now a USA Today editor and has been reporting on veteran affairs for 15 years, so it is evident that she knows whereof she speaks."
    New York Journal of Books
  • "Will please both casual readers and those seeking a deeper understanding of American efforts in Central Asia...[Rivers] maintains tension and interest in the women's stories without relying too heavily on descriptions of combat, wartime atrocities or battlefield trauma...Beyond the Call deserves a place on military professional reading lists."—Military Times
  • "These untold stories detail accounts of the fight for gender equality within the American military and within Afghanistan, shedding light on the relationships and experiences that shaped the war effort. As a veteran herself, the author weaves in her own experiences, which add useful insight to the narrative...Well worth a read. Recommended to those with an interest in the war in Afghanistan, military history, women's history, gender studies, and biography."—Library Journal

On Sale
Nov 6, 2018
Page Count
288 pages
Da Capo Press

Eileen Rivers

About the Author

Eileen Rivers is a USA Today editor and editorial board member. Formerly with the Washington Post, she has been writing and reporting on veteran affairs for more than fifteen years and has produced several multi-media online interactives covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A veteran of the US Army, she served in Kuwait following Desert Storm where she was sent into the former combat zone as an Arabic linguist, collecting and translating information from enemy targets. Rivers lives in Laurel, Maryland.

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