US navy SEAL
A photo provided by the US Navy shows SEAL candidates during surf immersion training in Coronado, Calif., on May 4, 2020. A woman has joined a US Navy special warfare unit for the first time, the latest gender barrier to fall in the five years since women became eligible to apply for any combat job in the military. Image Credit: NYT

Washington: A woman has joined a US Navy special warfare unit for the first time, the latest gender barrier to fall in the five years since women became eligible to apply for any combat job in the military.

The service said Thursday that the woman was the first female graduate from a Navy special warfare training pipeline that directly supports the SEALs and other elite commando units.

A Navy spokeswoman said the woman would not be identified, which is a standard policy for members of the special forces.

In a statement, Rear Adm. Hugh W. Howard III, the commander of the US Naval Special Warfare Command, said the woman’s graduation represented “an extraordinary accomplishment.”

“Like her fellow operators, she demonstrated the character, cognitive and leadership attributes required to join our force,” he said.

The Navy said in a news release that the servicewoman was among 17 graduates of a programme to become what it calls special warfare combatant-craft crewmen.

SWCC personnel specialise in what the Navy calls “covert insertion and extraction” operations using small, stealthy, heavily armed watercraft capable of high speeds that can operate independently, or be delivered by larger ships and helicopters.

In addition to receiving training in weapons and navigation, SWCC sailors also go through parachute training in order to drop their speedboats into the ocean from cargo planes, such as during the 2009 mission to rescue Americans aboard the hijacked ship Maersk Alabama in the Indian Ocean.

Only about 35% of SWCC candidates graduate, the Navy said.

The woman who graduated on Thursday will be among the operators on three special boat teams that transport Navy SEALs and conduct their own classified missions, The Associated Press reported.

She is one of 18 women who have tried out to be a SWCC or a SEAL, the spokeswoman said. Fourteen of them did not finish the special warfare training. Three other women are currently training to become Navy SEALs or SWCC operators, the spokeswoman said.

Number of women in military rising

The share of women in the US military has been inching upward for decades. When the draft ended in 1973, women accounted for 2% of enlisted forces and 8% of the officer corps in the US military, according to an analysis of Defense Department data by the Council on Foreign Relations that did not include statistics from the US Coast Guard. By 2018, those figures had risen to 16% and 19%.

In 2018, two years after the Pentagon opened all combat jobs to women, 1st Lt. Marina A. Hierl became the first woman in the Marine Corps to command an infantry platoon.

Chief Master Sgt. JoAnne S. Bass of the US Air Force became the first woman to serve as the highest ranking noncommissioned member of a US military service.

Last week, Bass celebrated the legacy of another pioneer, Sgt. Esther McGowin Blake, the first woman to enlist in the Air Force.

And last year, a female National Guard soldier became the first to earn the title of Green Beret after graduating from Army Special Forces training.

Forty years earlier, another woman, Kate Wilder, fought for her right to be recognised after she passed the Special Forces Officer Course but was told by the head of the school that she would not be graduating.

In 1981, after an Army investigation and 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.

She retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2003 after 28 years of service, proudly wearing her Special Forces tab for the remainder of her career.

But for all the recent advances, even high-ranking female officers still face gender-based discrimination.

In March, President Joe Biden nominated two women - Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost of the Air Force and Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson of the Army - to lead two of the military’s combatant commands. Their Pentagon bosses had agreed on their promotions before Biden took office, but held them back out of fears that President Donald Trump would reject the officers because they were women.