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These women served in combat, but their files omit that part

When Summerlin resident Shirley Wu was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, she served alongside her male peers, going on patrols and taking direct enemy fire. She lived on a small dirt site next to a rural village, and her food would be dropped via a parachute. She’d talk with the local women and search them in some cases to make sure they weren’t threats.

But when she returned to the U.S., her military paperwork did not say anything about what she did on her deployment, especially that she was exposed to general combat environments.

Wu was one of hundreds of women who served on “Cultural Support Teams,” accompanying special forces into combat zones. But they are not recognized as combat veterans, limiting their benefits and medical service access.

On Thursday afternoon Nevada Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., alongside Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa., and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., introduced legislation that will amend military records of female veterans who served alongside special forces in Afghanistan and Iraq to reflect that they were deployed in combat zones so they receive equal benefits and health services.

“Women veterans who bravely served our nation and fought for our freedoms deserve all of the recognition, benefits, and honor they earned, just like their male counterparts,” said Rosen in a statement. “Due to outdated policies, women veterans who were part of Cultural Support Teams and who served in combat are being denied rank, benefits, and critical health services.”

The Jax Act — introduced the week of the 75th anniversary of women being allowed to serve in the military — would require the review of military records of women like Wu who served between 2010 and 2021.

At the time Wu was in Afghanistan, women were not legally allowed to serve in combat roles. Unofficially, however, women have long been doing those jobs, working in a “gray area,” Wu said.

Because of the cultural norm in which local women could not talk to a man outside of their families, Wu and other female members of cultural support teams would talk with the women and ask them questions. The underwent language, intelligence gathering and physical training to accompany special forces, completing the same missions as the men and served alongside them, but their military records do not reflect that.

“I think with the passing of the Jax Act, it will just validate the experiences that we’ve been through,” Wu said. “So that women that have been through this experience that have medical issues stemming from having been in direct combat can actually get the care that they deserve, equal to the men who were serving with us.”

Jaclyn “Jax” Scott, the bill’s namesake, also served on a cultural support team but was denied treatment for injuries she suffered on duty. Scott would talk with women and children and go on night raids where she would check rooms that men could not enter.

One night, she was going over walls and through backyards with her team, wearing night vision goggles. While wearing them, she had no depth perception and fell off a wall. She landed on her face while carrying a heavy backpack.

She brushed the injury off, but when she went home, she was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Her military classification did not list her as a combat veteran, so the Department of Veterans Affairs would not treat her. Many women who served on cultural support teams also aren’t considered for disability benefits, said a spokesperson with Special Operations Association of America.

“The Jax Act will give power back to women of the (Special Operations Forces) community,” said Scott, a board member of Special Operations Association of America, in a statement. Scott was unavailable for an interview Thursday.

“It will allow me and others like me to rightfully access health care and disability benefits we deserve. It is the first step in righting the wrong and helping to heal the moral injury we carry with us every day,” she said.

Contact Jessica Hill at jehill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @jess_hillyeah on Twitter.

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