Capt Ashley Collette was the only woman in her platoon of soldiers on the Afghan front line – and she was in charge. In the Canadian armed forces, unusually, every job is open to women – and both sexes live together and fight together.
On the first day that Capt Ashley Collette and her platoon of 60 men were deployed in the remote town of Nakhonay, near Kandahar, they came under attack.
“I don’t think that the enemy liked our presence,” she says with a soldier’s understatement. “It’s kind of in the middle of where they want to be.”
That first day set the pattern for the next few months. Twice a day, Six Platoon – part of Bravo Company in the First Royal Canadian Regiment – endured enemy fire, both on patrol and directly on the camp. It was so regular that the soldiers nicknamed it “contact o’clock”.
But Collette says being shot at made a sort of sense to her troops – they could see the bullets lighting up the sky and mountains as they came towards them. It was the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and – towards the end of their rotation – suicide bombs, that wore on their nerves.
On 21 June, Sgt Jimmy MacNeil, an engineer attached to the platoon, was killed by a bomb while on a foot patrol. He was a kind, popular soldier, and a close friend of Collette’s. The hours following his death were frantically busy and it wasn’t till later in the day that she got a chance to reflect. Then she went and sat by herself on a sandbank in the camp.
“We still had six months to go,” she says. “I remember thinking ‘How am I, one, going to hold it together myself, and two, going to hold together this group of 60 people who are devastated by this event?'”
Then, two of her men came and sat next to her, one on either side. Neither said anything – and she knew that she didn’t need to say anything, that they understood how she felt.
Collette did hold it together. After returning from her tour, she was awarded the Medal of Military Valour, one of Canada’s highest military honours, for her leadership in Afghanistan. (She is keen to attribute the accolade to the work of her whole platoon.)
Around 12% of soldiers serving in the Canadian army are women and they have been integrated into combat positions since 1989.
The US and Brazil are currently in the process of working out the best way to place women in combat roles. The UK, which has not yet taken this step, will review its policy in the next five years.
Those who argue against putting women into combat sometimes say that a woman would not be able to carry a wounded fellow from the battlefield. Collette says she was tested every year in “soldier carry” and “soldier drag” exercises. Although she was paired with someone of a similar weight to herself, lifting bigger people using the “fireman’s carry” is not as hard as you might think when you know how.
A priority in any infantry unit is to develop team cohesion. The traditional way to do this is to train, eat and sleep as a unit. But when Canadian female soldiers were first placed on the front line, they were segregated from the men.
It didn’t work. Now they are mixed in together, and sleep in the same dorm.