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Former Army Ranger returns to Iraq — but this time with her Harvard master's degrees

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Digital Originals
Published June 11, 2022 2:00am EDT

Former Army Ranger returns to Iraq — but this time with her Harvard master's degrees

Shelane Etchison, one of the first women in a combat role, discusses transition from Army special ops to Harvard

By Ethan Barton , Megan Myers | Fox News

BOSTON – Like many students, it took Shelane Etchison time to adjust to graduate school.

Perhaps less typical, she had to figure out how to simultaneously juggle two Ivy League master's programs.

But maybe Etchison's most unique adjustment was adapting to civilian life after spending years hunting high-value targets in places like Afghanistan and Syria as one of the first female soldiers to serve in a special operations unit, let alone a combat role.


Shelene Etchison, one of the first women allowed in a combat role, trains in preparation for deployment.

The Florida native, who recently graduated with two master's degrees from Harvard University, settled on her next mission: returning to her old stomping grounds abroad.

But this time, Etchison aims to help develop the war-torn countries’ economies, rather than take up arms.


Special operations forces in Afghanistan, like the Army Rangers and the Navy SEALs, were hunting high-value Taliban and al Qaeda targets, but faced a major obstacle: cultural norms forbid American men from talking with Afghan women, meaning the U.S. military was losing out on a major source of intelligence.


"The women know what's going on in their village," Etchison said. "They know what's going on in their homes. And so we were leaving potentially tons of vital intelligence that they know just untapped."

"So, if it's only women who could talk to these Afghan women, then they need to recruit only women to do this job," the veteran continued.

But "at the time, there weren't women in any of these special operations units. The military banned women from even trying out to be in these units."

Three years into Etchison’s career, the Army aimed to close that gap. In 2011, it formed Cultural Support Team, an all-female fighting force within the 75th Ranger Regiment that would work alongside a team of Afghan women trained for combat by their own military.


Etchison joined part of the 20-woman inaugural team, making her one of the first women in U.S. history to join men on the front lines, let alone special operations.

"Myself and my female colleagues in the Cultural Support Teams," Etchison said, "we just did it."  


She eventually resolved that helping these countries she grew to cherish would be her new mission – but this time, through peace.

"I wanted to go to school to be able to bring further impact to these places that I really do care deeply about and have great people that are worthy of a stable, secure life," Etchison told Fox News. "And to me, that looked like transitioning from the security apparatus to other apparatuses of development, like in economic development and economic opportunities in these places."


The Army "just challenges you and pushes you beyond what you think you’re capable of," Etchison told Fox News. "And the cultural support team just put that on a rocket ship for me."

"I thought, you know, there's no reason to put limits. I'll apply to Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government," she told Fox News. "I ended up getting into both."

But Etchison’s transition out of the military wasn’t easy, starting Ivy League dual master's programs aside.

"There is a sudden loss of community, identity, purpose," she said. "You go from an organization where literally your squad leader or whoever's in charge of you, their job is to have personal accountability of you every day."


"And then you go to the civilian world where no one needs to call you. No one needs to check up on you," Etchison continued. "It took probably a year and a half for me to start to feel better."


"The military kind of hands you your purpose," Etchison told Fox News. "Here's your mission. Here's your teammates. Work together. Accomplish said mission."


In May, Etchison graduated with master's degrees in public policy and business administration.

She starts an economic development job later this month in Iraq.

"It’s a starting point into exploring … going back into post-conflict zones and what else stability looks like besides just military intervention," Etchison said.

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