First Woman in Combat

On 14 April 2001, 19-year old Senior Airman Jennifer Donaldson, from the Illinois Air National Guard, made history. The eight-year-old National Guard Sniper School is the only U.S. military sniper school open to women and Jennifer was the first female graduate to complete the first counter-sniper course for the Air Guard security personnel.

Camp Robinson in central Arkansas, near Little Rock, is where the senior airman became the first woman to complete the only U.S. military sniper school open to females. Nicknamed “G.I. Jane”, she endured the same training as depicted by Demi Moore in the 1997 movie of the same name.
Donaldson together with seven men, graduated from the first counter-sniper program for the Air Guard security force personnel hosted at the National Guard Sniper School. It was the first ever such training program in the U.S. Air Force.

As Army Guard Sgt. 1st Class Ben Dolan, a former Marine sniper and the school’s chief instructor said, “The Air Force was the only US ground combat force that did not employ snipers and counter-snipers”.
So, Donaldson who was a patrol person at the Air Guard’s 183rd Fighter Wing in Springfield, Illinois, became the pilot woman student for the National Guard’s training security program where their key responsibility lay in learning how to protect America’s air bases and aircraft.

Jennifer Donaldson who is 5-foot-9 weighing 125 pounds, once commented, “I’ve admired policemen since I was a little kid, so I wanted to get as much training as I could get. This sounded interesting.” Jennifer teamed up with her partner, special operations Staff Sgt. Frank Tallman from Kentucky, and together they achieved 4/5 points and were first to pass a 2.7-mile navigation course through dense woodlands and over unforgiving terrain.

After her first week in training, Donaldson admitted, “I had no idea it would be this hard. I’ve been in the Guard for a year and completed basic training and tech school. But I’ve never seen this kind of physical training. Some of us had to get fit while we were here. She continued, “Yesterday I wanted to go home. I was so stressed out, and I had no confidence at all.”

After two uncompromising weeks of training, Jennifer was noticeably different with a more buoyant, positive outlook. “It’s a relief,” said the happy and thankful student. “I feel I really accomplished something. I stuck with it because I wanted to prove to myself I could do it.”
Ben Dolan said the 14 days of continuous and demanding physical and mental exercise was about learning how to detect an enemy sniper with a partner sniper. They had to be trained as snipers to be effective counter-snipers and it was no easy feat.

Other accolades were handed out at the graduation ceremony. Nebraska Senior Airman John Swanson who was a Marine in Operation Desert Storm was the distinguished honor graduate. And, a former Army Ranger, Tallman who saw action in Panama in the late eighties was awarded the Top Gun for best shooter.
Shooting accurately and acting like a sniper is a skill. It’s not just about aiming and pulling the trigger. Whether you’re crawling around your stomach or running on your feet, there’s a whole strategy to being an effective sniper. You need to detect the smallest of targets, identify where rival snipers are hidden and remember everything about the enemy down to the very last detail like their numbers, artillery, equipment, and uniform.

Dolan added that Donaldson could enlist as a counter-sniper because women are enrolled into the Air Guard and Air Force security forces, but not in the Army or Marines. Snipers are part of the infantry forces, and women are not allowed in the infantry.

The Air National Guard (Air Guard) is part of the federal military and the US air force with bases throughout the United States. Its services also extends to the Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands
Ben Dolan is an advocate of training more women as real snipers. Having trained with Jennifer Donaldson, he says, “Women are mentally better suited for this job than most men”. Dolan has credits of his own with learning the sniper craft from both the Marines and the Army and actively served as a Marine sniper in the Gulf War.

Ben says a woman is perfect to counter another woman sniper, which is very relevant considering over 50% of hostile countries have used or plan to use women snipers. He says women actually shoot better and are better to train because there’s no overload of testosterone, alpha male encounters or inflated egos that get in the way with men during training. Women will ask for help if they need it, and they are honest about what they are thinking.

Dolan is the recognized designer of the Air Guard’s counter-sniper program for security and doesn’t doubt for one second that women can handle the required 15 long hour days of physical military training in adverse conditions and surroundings. Before graduating, students also have to complete 48 hours of disciplined day and night training at the Arkansas National Guard’s Fort Chaffee as part of the program.

The training course has the same requirements for both men and women to test their physical and mental limits, and their emotional stability. Donaldson did express initial concerns over being the first woman to enroll, but Dolan stated that Jennifer was above average in her class and shot extremely well with a scope-mounted, high-power rifle.

Donaldson added that there were a multitude of different tests in the course. At times you would work in a team of 8 doing drills, obstacle courses and crawling like a snake through mud and water. If one team member made a mistake, like not handle a rifle correctly, then everyone got punished by being hung upside down while tied to a tree by the arms and legs.

Jennifer says, “It’s about teaching you to handle stress and it works. I feel much better about all of this now that it’s over”. The development of counter-sniper tactics has become invaluable in combat to try decrease and prevent destruction to troops caused by snipers.

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