An explosion just a few feet away rocks the unmarked station wagon as it travels along a dirt road in the Norwegian woodland.
Immediately, two soldiers jump from their front seats and run for cover behind the carcass of an old, rusty tank. Firing their weapons at targets along the snow-covered hillside, they call for support from the rest of their unit.
This firefight is just a drill, but the soldiers taking part are battling to break down one of the final barriers to women serving in the armed forces. They are training to become part of Norway’s Jegertroppen or “Hunter Troops” — the world’s first all-female military special forces unit.
More than a year after the U.S. Department of Defense repealed a longtime ban on women serving in ground combat assignments, relatively few have been trained or assigned to these jobs in the U.S. military.
Norway has moved a lot faster to break down military gender barriers. Its parliament introduced legislation in the 1980s that opened up all military roles to women. Last year, Norway became the first NATO country to introduce female conscription.
But the introduction of the all-female special forces unit in 2014 raised the profile of women in the Norwegian military the most.
The unit was started after Norway’s Armed Forces’ Special Command saw an increased need for female special operations soldiers — particularly in places like Afghanistan where male troops were forbidden from communicating with women. The exclusion of half the population was having a detrimental impact on intelligence gathering and building community relations.
“When [Norway] deployed to Afghanistan we saw that we needed female soldiers. Both as female advisers for the Afghan special police unit that we mentored, but also when we did an arrest,” said Col. Frode Kristofferson, the commander of Norway’s special forces. “We needed female soldiers to take care of the women and children in the buildings that we searched.”
So they created the all-female unit specifically designed to train them.
“One of the advantages that we see with an all-female unit is that we can have a tailored program and a tailored selection for the female operators,” Kristofferson said, adding that at the end of the one-year program the female soldiers are just as capable as their male counterparts.
One of the unit’s members, 22-year-old Tonje, said the unit is proof that women can do the same job as men, even in the male-dominated world of the military.
“We’re carrying the same weight in the backpack as the boys,” said Tonje, who did not provide her full name due to the unit’s rules. “We do the same tasks.”
Those tasks at Terningmoen Camp, about 100 miles north of Oslo, include parachuting out of military aircraft, skiing in the Arctic tundra, navigating the wilderness and fighting in urban terrain.
She added that the weapon, backpack and other gear she carries on long marches, weighs over 100 pounds.
“I’m the smallest, so I carry as much weight as I myself weigh,” she said.
To qualify for the Jegertroppen, applicants have to run about four miles carrying 60 pounds of military gear in under 52 minutes. That’s just three minutes less than their male counterparts who have to do the same thing in under 49 minutes.
Tonje, who grew up in a town of about 30,000, said she has been interested military service since she was a child. “And I knew that I wanted to do the toughest thing I could do in the military,” she said. “When the Jegertroppen came up as an option, it felt like it was made for me.”
Three years into the all-female program, the Norwegian military is already counting it as a success.
“We have them available when we need the female soldiers in operations abroad,” Kristofferson said.
During a break from the training drills, while the unit relaxed around a campfire, 20-year-old Mari explained that she joined the military to follow in her grandfather’s and father’s footsteps.
“If I’m needed, I think that it would be a great opportunity to both serve my country and also to be able to contribute positively in a very masculine environment,” she said. “With the skills that we get this year, I think that we definitely can continue to build on them and become very good soldiers, maybe just as good as the boys.”
Commanders say the all-female unit is already on its way. At a recent exercise, one of the female soldiers shot better than some of the men in the elite platoon, Capt. Ole Vidar, the officer leading the training program, said. He added that the female unit has also shown a stronger sense of solidarity among its members.
“The boys see that the girls help each other, so the boys are doing better on that as well,” said Vidar.
He added that despite some skepticism at first, the program has been an instant success with over 300 applicants in the first year alone. And the entry requirements have already been raised.
“Girls come better prepared than before,” said Vidar.