Meet the Hunter Troop: Norway's tough-as-nails female soldiers
By Kevin Ponniah //
BBC News, Elverum
She's marched for miles
carrying gear that weighs as much as she does, killed animals for food during
survival training and practised jumping out of planes to get behind enemy lines.
But Jannike, a pony-tailed 19-year-old from northern Norway, will only concede
that she's "pretty tough".
She is part of the Hunter Troop, the world's first all-female special forces
"I wanted to do something bigger, the toughest the army could offer me," Jannike
says. "I wanted to [see] how far I could push myself."
After six months, despite some "really low moments", she is determined to get
through the course.
Next up on the training schedule is close-combat fighting and offensive
The Jegertroppen, as it is known in Norwegian, was set up in 2014. Military
commanders here say that the war in Afghanistan proved an "operational need"
existed for highly-trained female soldiers who could gather intelligence and
interact with women and children during deployments in conservative societies.
What began as a kind of experimental programme is now seen as a major success.
More than 300 women applied in the first year, and about a dozen recruits are
now passing the gruelling training annually, providing a pipeline of elite women
soldiers that can be deployed at home or abroad.
The hardest part so far has been "hell week", says Jannike, a test of mental and
physical strength involving long marches over several days with little time for
rest, and minimum amounts of food and water.
"They just see if you can handle the pressure when you're down," she says.
The young women are today practising fighting their way out of an urban ambush.
They work in teams of two: taking cover behind burned-out tanks, providing
suppressive fire with their H&K MP7 sub-machine guns and throwing smoke grenades
so the team can get out safely.
Every time they hit one of the metal targets in the snow-covered expanse ahead,
a clear "ding" rings out, to the approval of Captain Ole Vidar Krogsaeter, who
oversees their training.
"To prepare them we try to give them the best training possible, as realistic as
possible," the veteran special forces operator says. "We have them go through
the exercises so many times that they are comfortable with it."
In between rounds, the women, who are all aged between 19 and 27, rest, and the
dynamic changes completely.
They sing, and joke around. Three women sprawl out on an equipment box, enjoying
the brief downtime. Later they light a fire, and get a barbeque going.
Back in the mid-1980s, Norway became one of the first countries in Nato to allow
women to serve in all combat roles, although the numbers actually doing so have
remained low. Women were allowed to apply for the special forces, but none had
The United States and Britain, in comparison, have only recently begun lifting
restrictions on women officially enlisting in combat units.
Special forces soldiers in the US have shown particular resistance to the
changes. A 2014 Rand Institute survey of men in the US Special Operations
Command found that 85% were against letting women do their specialised jobs,
with 71% opposed to women joining their units.
The main concerns were that tough standards would fall and team cohesion could
But men also complained about the feared effects of pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS),
dealing with their wives' complaints, and the effects of having segregated
Magnus, a male Norwegian special forces soldier who has trained the Jegertroppen,
doesn't have patience for what he calls "man-made" problems.
Male and female soldiers mostly share rooms in Norway, and PMS is "not an issue
at all" in training, he said.
He recognises that there are some valid concerns: most pertinently, the ability
of a female soldier to quickly carry a wounded male counterpart to safety.
Still, he adds: "I don't think you should view it as the girls are gonna do the
exact same as the guys.
"They are not going to win hand-to-hand combat, but most of the time we use guns
and a lot of the time they shoot better than the guys."
Could you pass the unit?
Requirements to complete the course:
15km (9 miles) speed march in full gear (22kg backpack, weapon, boots) through
forests within two hours and 15 minutes
50 sit-ups in two minutes
3km run - maximum time 13 minutes
400m swim, first 25m underwater - maximum time 11 minutes
Most of the members of the Jegertroppen were elite high school athletes, but
they bring other strengths to the table apart from their physical capability.
Venderla, 22, passed the course last year. "Women think outside the box," she
says. "Men just do what they are supposed to do. Maybe we are more capable of
seeing another solution, a better solution."
Although gender equality is well-entrenched in the Norwegian military - as it is
in the country's society - just 11% of personnel are women, reflecting halting
progress in recruiting and retaining females.
This compares with 10.2% in the UK and more than 15% in the United States.
Conscription was extended to Norwegian women last year and they made up about
25% of the 8,000 youngsters recruited, meaning the share should increase over
Venderla says she has not experienced sexism in the special forces, but has in
She was told by some soldiers that she was weaker and less capable as a woman,
and one man made sexual comments, she said. The problem stopped after she
"I think he was maybe a little insecure. I knew I was good enough passing the
tests so it's his problem."
Norwegian special forces are currently deployed in Jordan, helping to train
Syrian rebels in the fight against so-called Islamic State.
None of the women who have passed through the Jegertroppen so far have been
deployed on a special operation, but the commanders say that the important thing
is that they are trained and ready should the need arise.
Jannike speaks calmly but with conviction. She says that in a peaceful country
like Norway, it's difficult for her to keep in mind during training that they
are actually "learning to kill".
"But I try to have that perspective, because that's what we're really training