By Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr reporting from Ft. Bragg, North Carolina
Editor's note: CNN was the first television network to be allowed to film this elite training, for a story airing November 3 on Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer
There's plenty of grunting and groaning during the early morning workouts in the gym at the JFK Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. But suddenly among the young men in special forces units doing pull-ups and lifting weights, there are dozens of young female troops - running an obstacle course, pushing and pulling hundreds of pounds of kettlebells, running laps.
These women are part of a groundbreaking and controversial program that for the first time is selecting, training and assigning women to join up with special forces units in Afghanistan. Their job: to do what the men cannot.
In the socially conservative Afghan culture where the sexes do not mix, these women are on the front line of dealing directly with Afghan women and children.
So-called female engagement teams, or "cultural support teams," have been used increasingly in recent years by the U.S. military. But the difference here is that these women are selected to team up with elite special forces.
Afghans deeply resent special forces units' raids on their homes and villages when they are searching for high-value targets. The military women, it is hoped, will ease some of that resentment. Once a raid has secured an area, the women will move in and be the ones who search Afghan women, something male troops cannot do without causing great upset.
The women also are living and working with special forces teams in small villages and towns, talking to women and helping with medical care and social needs.
Maj. Patrick McCarthy evaluates candidates applying to join the program and decides who will be selected for the rigorous six-week training course at Fort Bragg.
About half of those who apply don't get selected.
McCarthy says he is looking for both brain and brawn. And he wants troops who can make quick decisions in the murky circumstances troops often find themselves in on the front lines of Afghanistan.
"These women are a cut above the rest of the Army," says McCarthy, pointing to a group in a morning training class.
If this calls to mind the Demi Moore film "GI Jane," it is a comparison that Capt. Annie Kleiman, a team member, rejects.
"We're not going to be shaving our heads anytime soon," she says. But she is firm on one point: "We've got a bunch of strong, capable, awesome women who can take any challenge that's thrown at us."
The women know they still must prove themselves once they are in Afghanistan.
"This is the first time women have formally worked with special operations forces." says Staff Sgt Danielle Bayer, also part of the training course. "It's being acknowledged women can operate at this level."
It's a politically delicate issue. Women are not allowed to serve in front-line combat units. So these women - heavily armed - will only go into compounds after they are secured by assault teams.
"The women that are on raids, they're not deliberately part of the direct-action raid. They are there to help mitigate following the raid," says McCarthy.
But in a war with no true front line, these women will face risks being so far from larger, more secure military bases. Just last month, 1st Lt. Ashley White, who was a team member, and two male soldiers were killed during what the Army described as "combat operations" in Afghanistan.
The first death of a team member has made the program so sensitive that no senior Army special operations commander would talk to CNN on camera.
But the women did.
"This is a program that is going to keep going on," said Sgt. Christine Baldwin, who is just back from Afghanistan. "It's a need that needs to be met over there right now."