With women being denied roles in Army combat units, they have sought out an alternative way to showcase their strength and training: cage fighting.
And they are not just competing against their own – they are taking on men in a battle to prove they are just as worthy fighters both in the field and away from it.
One competition, held at Ford Hood in Texas last month, saw 300 men and 25 women – up by five compared to last year – compete for the title, with hundreds of spectators cheering from the stands.
Tournaments began on mats and in boxing rings around the country in the mid-1990s, but moved to cages in 2008 when commanders realised the staged fights helped recruit soldiers.
The Army also claims the setting resembles fighting in a small room and helps develop skills soldiers need to restrain enemies rather than kill them, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The fights feature both genders, and men hold back nothing as they use a mix of martial arts to fight women, who wear just thin padding, no headgear and open-fingered gloves, in black wire cages.
Most women fight in the lightweight classes – bantamweight and flyweight – and are allowed to outweigh men in the same class by 10 pounds, the Tribune reported.
The interest in the high-adrenaline, aggressive sport comes as the danger for women on the front line is clear. In Iraq, 109 female service members have been killed, while 29 have died in Afghanistan.
DENIED: WOMEN IN COMBAT
Women have served in the U.S. Army since 1775, at which point they nursed the wounded, cleaned clothes and cooked for the troops.
Women now serve in 91 per cent of all Army occupations and make up about 14 per cent of the Active Army.
But while women are allowed to serve in Artillery roles, they are still excluded from units with a dedicated Infantry role.
There have been concerns that the female form is less physically capable of dealing with combat due to less upper body strength and being more prone to breakages. Other studies have proven that women are as physically capable as their male counterparts.
There are also psychological concerns, with fears that women could become a target for sexual assaults. And there are worries about how effectively male soldiers can continue to fight after witnessing a female soldier wounded on the front line.
Yet the arguments have been deemed out-dated, and some claim the government is failing to tap into skills brought by women.
There are also arguments that without using women, there will be a shortage of fighters.
But with these women filling noncombat jobs, such as drivers, it shows the indiscriminate nature of the violence – and has led many to believe the ban on women in combat roles is old-fashioned.
The women have different reasons to fight, but many want to prove their worth.
Spc. Dariana Chesser, 24, told the Tribune: ‘I think this helps us prove we are worthy of fighting in combat with men.‘
The fights ‘teach us to react in the moment without a weapon’ Pfc. Vanessa Edwards added. When she told her mother she was fighting men, ‘she told me to kick their ass’.
In the recent Texas competition, one woman made it to the finals, while three were carried out on stretchers.
Chesser, a flyweight, recounted her doomed match against a male partner, who floored her with a chokehold and left her raging in the stands. ‘We don’t have instant adrenaline like males do,’ she said.
But she went on to fight another male, who she threw on his back before twisting his collar to cut off his circulation in a ‘blood choke’. He tapped his fingers on the mat, signalling his defeat.
Army Staff Sgt. Jackelyn Walker, who served three tours in Iraq as a forklift driver and supervisor, was the only woman to make it to the final.
The 33-year-old had been hit in the ribs by her male semifinal opponent. ‘I tried not to show anything, but it freaking hurt,’ she said.