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22 November, 2021
The first woman enrolled in the Special Operations Forces Q-course

This year, the first woman ever passed a highly competitive selection and was admitted to the qualification course of the Special Operations Forces (Q-course). Since 2016, when the SOF troops were established in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, several women have tried to get into the Q-course, but their attempts were unsuccessful. Only 10 to 15 per cent of applicants are able to complete the course. Currently, she is undergoing the final phase of the course to qualify as a SOF member and join a battle group.

In this exclusive interview for Censor.NET, we were able to discuss what it took for her to get into the course, how long she’s been training, and how she’s being accepted by her peers.

The material was created as a part of the Eastern Flank program, a joint project by and the Independent Anti-Corruption Commission (NAKO).
- The first question that comes to my mind is, “How did you do it?” Instead, I will ask, what was the story behind the success, what made you the woman you are now?
My early years were difficult, I had nothing but to work hard. I have provided for myself since I was 12 years old, there was no one there to support me financially. Then I started university. When I enrolled in a military program, I came to realize that I would like to join the army.
- What made you work so hard?
I grew up in Kherson Oblast, in a big family with a lot of kids. My father left when I was three and my mother was really struggling to raise us alone. At the time, we were sharing space with my elder sister and her kids, so the family grew even bigger. My mom was often away for work, so I had to step in to help the family survive. We used to grow vegetables at home and also worked as seasonal farmworkers. I remember those 30-kilo bags with carrots or beetroots and 20-kilo string bags full of onions.
- You’ve been doing sports for a long time. How did it help you to qualify for the Q-course?
Many people dropped out of the competition due to joint damage or, most often, back injury. As a student, I spent five years in powerlifting with a special focus on my back and lumbar muscles. It helped me a lot during the selection, which I passed without any damage whatsoever.
- You joined a military program during your third year at university. What influenced your decision? Why did you choose the army?
It was my childhood dream.
- Are there any members of the Armed Forces in your family?
No, there are no such examples in my family and there has never been. I’m the first to join the army. At school, girls were offered some medical or cooking classes while boys were given basic military training. However, I was always interested in military training and I was opposed to such different treatment even back then. It felt so unfair. Why should I suffer simply because I’m a girl? So I approached our headteacher asking for permission to attend the military training class. We took part in numerous scouting games like Dzhura.
In my third year at university, in summer, just before I started my military program, I bought myself a uniform and passed all the tests. I remember standing in the uniform at the official gathering and feeling so proud. So I realized this is what I should be doing. We had military courses only once a week on Fridays, but I would be preparing a week beforehand. My first supervisor gave me the confidence that I could get there if I wanted to, so I should never give up. I also was their first female sergeant and they still have my picture on the wall of fame.
- I noticed there is a poster at this military base saying, “You can do it - you can pass the Q course.” When did you come to realize you can do it?
I first heard about the course even before I learned about the unit I am currently assigned to. I watched so many videos, I was thinking about it day and night. I was dreaming about it every day. My boyfriend told me that my eyes were shining bright when I would talk about the course. I submitted the application on my birthday. I thought that if I didn’t try now when I’m 24, it's going to be more difficult year by year. I said to myself that I should stop just dreaming about the course and finally give it a try.
And here we are on our first day going down to the canteen for breakfast just before the start of the selection. Our senior fellows tell us, “It is your final opportunity to have a normal meal for the next two weeks.” And here it begins. I remember us having about three hours of sleep on the first day and I was just dying to fall asleep but I couldn’t due to stress. Someone was shouting all the time and it was very difficult, both physically and mentally. If at least one person rings the bell, everyone must follow him. Everyone should last until the first one gives up.
- What helped you last without ringing the bell?
When I was going there, I was telling myself that whatever happens, I am not ringing the bell. I made myself believe there is no such thing as a bell to ring.  Like when I was a kid, there was no such bell there. I just woke up at 4 a.m. and went to work. I couldn’t ring a bell and escape. So I made up my mind to survive the two weeks. I said to myself, “I will never give up no matter what.”
There were a lot of difficult exercises, my hands were getting numb. When it happened, they would tell us, “You can’t even manage your own hands. You are the weakest part of the chain. Special Forces are not for everyone. You are the reason others struggle. If you leave, your group will receive a 20-minute break.”
My backpack should have weighed at least 20 kilos, less water and food. For example, we went to the woods for topography training and we had to pack water and food for three days, too. There is a special requirement in the course that you have to drink at least three litres of water daily. This is to prevent cramps that can be caused by intensive physical activity.
- Did you get any injuries?
Yes, my finger got suppurated, probably due to infection. I had it operated on right away so I was back on track quickly even though they were telling me scary things like they will have to cut off my finger. Then, the nails on my four toes had to be removed. It was so painful, those toe injections! I couldn’t put on any shoes after that.
On our way to the training base, I was approached by our commander who told me, “I have no doubt you will finish the course. See you in spring.” It gave me a lot of confidence. Also, many people bet that I would give up and it motivated me, too. And then there was the hardest day during the selection process, we were kept busy from early in the morning until midnight. And I was asking myself all the time, was it worth it? But then I thought OK if I give up now, what’s next? Those who said I would give up were actually right? This was not what I wanted, so I kept going.
- When the news came in about a woman having qualified for the Q-course, there were also comments that she was enjoying special treatment as a woman. Is it true?
No, there was no such special treatment. It is unrealistic under the circumstances. There are 100 people there, how do you think they would be treating me differently? They are my future colleagues. The final results of the selection are done by voting. I would have never agreed to special treatment. There was a chance to earn a 5-minute break for the group. So one day, I volunteered and we were granted an 8-minute break. The guys were so happy and I was feeling so proud.
- What was the most difficult part of the selection? Anything that made you think about ringing the bell?
During the 13 days of the selection, you have very little time for sleep, so you can see that the day is very long actually. So you start appreciating ordinary things. The most difficult thing for me was that I couldn’t call home to ask how my family was doing. When all is good and nothing prevents us from calling home, we don’t really appreciate it.
- Have you ever experienced any difficulties simply because you're a woman?
Yes, I have. Signing a contract with a military unit is already a problem, and I am talking in general, not about the one I’m currently in. They think that if they take a woman, she will go on maternity leave in a couple of years, and then come back to take another one, and who will be doing her job? It took me a year to get into the military, my documents were just returned with no particular explanation. We couldn’t even understand why. Are they unwilling to see me in this role or there’s something wrong with my application?
- Did you apply for a military role?
Yes, I did. Later, I applied for a non-military role with a military unit and I was finally accepted.
- How about conditions of service in the Ukrainian army, are they fit for women? Can you see any progress in this regard? It depends on the woman, in the first place. When we join the army, there are no military men or women there, there is just a military person. You accept your role and you have certain duties. It doesn’t say that you do it if you’re a man and you don’t do it if you’re a woman. As you start, you need to gain the trust of your colleagues and you should work hard to achieve that. You should demonstrate you are willing to make a change, you’re ready to learn and achieve the result. In the beginning, they treated me like a woman. It means that a woman in the military should be sitting in an office. However, when I proved myself as a reliable and competent person, they changed their minds and even started sending me on deployments. For example, I often represent my unit at various competitions.
- What can you recommend to women who would like to take the Q-course to join the SOF but are hesitating or have some fears?

You should believe in yourself, never lose your focus, keep trying, and never give up.

Iryna Sampan