ELVERUM, Norway — 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More than a year after the U.S. Department of Defense repealed a longtime ban on women serving in ground combat assignments, relatively few have been trained or assigned to these jobs in the U.S. military.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.
PHOTOS: World's First Female Special Forces Unit
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."
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