'Ashley's War' Details Vital Work Of Female Soldiers In Afghanistan

Apr 28, 2015
Originally published on April 29, 2015 9:29 am

The Pentagon says women could be eligible for all combat roles in the military by next year, but some women already have been fighting — and dying — for their country. They're serving right alongside elite special operations units, such as the Navy SEALs or Army Rangers.

It's part of an effort to connect with half of the Afghan population that was off-limits to male soldiers: the women. Some military leaders considered reaching them one of the keys to winning the war.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, the author of Ashley's War: The Untold Story Of A Team Of Women Soldiers On The Special Ops Battlefield, talks to Renee Montagne about the cultural support teams embedded with the most elite U.S. forces.


Interview Highlights

How The Teams Got Their Name

"Cultural" came from the fact that it was this cultural divide that was creating the need for these female soldiers; "support" was there because it was time to make clear that this was not a backdoor way into putting women on the battlefield as front-line operators. ... And a recruiting poster went up on bases across the country from, you know, Alaska to Alabama saying: "Female soldiers, become part of history — join special operations on the battlefield in Afghanistan."

The Army Unit That Was First To Add A Cultural Support Team

The 75th Ranger regiment, right — these are some of the most tested soldiers we've had. These were not guys who were supposed to be leading the gender-integration model. ... I think what was surprising for a lot of people was, all these guys who had never served with women right alongside them on the battlefield really took to really accept these female soldiers alongside them — because they brought value ... as one Ranger said to me: "These women paid their rent every single night. They went out there, and they had heart, and they had grit, and they found things, and they talked to people we couldn't have otherwise."

A Diverse, Interesting Group Of Women

They're so different on the surface: One was a West Point track star, you had an Intel officer who had worked with the FBI to bust drug gangs, a Bronze Star medal of valor winner. They were all athletic, they were all hungry to prove themselves, and they were all really committed to serving something bigger than themselves.

White Wanted To 'Do Something That Matters'

She wasn't dreaming about going into combat necessarily, but she always tested herself. This, you know, beautiful, petite, blonde young woman with a gorgeous family, a great husband, she was a newlywed. She loved to cook — and then she loved to put, you know, 40 pounds of weight on her back and go march for 12 miles. ... She was among the fittest and finest, just like the rest of these soldiers. And so when Ashley White has this opportunity to be part of this pilot program, she jumped at the chance and said "I want to do something that matters, I want to be with the best, and I want to test myself."

Selection Criteria: 'A Hundred Hours Of Hell'

They were whittled down to about 55 or 60 women from more than 200 at the very start, and they faced a selection process that was called "a hundred hours of hell." So that was a combination of mental agility tests and physical tests — climbing a 30-foot wall, or putting 35 or 40 pounds on your back and marching for what is called an unknown distance, so that could be 2 miles or it could be 12 — tests about cultural awareness. And they went through this in a five-day period which had little sleep and a lot of testing of who they were as people, and they were judged as a team.

Why White Didn't Tell Her Parents About Her Deployment

She really did not want them to worry. ... There wasn't a lot of a roadmap to point to in terms of what she would be doing [with the special operations teams]. Not many women had done that before her ... and she realized pretty quickly that this is real combat, right? We are going on some of the most dangerous, most critical missions to the war in Afghanistan that America is pursuing. ... There is a real moment where she talks to her husband and she talks to her brother and just says "I really want to keep this between us, I don't want people to worry."

What Female Soldiers Were Able To Discover

One young soldier found a woman who was sitting on a weapon that they had been looking for. Another soldier found something they were looking for in a baby's soiled diaper. Yet others were keeping young women that they had met calm during operations so that the Rangers could do their work. So very quickly they proved that there was this whole world, this whole community of Afghan women that you could access if you had American women soldiers out there talking to them.

A Foundation For Integration

We will know the answer in January of 2016 as to which jobs will open to women and whether all jobs will open to women. Right now what we know is that, in the summer of 2013, one of the special operations commanders actually cited Ashley and all of the women in these pages and said "those soldiers may well have laid the foundation for ultimate integration" — that they had done a fabulous job on the battlefield, and that they did prove that women could bring value to those kinds of mission. Those women were the softer side of the harder side of war.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Pentagon has set a deadline for the Army and Marines.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

They've got until 2016 to figure out what front-line combat roles women can and will fill. Of course, for years, we've been hearing about servicewomen who have ended up in combat, fighting for their country.

MONTAGNE: But there is an untold story of a group of women serving alongside elite special operations forces. It's part of an effort to connect with half of the Afghan population that was off-limits to male soldiers - the women. Military leaders realized that these wives and daughters had valuable information and decided reaching them would be one of the keys to winning the war. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the author of "Ashley's War." It profiles the women who served with Army Rangers as part of cultural support teams.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Cultural came from the fact that it was this cultural divide that was creating the need for these female soldiers. Support was there because it was trying to make clear that this was not a backdoor way into putting women on the battlefield as front-line operators. And then team was because it was part of special operations, and as Adm. Olson said, everything in special operations is a team. And a recruiting poster went up on bases across the country from, you know, Alaska to Alabama saying, female soldiers, become part of history; join special operations on the battlefield in Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: And you point out there's an irony that the Army 75th Ranger Regiment ended up being the first to bring on a cultural support team.

LEMMON: The 75th Ranger Regiment, right. These are some of the most tested soldiers we've had. These were not guys who were supposed to be leading the gender integration model, if you will, right? These were people who were really engaged in some of the hardest, toughest combat in Afghanistan. And I think what was surprising for a lot of people was all these guys who had never served with women right alongside them on the battlefield really took to really accept these female soldiers alongside them because they brought value. And as one Ranger said to me, these women paid their rent every single night. They went out there. And they had heart, and they had grit. And they found things. And they talked to people we couldn't have otherwise.

MONTAGNE: The women themselves are interesting as a group.

LEMMON: Yes and what was so incredible about them is that they're so different on the surface. One was a West Point track star. You had an Intel officer who had worked with the FBI to bust drug gangs, a Bronze Star Medal of Valor winner. They were all athletic. They were all hungry to prove themselves. And they were all really committed to serving something bigger than themselves.

MONTAGNE: And then there was Ashley, whose name is part of the title. She wasn't exactly dreaming about this as a little girl.

LEMMON: No, she wasn't dreaming about going into combat necessarily, but she always tested herself. This, you know, beautiful, petite, blonde, young woman with a gorgeous family, a great husband, she was a newlywed. She loved to cook. And then she loved to put, you know, 40 pounds of weight on her back and go march for 12 miles. I mean, she was among the fittest and finest, just like the rest of these soldiers. And so when Ashley White has this opportunity to be part of this pilot program, she jumped at the chance and said, I want to do something that matters. I want to be with the best. And I want to test myself.

MONTAGNE: And the kinds of things she had to do - that they all had to do - in order to qualify to be accepted, what were they?

LEMMON: They were whittled down to about 55 or 60 women from more than 200 at the very start. And they faced a selection process that was called a hundred hours of hell. So that was a combination of mental agility tests and physical tests - climbing a 30-foot wall - tests about cultural awareness. And they went through this in a five-day period, which had little sleep and a lot of testing of who they were as people, and they were judged as a team.

MONTAGNE: Describe the moment when all of those who made the cut, when they're deployed.

LEMMON: Yes, so 20 of the women who are chosen are chosen to go on the side with the Ranger Regiment to go on those kinds of what are called direct action missions. And so they land in Afghanistan, and, you know, within two to three days, they're all out of there. They're all going to their forward operating bases all around Afghanistan in the middle of what is a very difficult time in this war. This is now the summer of 2011.

MONTAGNE: Now, these women are really at war. But with, say, Ashley - Ashley White - she did not even tell her parents that she was being deployed as part of special forces.

LEMMON: She really did not want them to worry. She was somebody who was always thinking about other people and was worried that her parents would be consumed with concern about what she was doing if they knew what it actually was. And quite honestly, there wasn't a lot of a roadmap to point to in terms of what she would be doing. Not many women had done that before her. And so, you know, once she got out there and she realized pretty quickly that this is real combat, right? We are going on some of the most dangerous, most critical missions to the war in Afghanistan that America is pursuing.

MONTAGNE: The women were all separated to join the special ops teams. When they were separated, they still communicated.

LEMMON: Yes, they were very connected. And they would share stories about things that they had been finding and learning while on operations out in Afghanistan. One young soldier found a woman who was sitting on a weapon that they had been looking for. Another soldier found something they were looking for in a baby's soiled diaper, yet others were keeping young women that they had met calm during operations so that the Rangers could do their work. So very quickly on, they proved that there was this whole community of Afghan women that you could access if you had American women soldiers out there talking to them and really keeping them away from the other things that were happening.

MONTAGNE: Is this a bridge, do you think, in some way to women doing the actual special forces work?

LEMMON: We will know the answer in January of 2016 as to which jobs will open to women and whether all jobs will open to women. Right now what we know is that in the summer of 2013, one of the special operations commanders actually cited Ashley and all of the women in these pages and said, those soldiers may well have laid the foundation for ultimate integration and that they did prove that women could bring value to those kinds of mission. You know, those women were the softest side of the harder side of war.

MONTAGNE: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the author of "Ashley's War: The Untold Story Of A Team Of Women Soldiers On The Special Ops Battlefield." Thank you very much for joining us.

LEMMON: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: And this note - Ashley did not make it home. She was the first woman to die and be honored alongside the Army Rangers with whom she served. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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