The New Face of Special Ops: Women
“You are my MOTIVATION.”
That is the first sign I saw when I walked into the bedroom in Marlboro, Ohio, that once belonged to 24-year-old Ashley White to speak with her mother Debbie. And the first sign that this was a story I had to tell. That sign led me on a journey that led to two years of reporting, thousands of miles of travel, hundreds of hours of interviews, endless cups of Coffeemate-filled gas station coffee, and a whole lot of Holiday Inn Express stays. A journey that ended in the creation of Ashley’s War, a story that chronicles a team of women recruited, trained and eventually deployed with special operations on the battlefield in Afghanistan. A book that brings readers into a world we haven’t yet gotten to see — a world of fierce, feminine, fit, and unquestionably patriotic women bound by love for one another and for their country.
I knew immediately their war story was one we hadn’t heard before. Why were women on nighttime raids in Afghanistan? Who wanted them there? What kind of women raised their hands to volunteer for that kind of battle? And how didn’t we, as a country, know them?
Not long after I saw that sign in Ashley’s room, I sat around a round kitchen table in Fayetteville, North Carolina, filled with Triscuits and cheese slices and some of the funniest, warmest and most committed people I had ever met.
Among the crew: a West Point track star, a Bronze Star Medal of Valor winner, a sorority sister who also was an ROTC cadet and a women’s studies major, and a Heidi look-alike who served in Bosnia and helped the FBI bust drug gangs back in Pennsylvania.
They talked to me about Ashley.
About the allure of war, the power of serving something bigger than yourself, and the friends they missed so much that they would do anything required to go back to doing a mission that mattered with the best of the best.
All of them had large dogs, their own houses, and huge hearts. And they were connected in a way no one would ever understand and I had never seen before among female soldiers, not because they don’t serve, but because they don’t often get to serve together: by the unmistakable shared bonds of war. They finished each other’s sentences, they stepped on one another’s jokes, the told each other’s stories. They were each other’s divorce counselors, career coaches, and baby shower hosts.
They were family.
“Do you remember when you hocked your West Point ring for gas money?” one joked to another. “I think you left your car in the motel parking lot during training for two months.”
“How about when that guy thought we were a local volleyball team?” someone else said, to a whole lot of laughter.
I couldn’t imagine it. These women looked like gals I would see next to me at the Drybar. They sure didn’t fit my version of “warrior” or “hero” or all the other words used to describe the people who decide to stay in the fight on behalf of America in wars that go on without end (and which still today continue).
And yet all of them answered when America asked them to “become part of history” and to join a pilot program to bring women on the kinds of special operations missions seen by less than 5 percent of the entire U.S. military — all while the ban officially keeping women out of ground combat remained in place. Their service, of course, laid bare the vast gap between regulation and reality, but the truth was these women didn’t much care.
They didn’t go to war to prove a point. They went to war to serve with purpose.
These women talked to me for only one reason: to make sure their beloved teammate, 1st Lt. Ashley White, the quiet, petite blonde who loved to bake cookies and make dinner for her husband and then loved to put 40 pounds on her back and go on a ruckmarch before hitting the gym and busting out 25 or 30 pull-ups from a dead hang, was not forgotten.
“She was the best of us,” I heard over and over again. Her friend and team leader insisted it “should have been me” who never came home. And she wasn’t the only one who said that. During their summer of training before heading to Afghanistan, Ashley was the one who, after a lunchtime workout, would pass around fruit chews and granola and gummy bears while everyone sweat in their seats listening to the afternoon instruction. The one you would call if you forgot your boots and needed an extra pair. Or needed an exercise tip on how to stretch in a way that would get to your sorest muscles after the third workout of the day. In Afghanistan, Ashley would bake bread in their team office and then go for a run around the base wearing her body armor and go to the gym and climb ropes using only her arms. Hours later she would board a helicopter heading to a night raid alongside the Rangers.
She was the one who never, ever told you how good she was — but spoke through character in action. And it wasn’t her death that defined her. It was her life.
I looked around that kitchen table and heard these women talking of Ashley and her amazing husband — they were best friends and ROTC sweethearts, caught their stories of proving themselves to the war-tested fighters of the 75th Ranger Regiment for whom they had such respect, and listened to them tell of the IEDs and the weapons and the information they found each night with special operations. I asked them about the Afghan women they met during night raids, the fast ropes some of them sped down, the kids they hi-fived and the babies they scooped up and away from bullets and explosions.
They wore makeup. Sometimes even wore Spanx. And they went into battle with at least 45 or 50 pounds of gear on their back every night alongside some of the most tested and elite forces in special operations.
As I listened to them long for the friendship, the battle buddies and the clarity of purpose they had at war, I knew America had to hear this story of family, friendship, and the power of purpose. A story of heroes we hadn’t met and adventures we hadn’t known. They are our daughters, our sisters, our friends, and our wives.
And their story is ours.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the author of Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield (April 2015) from Harper.
Ashley’s War has been optioned by Reese Witherspoon for film development.