“By learning the stories of those who have served, we gain a better understanding of their needs as they return home.”
This was the message Bob Woodruff delivered to nearly 100 guests at an intimate party, hosted by Diana L. Taylor in her Manhattan home, to celebrate the release of “Ashley’s War.”
Written by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a New York Times bestselling author, it is the true, untold story of female soldiers assigned to work with special operations teams in Afghanistan.
The formation of Cultural Support Teams, began when Special Operations Command realized that not having access to Afghan women, due to strict religious and cultural views, “meant that U.S. soldiers were entirely blind to half the country’s population, and all the information and social influence it held.”
The women were handpicked from across the Army and National Guard, and underwent a grueling selection process, which was a week of all-night work sessions and all-day marching, running and obstacle testing … with very little sleep. Those who made the cut then attended an abbreviated, six-week course to prepare them for working with either the Green Berets or Rangers.
While the book touches on the stories of several women in the first CST class, it devotes added attention to Lt. Ashley White-Stumpf, a National Guardsman (who was married to an active duty Army officer). She was assigned to work with the Rangers in Kandahar — and would be the first CST member to earn a Combat Action Badge — and sadly, to be killed.
Though not a Ranger, Ashley was honored as if she was — after all, she kept up with them on mission after mission. Her name was placed on the Army Special Operations Command Memorial Wall of Honor, alongside the fallen Rangers with whom she served.
The head of Army Special Operations Command, Lt. Gen. John Mulholland attended her funeral, saying, “They absolutely have become a part of our special operations family. They absolutely will write a new chapter in the role of women soldiers in the United States Army and our military and every single one of them have proven equal to the test.”
The CSTs proved their worth in Afghanistan. Six more classes of CSTs would follow. Some credit them with helping change the direct combat ban (which was repealed in Jan. 2013). Ironically, 19 female soldiers began Ranger School the same week as the “Ashley’s War” release.
The book highlights this groundbreaking team, but it’s important to remember that roughly 300,000 women deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11. Nearly 160 women were killed and more than 1,000 injured while serving.
Like their male colleagues, female veterans face challenges when they return home — in many ways, more so. As it is, only 1 percent of Americans have served in the military post-9/11, and fewer still have been women — creating that much more of a civilian/military divide.
Female post-9/11 veteran unemployment rates are higher than men (8.5 vs. 6.9 percent) and women are more than three times as likely to become homeless. One-in-five suffer from hidden injuries like post-traumatic stress, depression or military sexual trauma (MST).
And while the numbers of women filling the ranks has grown tremendously over the past decade-plus, the male-focused system hasn’t kept pace. With demand on services increasing, the Department of Veterans Affairs created an awareness campaign to peel away the stereotypes that could dissuade women from getting care.
There are a number of organizations and programs that look to address the issues women veterans face. Among the Bob Woodruff Foundation’s grants in 2014 was funding to the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, to host retreats for military women and veterans dealing with combat stress, trauma and MST.
Additionally, a number of BWF grantees like Team Red, White and Blue boast large female memberships.
So far, nearly a third of Team Rubicon’s Clay Hunt Fellows have been female veterans — helping shape the future of the disaster relief organization’s rapid growth.
While veterans groups recognize the needs of women returning home, it’s time for civilians to do the same by developing a greater understanding of who serves.
“Ashley’s War” is a powerful, and moving start.
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A note from the publishers of Ashley’s War:
As part of the launch of the book Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield, we would love to hear your stories of heroes all around us, in and out of uniform. Please share your stories using the #HeroesWanted hashtag on Twitter and Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/gayle.tzemachlemmon .
These stories can be of friends, teammates, family members and others whose example inspires and motivates you. We’d love to have a photo attached! We plan to share some of these stories during the Ashley’s War book tour, and we hope you will be a part of shining a spotlight on the stories of service and sacrifice and valor we don’t yet know.