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Getting Women to the Battlefield

In 2010, a small team of women quietly changed history: American military minds in Afghanistan realized that Afghan women often held the essential information, and that American women were, as author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon explains, “a third gender,” who could “cross between worlds and be accepted by both women and men.” In response, they quickly pulled together a pilot program called Cultural Support Teams (CSTs), and for the first time ever, sent female soldiers into battle—after only six weeks of training (compared to the 12 to 36 months that most men received).

It was an incredible mission, and in Ashley’s War, Lemmon, a New York Times best-selling author and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells an incredible story—a story of the women who responded to the challenge, and joined male soldiers in special operation teams on highly sensitive and dangerous missions in Afghanistan. As Lemmon explains below, “The truth was that the only thing these young women wanted was to do a mission that mattered, alongside the best of the best, and to push themselves to their utmost limit in service to something greater—in this case, their country.” Below, we asked her some more questions.

A Q&A with Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Q

Your first book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, covers another extraordinary true story in Afghanistan. What made you want to tell this story next?

A

This story found me—I had no choice! I was well on my way to writing a book about the community of single moms in which I grew up and the technological change that shaped our lives: microwaves, cable, call waiting. And then one day in 2012 a Marine told me about “Ashley White and the team of women who were on Ranger raids” and SEAL missions in Afghanistan.

I looked at her dumbfounded. “How in the world were women on special operations missions next to Rangers and SEALs?” I asked. “And what about the combat ban? I thought women were barred from those missions?”

She looked at me with a mix of frustration, pity, and bemusement and urged me to look into it.

I was intrigued. And then obsessed. What, exactly, were women soldiers doing in special operations on the battlefield? Who sent them there? What were these women like? And how in the world didn’t we know about them as a country?

As it turns out, these women were there because special operations needed them, and it became one of the first times women were recruited, trained, and deployed as a team for special ops missions.

But that puzzle that didn’t fit, that series of questions that wouldn’t stop asking themselves, is what eventually led me to write the book that became Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield. There are only a few times in your life where a story attacks you and won’t let you go, and this was most definitely one of them, because it took everything we thought we knew about women on the front lines and flipped it on its head.

“It is a story about women who embraced the “and”—that you could be strong and kind, fierce and funny, intense and caring, and ambitious and warm. They showed you could be tough as nails and paint your nails, wear body armor and eyebrow pencil, do CrossFit and love cross-stitch and one did not make you less serious or capable when it came to the other.”

And while this started as a war story, what I immediately found in the first interviews with the teammates who became friends and then family as members of this all-women special operations team is that Ashley’s War is actually the ultimate story of female friendship in the least likely place: on the special ops battlefield. It is a story about women who embraced the ‘and’—that you could be strong and kind, fierce and funny, intense and caring, and ambitious and warm. They showed you could be tough as nails and paint your nails, wear body armor and eyebrow pencil, do CrossFit and love cross-stitch and one did not make you less serious or capable when it came to the other. So many times we only get to see one dimension of women’s lives in our pages and on our screens, and I wanted to show how this band of sisters brought all three dimensions, their whole selves, to war when their country asked them to “become part of history” and join special operations forces in Afghanistan.

Q

At the time the CSTs went to Afghanistan to be part of these highly critical and dangerous missions, women were still officially banned from combat—but they could be “attached” to battlefield units. What did the CSTs make of this dissonance between the important work they were doing and the rules and technicalities that supposedly defined what they could do?

A

The truth was that the only thing these young women wanted was to do a mission that mattered, alongside the best of the best, and to push themselves to their utmost limit in service to something greater—in this case, their country. It wasn’t about politics; it was about purpose. And they knew better than anyone that women had been out there on the front lines for years in the post-9/11 wars—with precious few people paying attention. Women had served as intel officers, combat pilots, and even, as noted in Ashley’s War, in Delta Force. It was just that we, most Americans, barely noticed. As for Ashley and Kate and Lane and the other incredible women and friends in these pages, like so many women, they didn’t pay attention to the barriers other people placed in front of them telling them what they couldn’t do, they stayed focused on excelling in what they could. And in this case, because it was war and special operations that needed them, and because the program was a “plane being built in mid-flight,” they often did far more than what their jobs officially said they did. All they cared about was serving with purpose; it was never about proving a point.

Q

What surprised you most about the way the female soldiers were received by the Afghan people they met and interacted with?

A

The thing people often don’t expect is the same thing that I found when reporting from Afghanistan: foreign—in this case, American—women inhabit this third gender. They are not Afghan female or foreign male and so they can cross between worlds and be accepted by both women and men. Men don’t find you threatening and women will let you enter into their world. The ability of women to enter a world that had been previously closed to U.S. forces was the whole reason these all-women special operations teams were created in the first place.

Q

You explore the idea that we all—even female soldiers—tend to equate toughness with the alpha-male, version of the trait. Did you come across moments in which this wasn’t the case, or soldiers who were able to express strength and competence in traditionally non-masculine ways? Did the presence of women influence the men?

A

It is funny—that comes up over and over again among women in tech and entertainment and the sciences who write to me about Ashley’s War, this idea that women have to be like men to succeed. And how that leaves so many women feeling like they aren’t true to themselves, because they are not being who they actually are, they are acting as other people expect them to be. The thing with Ashley White, and why so many loved her, was she sold Mary Kay and she could bust out 25 or 30 pull-ups from a dead hang. She loved making dinner for her husband, her Kent State ROTC sweetheart, and she loved to put 35 or 40 or 45 pounds of weight on her back and march for miles to train herself to be stronger and fitter. She was quiet and avoided swagger—no talking about herself or what she was capable of, ever, and yet she was intense and incredibly effective when the moment demanded it. The fact that she didn’t scream or yell or get in people’s faces, or look like the big, aggressive type we so commonly associate with toughness…that made her all the stronger and the more formidable when you understood who she was and the heart and courage and caring at her center.

Q

You wrote about many men who played important roles in helping women who wanted to serve on the battlefield get there. How has their support been perceived by the wider military community?

A

One of the most amazing folks in the book is Scottie Marks—a Ranger who served a dozen deployments in the past decade of war. That is close to four years at war. He had no idea what to expect when he was told he had to head to North Carolina to “go train girls,” but saw immediately that Ashley and Lane and Kate and this whole band of sisters cared. They had guts and heart and grit and they listened to each word he offered them on how to succeed and to make a difference on the battlefield. By the end of his days training them he wonders whether these young women may one day be their own Tuskegee Airmen—they are going to make history and no one knows about them, he thought.

He and some of the Rangers who became the CSTs biggest boosters sometimes were seen as having bought into a myth that women could keep up or were an asset. But they have always stood by what they found on the battlefield: that these women had earned their spot on the front lines.

Q

The ban on women in ground combat units officially ended in 2013. How much has changed for female soldiers since then? And what kinds of obstacles do female soldiers who want to serve in that capacity still face?

A

I covered the opening of Army Ranger school to women this summer—and a Georgia columnist wrote this remarkable piece about how “Ashley White paved the way for women in Ranger School.” No question that Ashley and Lane and Amber and Kate and all the women who came before them and on whose shoulders they stood cleared a path for women in uniform who followed.

In January 2013, Sec. Panetta announced the end of the ban on women in ground combat. By January 1, 2016, all roles, from SEALs to Rangers to Special Forces, must open to women or a reason given as to why they will not. Ashley White and her teammates definitely played a role in the journey from then to now; we will see what January brings in terms of opening all roles to women.

Q

How do you think our military would be different if the proportion of women serving was greater?

A

For me, it is a talent question and a national security issue. We need the best, smartest, toughest, most capable people in the right roles protecting and defending the country. And that is what Ashley’s War was about: a group of Americans who raised their hands when their country said it needed them, and who proved in the process that what mattered most was contribution to the mission and making a difference for your teammates, your friends, your family, and your country.

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