Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield (2016)

II

Deployment

10

The “Terp”

* * *

September arrived and with fall’s advance came a slight respite from the Kandahari heat.

Like the war in Afghanistan, the CST role itself was constantly evolving, most significantly in the makeup of its teams. Lane had just left Ashley and Anne in Kandahar for a base in another region. Sarah had moved as well. Instead of the pairings of two that had originally been envisioned, most of the women were now going out on their own with just an interpreter. The demand for CSTs from special operations was high enough that the women were spread out as widely as possible. And so as they were getting to know their fellow CST teammates better, they were also getting closer to their interpreters, the civilian women and men without whom they had no shot of doing their jobs each evening. As the CSTs came to learn, the interpreters were some of the bravest and most effective members of the special operations teams, even if their work was among the least known—and least appreciated. Demand from the entire U.S. military for Pashto-fluent and physically fit interpreters far exceeded the supply. The civilian contracting firms that specialized in recruiting the interpreters could not come near matching the surging demand from American forces.

This was hardly a new challenge for America’s military. The Civil War had been the last battle in which all sides spoke the same language. In the months before Pearl Harbor the United States began recruiting second-generation Japanese-Americans and trained them in working with Army soldiers at the Fourth Army Intelligence School in San Francisco. After the 1941 attack the school was moved to Minnesota, since by that time anyone who asserted Japanese heritage was officially banned from America’s West Coast. Historians would later attest to the extraordinary contribution of the Japanese-Americans during World War II. James McNaughton wrote: “Their courage, skill, and loyalty helped win the war sooner and at lower cost to the United States than would otherwise have been possible.” During the American occupation of Japan “they helped turn bitter enemies into friends, thus securing the victory and serving as a bridge between the two cultures.” Women played an important role in this effort; the WACs recruited American women from Japanese and Chinese families, some of whom spent the war years in Camp Ritchie, Maryland, analyzing seized Japanese documents.

But the Pentagon found itself utterly unprepared for the language demands that the twenty-first-century, post-9/11 wars placed on its troops. Finding language-skilled, battle-ready translators proved a major challenge, and Afghanistan was a lot harder to staff than Iraq because the Afghan and Persian communities in the United States were only a third the size of the country’s Arabic-speaking population. Pashto, one of the two official languages of Afghanistan, is not spoken in huge swathes of the world, which complicates the task of finding translators in neighboring countries. The lost-in-translation dilemma highlighted a far broader problem: America lacked language skills in the places where it was fighting, and it was up to the military to find a solution. One of Admiral Olson’s priorities was an initiative called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, whose goal was to increase “our level of regional expertise through the recruitment of native heritage speakers.” The translators had to be resident, legal noncitizens already based in the United States, and in exchange for their services they were promised an accelerated push through the opaque process of naturalization.

Speakers of Pashto and Dari, Afghanistan’s other national language, were eligible for the program, but there were precious few native speakers who could provide the linguistic firepower the war required. So the U.S. military and its civilian contractors went hunting for candidates in the nation’s largest Afghan-American communities, from Northern Virginia to Southern California. Private contractors paid several times what the military could, with salaries hovering around the $200,000 range, but even so it was a challenge to find people who met all the qualifications—especially women.

For the CSTs, who were busy getting used to their unusual new assignment, the ideal “terp” was a female who understood Pashtun culture; spoke American English as well as they did; grasped how special operations functioned; could relate to and connect with Afghan women and children in a hot moment; embraced the women’s mission; was athletic enough to keep up with the Ranger men while wearing body armor; and could speak most dialects of Pashto.

Ashley had the good fortune to actually get to work with the ideal terp, a young Afghan-American named Nadia Sultan.

Nadia had come to the United States in the late 1980s when she was only one month old. Her parents were Afghan refugees from Kandahar, fleeing their country’s nine-year war with the Russians, which was then taking especially bloody turns through the surrounding cities and their own neighborhood. They first stopped in Pakistan, where Nadia’s mother gave birth to her baby girl, out of concern that the United States wouldn’t let them in without health insurance. Once in America, her family spent its first few years in New York City, among a tight-knit neighborhood of Afghans; then they moved to Orange County, California, where a larger and more established community of Afghans was forging a new life. Nadia grew up a real Orange County girl; the raven-haired stunner never left the house without flawless makeup and a fresh manicure.

Nadia’s family may have left Afghanistan, but they did not shed all the traditions of their native home. Nadia and her sister were raised in an insular Afghan-American community to study, find a job, and marry a successful fellow Afghan-American approved by their parents. After that they were to begin having babies—as soon as possible.

But once she was in college, Nadia swerved from the preordained path her parents had tried to forge for their girls. She worked at a bank while studying at the University of California and graduated at the height of the financial crisis, a time of few jobs and stiff competition. Initially she had wanted to work with the police or FBI helping to rescue abused kids. Then she had heard about the interpreting gig from an uncle in New York; several of her cousins had already accepted positions and departed for Afghanistan. Nadia decided that if she could interpret for Americans doing humanitarian work in her parents’ homeland, she would go, too, and get experience that would help her when she returned. She was energized by the idea that she could make good money doing a job she believed in while also serving the nation that had given refuge to her own family when it was too dangerous to stay in Kandahar.

But Nadia’s parents knew enough of war to question her idealism. They were furious when she shared her news, and exploded in anger. Neither could believe that after all they had lost and all they had risked—their own lives included—to get to America, their daughter now wanted to go back there. “The Taliban are going to kill you!” her mother cried in Pashto. “They will murder you as soon as they lay eyes on you. And you cannot escape them, because every day there are rockets landing at the bases. If you go there, you are going to die.”

Nadia heard the same thing from nearly everyone in her family, but she ignored their entreaties and pushed ahead with her plans. She landed at Bagram Airfield in the summer of 2009, and three days later started her new job. Colleagues “welcomed” her the same way the commanders had received the CSTs: as if she had been there for years and was ready to hit the ground running without any breaking-in period or on-site training. Only she had had no training. She began working twelve-hour shifts interpreting at the base at Bagram, translating for the Americans when they brought in high-value detainees who supported the insurgency, and trying to help gain intelligence that would foil future attacks. She told her company she wanted to do more humanitarian work, like distributing food or opening schools, but they told her that unfortunately, this was the only work they had just then. Orange County and the days of mani-pedis couldn’t have felt farther away.

As she encountered Afghans from around the country, Nadia couldn’t believe how her parents’ countrymen were living. She had never seen so much suffering, had never interacted with people for whom food, shoes, and water were luxuries. Her parents had described Afghanistan as a land of plenty, of monster-size watermelons, juicy pomegranates, and newfangled electronic gadgets that people from India and Pakistan flocked across the borders to purchase. But all Nadia saw was insurmountable poverty and the fragility of human life. The only thing she had in common with the Afghans she met was their language.

She vowed she would never tell her parents how bad it really was. Their Afghanistan now existed only in their imaginations, and she wasn’t about to destroy it.

During her first two weeks at Bagram, Nadia struggled to endure each day. She hadn’t adopted her own “combat mindset” yet, and she had been ill-prepared for what she would witness and hear. She remained stoic on the job, but returned to her room after each shift to cry for hours, only to turn around and head back to work. She wondered whether she could keep doing the job, regardless of how much money she was earning. We need to get our troops out of here; these people are from a different century, she thought. We need to leave this place and never look back.

Nadia was equally disgusted by the partying all around her. Civilian contractors and NATO troops on base stayed up all night, drinking and reveling until dawn. She couldn’t think of anything more inappropriate than dancing in a war zone. How on earth can these people be out all night partying when men and women are dying right outside these gates? she wondered.

Time and war, however, changed Nadia, too, and gradually she became desensitized to the incongruous excesses of her new environment. After three months she stopped crying about her work. She even stopped taking it back to her room with her. And she stopped judging the partyers, though she never joined them. They weren’t bad people, she decided, they were just trying to survive. They are living day by day in their minds, as we all are, because no one knows what the next day will bring, she thought.

By the end of 2009, just before the U.S. troop surge began, the social scene got even more extreme. Many more interpreters came to Afghanistan, including some women Nadia knew from New York and California, and in dismay she watched these new “desert princesses” grab their seats at the “man buffet” they found on the bases. The old joke was a true reflection of life in a war zone: “twos became tens and tens became twenties.” Nadia herself—young, beautiful, and on her own—had an abundance of offers and suitors. “I would work three jobs to support a wife like you,” one told her, but she paid meager attention. This is not the real world, she reminded herself, and in time she and the other young, Afghan-American female terps forged a unique bond given their outsider status. They were civilians on a military base, Afghan-Americans whose loyalties were questioned by both the Afghans and their fellow Americans, and outsiders even to their own families; the elders thought it outrageous that these young women would choose to live there, in the middle of a war fought by men, instead of “having babies at home, where they should be.”

Six months into the job, Nadia realized that the shallow, label-conscious Afghan-American girl she once was had disappeared, and in her place was a steely professional with a front-row seat to the war in Afghanistan. Her work put her in direct contact with combatants and she—the spoiled girl from Orange County—was now part of the effort to stop attacks and learn where the insurgency’s leaders and their supporters were hiding. Nadia had by now met countless individuals who wanted nothing other than to kill her, and she had communicated with dozens of regular Afghan citizens who were destitute, uneducated, and now fully ensnared in a war much larger than they could comprehend. She could no longer bear to hear from friends back home about boyfriend issues or Botox woes. People are dying every day, all that is just so meaningless, she thought. But she never expressed any of this out loud; she just kept herself focused on her work. Gradually she became more confident in her own abilities, and developed a fine-tuned instinct for when someone was lying. She also found her own voice and stopped hesitating when she had an insight to offer military personnel for whom she translated. If she believed they were following a dead end, she would say so, even though some of the American leaders didn’t want to hear her views. She was only an interpreter; “just tell them exactly what I am saying,” they would tell her, oblivious to the fact that some of the words they used didn’t even exist in Pashto. But with time, many came to trust Nadia, and regard her as a partner who could offer insights into dangerous situations at high-stakes moments.

In spring of 2011, her bosses recruited her for a special assignment: a new mission that would take place out in the villages, not in the relative safety of Bagram. It was a new type of job for female terps: they would be assigned to American female soldiers who were out on raids searching and questioning Afghan women and children in insurgency strongholds. There was a color-coded shorthand for the special operations task forces. Nadia’s male colleagues now ribbed her for joining this new one they jokingly called “Pink Team.”

She didn’t want to take the assignment at first. She had planned to return home to California by 2012 and move on with her life: she wanted to do that long-postponed humanitarian work and maybe go back to school. But her bosses were even more desperate than usual for her to take the job; there were precious few Afghan-American females willing, daring, and fit enough to do the assignment. And she knew that if she didn’t go, the responsibility would fall to her teammates, some of whom were older women hardly athletic enough to go out on missions and others who were younger and had small children back home in the States. She felt it was her duty both to her country and to her colleagues to do what she knew she could. She would sign up for “Pink.”

Overnight, she went from the relative luxury of life at Bagram to a tent on an Army base in a province where cell phone networks stop functioning after 6 p.m. because insurgents use them to blow things up. On her first night out with the Rangers she feared her mother had been right all along: she might not make it home. Her stomach tossed in terror as she realized she had had no training for helicopter rides through pitch-black skies, or rough landings on fields of sand that kicked up a storm of dust and made breathing impossible. Nor had she trained for the miles-long treks through unknown territory. She wore a baggy Army uniform and carried a night-vision monocular, a device that has just one eyepiece and therefore a drastically reduced view of the objective. She had been trained for just a few hours to use it by a CST. It put an eerie green haze over half the landscape, making things even more terrifying. Running for her life alongside the Rangers, Nadia wondered what the hell she had agreed to. On her first night she choked on sand and threw up as soon as they neared the intended compound. “We have to keep going!” a Ranger yelled back at her as they ran. “No stopping, pick up the pace!” Eventually she did.

Nadia felt like an outsider once again. Even some of the CSTs were impatient with her, insisting that she work faster in the field. She wanted to answer, “Girl, do you understand I am from Orange County and have never done this kind of job before and have zero training for it?” But she said nothing, and just worked harder.

Mistrust between the U.S. soldiers and the Afghan forces they were there to train abounded. The grim threat of insider attacks frightened the Americans; an Afghan border guard had recently killed two NATO service members in the northern province of Faryab, and no one was sure who, exactly, was collaborating with the Taliban to pull off such acts. In the dining facility one day Nadia overheard a fellow American, a soldier, say he didn’t want to eat with the Afghan forces because he could be seen as a disloyal “defector” who might be working with the Taliban. She added this to her list of worries: that she, too, would be seen as someone with ambivalent loyalties simply because she dined or spoke with the Afghan forces to whom they would soon hand over security responsibilities. Men in the Afghan army shared with her their dreams of moving to America, and how those dreams collided with their genuine mistrust of American motives. Nadia tried to convince them that the Americans really did want to help the Afghans, and how hard the immigrant life in California had been for her family and so many others. She tried to build bridges between the Afghan men and the American soldiers who led the missions, but she found few takers. It was a cultural gap that felt nearly impossible to overcome.

In the summer of 2011, after her first round of CST missions, she agreed to be transferred to Kandahar. She knew it was full of IEDs and the site of constant firefights, but she now trusted the special ops guys with her life. Besides, their first interpreter there had broken her wrist; she hadn’t lasted more than a few weeks in the job. And there was no one else to do it. But first, Nadia would return to California for a family wedding.

The trip home turned out to be a disaster: Nadia found herself feeling as isolated as she had during those early days at Bagram. No one in Southern California acted like there was a war going on; it simply never came up in conversation. “Why are you so down?” her family and friends kept asking. “You seem so bitter.” But Nadia simply felt disconnected—from her family and her “real” life. I’ve just been bitch-slapped by reality, she thought as she watched the bride and her friends dancing carefree and full of joy in the wedding hall. They haven’t got a clue.

She may have been a civilian in the conflict, but war had changed Nadia, and when she left California for Afghanistan she wondered if she would ever again feel connected to people who hadn’t seen combat.

By midsummer she was settling in in Kandahar, and the new crew had arrived: Ashley, Lane, and Anne. Nadia was nervous; building rapport was important in a job that demanded they spend so many hours together preparing for, flying to, and, most important, placing their lives on the line during the mission. She found herself anxiously wondering what sort of women these soldiers would be. Nadia found her answer in the ladies’ room, of all places.

The four women—Ashley, Anne, Lane, and Nadia—were in the washroom getting ready for the first meeting of the day when Anne and Lane broke out their traveling cosmetic kits. It was a small gesture, but for Nadia, it spoke volumes.

During her years overseas she had been around a lot of military females who frankly frightened her. They conveyed the impression that any sign of femininity would be perceived as weakness. But here, in this tiny bathroom, were three incredibly fit, Army-uniformed, down-to-earth gals who could embrace being female and being a soldier in a war zone. She found it refreshing—and inspiring.

“Oh my God, you wear makeup!” she burst out.

Anne laughed as she put the final touches on an abbreviated makeup regimen.

“Oh, yes, always have to have mascara on,” she replied. “I am blond and look like I have no eyelashes. I don’t want to scare people!”

“Me, too,” Nadia answered, relieved in a way she hadn’t felt in months. “I mean, I obviously have brown hair, but I always have to do my eyeliner and fill in my eyebrows. Anything else, I don’t care, but those two things absolutely have to happen for me to be ready to face the day.”

Then the soldiers and their terp headed to the briefing room. This is the dream team, Nadia thought. They are confident, they love the work, they are tough, and they know how to put on eyeliner. They love the guys they work with and want to help; they aren’t scared or intimidated, just ready to go out. Meeting them helped convince Nadia to stick with the job. I can totally do this, she thought. I want to see these girls succeed, and I am going to stick it out and do it for them. Already she had sprained her ankle while out on mission and gotten more than a few scrapes and bruises. She worried she would get her face banged up or much worse one of these times, but she was going to stay at least until the following March, when her contract ended once more.

Over the next few weeks Nadia regularly went out on mission with Ashley and became one of her regular interpreters. She admired Ashley’s resilience in the face of difficulty, as when she struggled one evening with the faulty batteries in her night-vision goggles, and took in stride the fact that her warning light had been on toward the end of the mission despite fresh batteries. She saw Ashley was determined to improve her work, and had no ego barriers to overcome. The feeling was mutual, and it wasn’t long before Ashley trusted and felt comfortable asking her more experienced interpreter for advice about effectively talking with the Afghan women and children.

If Nadia had been “the ideal terp” when she got the CST assignment, she was now, six months later, even more skilled in her work. An interpreter’s job is to hear all the nuances in the language that both sides use to communicate, but also to read their body language and facial expressions for further clues. In reply to Ashley, Nadia described what it was like from the perspective of an Afghan woman to be questioned in the middle of the night by fully armed soldiers. The last few months had showed her how much of a need there was for this job; she had seen how the Afghan women clung to the female soldiers once they realized they were women. But she also wanted to share words of caution.

“Listen, some of those people out there could get an Oscar, they lie so well. And straight to your face, without even thinking about it,” she warned Ashley. “They’ll tell you they don’t know anything about what is happening in their homes, and sometimes they don’t, but oftentimes it turns out to be a lie. So listen to their answers. Don’t go in like a bat out of hell, all aggressive, because they will simply shut down. Sometimes these women really want to talk to you, but they are so terrified of the guys we work with and afraid of the Taliban propaganda that says American soldiers enter their homes only to attack them. You are there to keep them safe, and if you stay confident and composed you’ll be fine. They pick up on your disposition. They may be illiterate and they may never have been to school. But even if they can’t read or write they are smart when it comes to nonverbal communication, and they will be looking to read you from front to back. Never let anyone know the violence that you are capable of. Keep steady, and keep confident.”

Just a few nights later, when the two went out on a mission together, Ashley had the chance to put all that advice—and then some—to work.

The evening began like any other, with Ashley doing her part at the pre-mission briefing. “I am CST, I will be standing at X point at X time on this mission; my objective is to secure the women and children . . .” It had all become fairly routine for her now. She had recently written to Jason that it was surprising what one could get used to at war.

She and Nadia boarded the bird together for a short flight. The mission was to find a man suspected of having strong connections to insurgent networks and who was helping to fund Taliban attacks. Nadia confided to Ashley that ever since so many SEALs had died in the August crash, she was terrified of flying on helicopters. A friend and fellow interpreter who frequently worked with that SEAL team had been involved with securing the crash site. Thirty people she saw every day simply never came back to base and she hadn’t been the same since. Nadia was now seized by the fear that she would be next, and every time she boarded a helicopter she instinctively did the most American thing in the world to calm her fears: she prayed. But the moment she began to whisper the familiar words, she realized she had to stop.

What is racing through their minds when they hear a Muslim say “God is Great”? she asked herself, looking around at the Rangers and their military enablers who were seated all around her on the metal benches. These guys are going to think I’m a suicide bomber here to detonate myself, she thought. Her eyes filled as the reality settled in: here she was about to run off a helicopter into the black of night to fight her country’s war and she couldn’t even ask God to keep her safe because she would be seen as a “defector” by her fellow Americans. But that was the way things were. She whispered “Allahu Akhbar” to herself instead.

Nadia had confided much of this to Ashley, who usually carried her St. Joseph’s medal and her prayer card with her on missions, and the young lieutenant had figured out the rest. She did what she could to ease the anxieties of her friend and mission partner; she would give Nadia the thumbs-up as they boarded the bird, and offer her a reassuring smile that promised it was all going to be fine, just another night’s work. It was easy to get separated out there in the dark night, among fifty people on rugged and unknown terrain, so the two stuck together when they reached the objective. When they reached the compound another translator called out to the insurgent on the loudspeaker in Pashto. All the while, Ashley never moved more than ten or twelve feet from her terp.

Once inside, Ashley gathered the women and began by explaining, with Nadia as her voice, that she was an American soldier and she was there to keep them safe. No men would come near. She put on her blue nitrile rubber gloves and began searching the women and kids, keeping up a constant patter of questions in a gentle but confident tone. With her terp beside her, perfectly mirroring Ashley’s inflections, the team got to work.

The women answered Ashley’s questions and she scrawled down in her notebook the information they shared. Confirming identity is notoriously hard in the villages of Afghanistan, particularly those where the insurgency is strongest, because so many people use similar nicknames, and most of the men have invented elaborate stories and created false identities to evade foreign and Afghan soldiers. That night it was Nadia’s questioning, and Ashley’s subtle recognition of what she had done, that allowed the two to swiftly confirm the insurgent’s identity without giving anything away on their faces to show the importance of what they had just learned. That confirmation allowed the Rangers to use evidence they had found in the main compound plus other items on the ground to connect this man with the attacks. And it allowed all of them to get back to base faster than they would have otherwise.

She may have been skilled in her job that night, but it wasn’t long before nature got the better of Ashley. The importance of drinking water while on mission had been pounded into the women during their summer of training. “Dehydration is a potent enemy,” Scottie Marks had bellowed over and over again. But no one had prepared them for the reality of being out there all night for hours on end, trekking, talking, and flying, while taking in all those liquids. The body at a certain point cannot be ignored, and Ashley’s bladder had been demanding attention for hours. The Rangers, of course, had no issue; the moment a bird landed, a whole slew of soldiers would file out and relieve themselves right there, under the stars. But for women, it was a lot more complicated. Some, like Ashley’s partner Lane, trained their bladders by religiously pacing their water intake and sprinting straight to the restroom the instant they returned to base. Others used the “Shewee”—a plastic funnel that comes in “NATO green” and allows women to pee standing up. So far Ashley had held her body in check, like Lane. But this night, the metal plate of her body armor had begun pressing on her bladder and she was in agony. At last she asked a nearby Ranger if he would stand lookout while she scampered just a few feet away to answer nature’s call. All was well for a moment. And then:

“Who the hell is taking a piss out here?” a Ranger providing overwatch—additional cover for the unit in case an enemy suddenly materialized—asked over the radio once his ears caught the sound of a bladder emptying.

Silence.

“Hey, what’s going on out there? Who is peeing? I can hear you . . .”

Ashley was busted, and knew she had to answer because any uncertainty while the platoon was out on the objective was unwelcome, to say the least.

“Uh, it’s me,” she said for all to hear. “White.”

“Oh, wow,” the Ranger answered, in a surprised tone. The last thing in the world he had expected to hear was a woman’s voice.

“Uh, hello, White!”

The story of the exchange spread quickly among the CSTs, particularly since it came from “the quiet one” who, now that she had done the deed publicly once, decided it really wasn’t a big deal and would do so again. For weeks it was a joke among the female soldiers: “Uh, hello, White!”

Ashley never shared these stories with Jason—in fact she rarely spoke to him about what she was doing, given the sensitive nature of the work. To her mind, even uneventful trips to the latrine fell under the generic cone of silence. Jason always joked that Ashley had exceeded the speed limit maybe twice in her life; he could say with confidence that she would never be the loose-lipped soldier who would breach operational security.

But she did begin to pen a letter to tell him about one mission she would never forget, which had taken place a few days earlier.

It was her third time out with Ranger Regiment, she wrote. She and a translator—she didn’t name her—had flown by helicopter to a compound that was thought to be surrounded by IEDs, and landed just a half mile away from the objective. In districts where the risk of such explosives was high—including many around Afghanistan’s south—the special ops teams often flew in as close as they could to minimize the risk to their soldiers’ lives, by crossing as little risky terrain as possible. The men they wanted heard the helicopters landing, and the Rangers watched as thirteen fighters bolted out of the compound. The soldiers started throwing “flash bang” stun grenades to stop or at least slow them down and give the assault force a chance to catch them. But the nonlethal “bangers” didn’t do a thing except make some noise; the insurgents had a head start and were now running with their weapons. Immediately air-to-ground containment fire started to rain down to keep the men from getting away, and all hell broke loose.

At that point, her letter continued, Ashley was standing in the open air of the main compound’s courtyard, questioning the women and children. She and her terp had finished searching everyone and now were speaking with the children and their mothers. Ashley had just begun to ask a question of one of the young wives when she heard the sound of gunfire popping all around her.

She leapt toward the women and scooped up the kids in front of her. “Let’s go!” she yelled, as insurgents opened fire on the Rangers from the other side of the courtyard. One of the wives grabbed her arm and followed her to a corner of the courtyard.

“By this time I was already in the main compound doing my job and all of this was happening,” Ashley wrote to Jason. Then the Americans answered from the air. “I remember when they were firing at these guys, the brass from the machine gun falling right over top of us.”

Instinct and training took over, and Ashley threw her body on top of several children as the rat-a-tat of gunfire boomed over their heads. The women and their little ones shrieked and cried amid the chaos of rounds of machine-gun fire flying just above them.

No one on the American side got hurt, and the women and kids were unharmed. When it was all over, Ashley wondered at the relative composure of the women, who returned to their compound and gathered in a circle on the ground.

When she got back to their camp that night, Anne and Lane were waiting up for her. They had watched the entire mission, second by second, on a live feed in their office. The soldiers were just a bunch of blurry dots, and at the start of the action Lane had joked, “Maybe we should have her jump up and down for a second when she’s out there so we know which blip she is.” Then the firefight began.

“Jesus, they made contact,” Lane said. For the next few minutes they held their breath as small dots and bursts of firepower that looked like comets crossed the grainy, black-and-white feed. Lane and Anne stayed glued to their monitors until the mission ended. The war they had joined for the next eight months suddenly looked a whole lot more real.

“Holy shit, what happened tonight, Ash?” Lane blurted out as soon as her teammate walked through their office door to prepare her post-mission brief. She wanted to hear all about it; truth was, she was a little jealous. She pulled Ashley in close in a bear hug. She could see the exhaustion in her friend’s face.

“I dunno, I was with the women and kids . . .” Ashley’s voice trailed off; she felt no urge to share the details of what it felt like to worry about getting shot at or have hot shells ricochet off your back or hold tight a frightened child who’s staring at you wide-eyed while gunfire erupts all around. “I had no idea what was happening outside.” Then she sat at her desk and began preparing notes for her brief.

A few days later, during a call to Jason, she mentioned—in that offhanded, selfless way that her father often called “classic Ashley”—that she had gotten her Combat Action Badge as a result of the night’s action. She was among the first CSTs on her team to get the award, a two-inch silver emblem depicting an M9 bayonet and M67 grenade surrounded by an oak leaf, but all she could say was that she didn’t think she deserved it. “I didn’t do anything,” she insisted. “Seriously, all I did was do my job, even when things were going crazy. The training just kicked in. It’s really not a big deal.”

His response was full of pride. “Everyone at war faces their fight-or-flight moment, and you not only passed your test, you made sure the others were safe, too. I can’t wait to hear all about it, all the details of the mission you’re allowed to share and what it was like for you.

That conversation was what had led her to write the letter, so she could share a few of the details he craved.

Ashley knew the badge was, in fact, a big deal: a rite of passage that Jason had earned during his deployment. All the CSTs wanted one, and were keeping close track to see who would earn it first. The award was conceived in 2004 by an Army major who argued that the changing nature of twenty-first-century wars created a need to honor every soldier—regardless of military occupational specialty—who personally engaged with the enemy during combat operations. Only infantry soldiers had been eligible for previous combat awards, but the insurgent warfare of the new battlefield had no front lines, and it was no longer just the infantry guys who faced enemy threats. Truck drivers like Lane, medics like their bunkmate Meredith, and military police like Kate regularly took fire and confronted IED threats. Among the first recipients of the Combat Action Badge in June 2005 was a female Army sergeant, April Pashley, who had served in Iraq with the 404th Civil Affairs Battalion.

But Ashley didn’t say a word to anyone about the award—including Tracey and Lane—until days later when it echoed across the barrack’s grapevine that “White got her CAB.”

“How could you not tell us?” Lane asked, incredulous, when she heard the news.

Ashley just shrugged and looked down at her Gore-Tex boots.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” she said, and that was it, subject closed.

On the phone Ashley had promised to tell Jason the whole story just as soon as she could, which is why she was composing a letter that night. But a Ranger leader entered the broom closet, saying, “White, we’re going out tonight.” Special operations commanders wanted to keep the pressure on the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and all their networks and associates, and the op tempo was high. Finding time to write a thoughtful letter was proving harder than she thought.

Ashley would finish the story later.