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

II

Deployment

11

Climbing Mountains in the Night

* * *

I am going to die, Amber thought.

She was clambering up a mountain in eastern Afghanistan on this fall night, through a dense grove of trees that blocked nearly all the moonlight she knew was there. I think we are now walking around the only wooded part of Afghanistan, Amber thought to herself. It was pitch dark, and she was accompanying a team of elite soldiers she had never worked with before. She had never seen vegetation like this before in Afghanistan; it was bizarre. Every other mission had taken her through a rocky, bare moonscape that was good for line-of-sight visibility because it minimized the possibility of surprise. At first it had felt like any other “infil” as craggy mountain peaks loomed over bare earth. Then, suddenly, the landscape gave way to forest. Now she was navigating a mountain whose dense, tricky terrain seemed to be part of the enemy’s plan.

She chastised herself for sweating like a three-hundred-pound fat kid.

Check yourself, Amber. Check your breathing, she commanded. Dodging a tree, she kept up the internal conversation that forced her to focus: Step by step. Don’t slip into a crevice or fall off the face of the mountain and die. Don’t do anything stupid. Pay attention.

Her quads burned as she scaled an incline so steep that the muzzle of her M4 nearly touched the earth. Amber’s ankles felt as if they would break into little pieces of crushed bone. Her interpreter, Jimmie, a young Afghan male whose name wasn’t really Jimmie, held on to her shirtsleeves as they jumped over crevasses, working to avoid getting smacked in the face by tree branches or tripping over roots and vegetation, all the while trying to keep up with the far more experienced Rangers. The sheer expanse of the mountains all around her served to focus her attention. Until now she had never truly appreciated how barren most of Afghanistan is, and how much easier that made most special operations missions. She pledged if she got off this mountain alive she would never take that spare landscape for granted again. As she lumbered through the darkness, carrying her fifty-plus pounds of gear and body armor, her mind wandered to the war in Vietnam. She wondered what went through those soldiers’ minds as they trudged through the endless jungles trying to clear the trees, insects, and critters out of their way while keeping themselves and their buddies from getting killed. She always felt the deepest respect for what those guys went through, but it wasn’t until now that she fully appreciated the hell it must have been. She did appreciate, however, the fact that her female legs were among the shortest of anyone’s out there, making the trek longer and harder. But Amber would collapse in a dead heap before admitting that leaping over four-foot-wide gaps in the earth on a steep mountain in the middle of the night was a challenge for her. Part of her was secretly glad to observe she wasn’t the only one struggling; a big guy next to her, another enabler, spat out colorful obscenities describing the terrain as he marched.

“Aren’t you glad I had you do kit runs?” she called back to her translator, referring to the drills she had made him do to make sure he could keep up on mission. Jimmie grunted his grudging assent.

At long last they clambered down the mountain for the final time and reached a tiny village nestled in the valley and circled by mountains on three sides. The intel teams said the insurgent they sought played a central role in organizing Taliban IED attacks and moving foreign fighters around the area. The threat level was high—even higher than usual—and everyone was on alert as the line of soldiers cut across the night.

The Rangers’ translator called out for the men of the house to come out. Soon the assault team entered the compound.

In another part of the compound, separate from the women and children, the Rangers began working to ascertain the identities of the men of the house, as well as to locate any weapons or explosives.

“CST, get over here,” a voice called out on the radio. Amber hurried to the spot where six women and nearly a dozen children stood together, about a hundred yards away from the compound. Inside the house the Rangers were doing their work.

“I am Amber,” she told the frightened group, looking the women directly in the eyes as Jimmie translated. “I’m an American soldier and we are here to help keep you and your children safe. We will make sure that none of the soldiers come near here.”

Slowly she put on her blue nitrile gloves, and softened her tone. “I am going to start by searching you—this just helps us all to stay safe.” Then she removed her helmet to make herself look less scary, and make it clear she was a woman, too. One of the children immediately stopped crying, and Amber draped a teal-colored cotton scarf over what she now called her “combat braids”: two long, blond plaits of hair that extended from just above her ears to her mid-shoulders. The higher-ups had told the CSTs they should be able to prove quickly and uncontrovertibly that they were female while out on the objective; this would put the Afghan women at ease, which in turn might encourage them to speak more freely and share valuable information. The CSTs had joked about being asked to shed their helmets on target and how insane that would sound to most of the guys they worked with. “Hell, no,” one of the Rangers told Amber, “You’d never catch me doing that.” But they all agreed that making sure the women saw and understood who they were dealing with mattered most. Amber had turned to the braids as a solution; they allowed her to look feminine without her hair getting caught in her helmet.

Amber pulled Jolly Ranchers, Tootsie Rolls, and Dum Dum lollipops from the pockets of her cargo pants as she searched the children. “Hands out,” she said, and a half dozen little hands tentatively reached out to accept the multicolored treats in clear, cellophane wrappers. The little boys were all curious about which candy the other was receiving; the tallest—she guessed he was the oldest—began divvying them up among the other kids. As they stared at the exotic treats, Amber gently patted each one on the shoulder. Once she was done she gave the kids the internationally recognized gesture of success: a hearty high-five. No one expected the kids to be carrying weapons, but they certainly could be given things to hold by men in their family who might think they were an ideal place to store whatever they didn’t want found.

The women were watching Amber carefully, and soon realized she was not there to harm them or their children. So far she had stayed true to her word and kept the men at bay. One began speaking quietly.

“The Taliban are all over the village,” she said. “They hide up in the mountain and they are always coming down here to make us give them food and a place to stay. They know you guys come in here, but they also know you leave. And so do we.”

Amber was taking notes as the kids tugged at her Crye top, peppering her with questions in Pashto. Jimmie kept up a constant patter of translation, and Amber got to the point, asking about the men in the village and what they were up to.

Soon she was interrupted by a Ranger on the radio: “CST, what is the count?”

“Five men, six women, twelve kids,” she replied. The women had explained to Amber who was there at their home that night, and now Amber shared her tally of the total number of adults and kids gathered at the compound. The women and kids stood there with her. The Rangers should have found five men inside.

“Are you sure?” he asked. “Check your count again.”

Amber turned back to the women, and through Jimmie confirmed the number.

“Yes,” she said, “I’m sure.”

“CST, check again,” she heard the Ranger leader say. There was a tone of urgency in his voice.

Amber was frustrated, but figured there had to be a reason. She and Jimmie went back over what the women had told them. The number of men was definitely five.

“Confirmed. Five, it is five men, six women, twelve kids.”

On the other side of the compound, the Rangers now realized they had a serious problem: they saw only four men in front of them, all of whom had now been removed from the house and brought to an area outside for questioning. The CST had given them a different number. Where the hell was the fifth? In recent months this Ranger unit had faced a series of barricaded shooters, gunmen who were hidden inside a house and would start mowing down American and Afghan troops the moment they entered. Everyone was quietly tense, wondering if a fifth man was about to let loose on them.

Finally one of the four men confessed that there was indeed another man inside. A Ranger stealthily approached the front entrance and rolled a flash bang through the door, in hopes of drawing the insurgent out of his hiding spot without having to open fire. All the rules said they had to try this first, before resorting to firepower. A bolt of light flashed after the explosion, and smoke filled the room.

Nothing.

“Okay,” Amber heard through the voice in her headset. “Send in the canine.”

Another enabler, this one a professional dog handler, led a large dog wearing a harness to the entrance of the compound and gave a command that sent the dog lurching into the house. This much-loved animal had years of special training and service under his collar. His specialty was sniffing out explosives and finding hidden enemy combatants, and he was one of a long line of dogs that have worked overseas with America’s armed forces.

The United States military officially began using canines in World War I and by World War II more than four hundred scout dogs were taking part in combat patrols, finding and hunting the enemy. After Pearl Harbor, a group of dog breeders formed “Dogs for Defense,” with the goal of building a well-trained canine force in the event America went to war. Come Korea, roughly 1,500 canines performed guard duty with the Army while others joined patrols. During Vietnam, with its close-quarters combat in treacherous terrain and tropical climes, dogs were once again called into action: around four thousand joined patrols to hunt for weapons and enemies, and served duty on army bases, especially at night when soldiers were most vulnerable to attack. But many of the dogs that served alongside U.S. soldiers never made it home; some were euthanized and others abandoned in Vietnam once troops pulled out. After 9/11, however, the need for dogs on the battlefield became acute once more and thousands deployed. This time Robby’s Law, named for a military dog that was euthanized when he no longer had the strength to serve, ensured that American soldiers who wanted to adopt the loyal dogs they handled could do so, as could other American families stateside. By the end of the first decade of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, military working dogs had served in Afghanistan as bomb detectors, de-miners, people finders, scouts, sentries, and therapy providers at bases all across the country. In 2010 alone, military dog teams found more than twelve thousand pounds of explosives in Afghanistan, according to the military. Along with their handlers, some of the dogs were trained to slide down a rope or jump out of a helicopter. Like their fellow servicemen they had been killed, blown up, and injured by gunfire. For special operations, the dogs’ abilities and instincts had become critical assets: a Belgian Malinois named Cairo had even joined the Navy SEAL raid to capture Osama bin Laden.

Now, with the pressure mounting at the compound in eastern Afghanistan, the agile dog bounded inside. Suddenly Amber heard through her headphones the sound of gunfire. She tried to focus on the conversation she was having with the women, but it was hard to ignore the rapid tat-tat-tat of shots being fired. Jimmie was in the middle of an extended translation when Amber realized the men on the radio were talking about a soldier who was hit. The barricaded shooter opened fire the moment the dog cleared the doorway, and one of the Rangers standing close to the breach had caught a bullet just under the ribs.

Amber heard a call for the medevac. She was still outside the compound, and could see nothing inside its walls, but she knew the situation had turned lethal. Still, she was determined to keep the promise she had made to the women and children to protect them from whatever happened. One of the women was struggling to nestle her baby in her gown, and without thinking about it Amber removed her teal headscarf and handed it over. Despite the gunfire all around them, the mother actually had the presence of mind to thank her. Amber studied the woman’s face, now illuminated only by the circle of light from her headlamp. She looked thin, maybe even undernourished, beneath the many layers of dresses and shawls. Amber thought this woman could be around the same age as she—close to thirty—or she could be fifty. There was no way to tell. These women’s lives are so hard, she thought.

With her questioning done, Amber tried to pass the difficult minutes that followed in conversation. One of the women talked about the family of the insurgent who lived at the compound and the very regular presence of the Taliban in their neighborhood. “The mountains are full of their men,” she said. She described the violence the Taliban soldiers regularly meted out to anyone who cooperated with foreigners. Amber tried to reassure her that the Americans were here to help and only wanted to make the area safe for the local population—families like hers, as well as the Afghan soldiers and U.S. troops who were operating in the area.

The boom of an incoming medevac helicopter interrupted the conversation. It landed around fifty feet from where she and the women and children were huddled, and Amber watched in awe as the pilot glided the enormous machine onto the only patch of even ground that could safely accommodate it. The high mountain faces that surrounded them made flying in the pitch dark treacherous; she couldn’t imagine how he managed to find the one tiny rectangle of airspace in which he could safely maneuver to a landing. Technology would help, but years of training, experience, and exceptional skill were what made feats like this possible.

Just then Amber heard the Rangers yelling over the radio to pull the women and children farther back. The shooter was still inside, and they were not about to see any more Americans shot or killed that night.

By now hours had passed since they first landed near the village. Between trekking up and down the insanely steep mountain, reaching the objective, flushing out the shooter, and getting their injured Ranger to safety, they had used up nearly all their limited hours of darkness. Shards of daylight began to lighten the sky. Amber wondered whether they were facing the dreaded “ROD”—remain over day—and hoped they weren’t. No one wanted to be there come dawn; the Americans and the Afghans would be juicy prizes in this Taliban stronghold if they were still on that hill when the sun rose. She eyed warily the hills that surrounded them and held her M4 assault rifle even closer.

We’ll be Taliban breakfast, Amber thought to herself.

“CST, let’s go. Now!” the Ranger first sergeant ordered.

Amber looked around at the women and children she had just spent the entire night alongside. They may not have spoken English, but they understood the voice command Amber had just received. Their safety blanket was about to be taken away. The children began to scream and cry in Pashto. She could feel how scared they were now that the Americans had come and gone and found out about their relative, who happened to be an insurgent dedicated to fighting the foreign forces.

She hoped that her being there had made things less terrible for them, but right now she had to get the hell out of there. She offered her goodbyes, grabbed Jimmie by the sleeve once more, and began running out of the village behind the other soldiers.

As they bounded out of the village, Amber glanced back at the crying family. She wondered what would happen to the young woman who had wrapped her baby in Amber’s scarf. Or the small girl with the wide, brown eyes who so loved the Jolly Ranchers? She didn’t know and never would. She had done as much as she could. And now it was time to go.

Time had proven to be a formidable enemy. They missed the nighttime window in which a hulking Chinook could safely land and whisk them back to base. It was too risky, so now their only option was to run to the closest forward operating base and catch a ride back.

It was five miles away and a glint of light could be seen in the sky overhead. The platoon was running through the last moments of darkness, praying they could last just a bit longer under the disappearing cover of night, when Amber heard the sound of small arms fire. Bullets started spraying all around them as villagers greeted them with round after round.

Amber kept moving and studied the men in front of her, watching as they switched from a fast sprint to an unpredictable pattern of running and ducking, using buildings for cover. She had never had proper infantry training, only a half-day tutorial in the CST summer course. The Rangers, on the other hand, specialized in this kind of combat evasion and had prepared extensively for precisely this kind of situation. Guess I am in for some on-the-job training, Amber said to herself with a dose of gallows humor. Imitation is the best form of avoiding a fatality, or something like that, she thought.

And so, when the Rangers zigged, Amber zigged; when they zagged, she did the same. She mimicked every movement they made: they looked up and down the street, she looked up and down the street. They “pied” corners—a technique for rounding a corner in a dangerous situation that minimizes exposure to the body—and Amber pied corners, ducking, crouching, using the compound walls for cover without actually touching them. Her mind flashed back to action films where the hero dodges gunfire while running at top speed. She always wondered how they managed to stay alive, and now here she was doing it herself, in daylight no less. It all felt surreal, as if she were trapped on a film set. Only the sounds and the sights were undeniably real. She was glad to see she was keeping up with the Rangers, and surprised by just how fast adrenaline and the desire to avoid getting shot propelled them all forward in all that gear. Even Jimmie was close behind; all the sprints had served him well.

Holy fuck, Amber, she coached herself as they tore through the village. Just do what these guys are doing and do not screw up.

She kept running. Do not let it be the girl who gets the bullet.

It wasn’t just that Amber didn’t want to get shot for her own sake. She knew that if anyone got hit right now the entire platoon would have to slow down to carry that soldier out. She didn’t want to put anyone at even greater risk than they already were.

Then over the radio she heard one of the leaders congratulate the unit for their part in making the “Mogadishu Mile.” It was a tribute to the Rangers who got pinned down on the streets of the Somali capital city in the Black Hawk Down incident. I gotta hand it to ’em, Amber thought. These guys don’t lose their sense of humor even under fire.

At long last they reached their destination: an American FOB, or forward operating base, where a helicopter could safely land and carry them home. Amber thought the noise of the gate creaking open might just be the happiest sound she had ever heard.

It wasn’t long before she was strapped into a noisy helicopter, the air filled with the smell of sweat mixed with gasoline, dust, and the gun oil CLP. Basking in a moment of pure relief, Amber realized she was ravenous. She promised herself she would always remember to bring a snack on future missions. Then she looked around at all those fighters, the guys she had dreamed of joining, and felt pure joy.

I have gone cliff diving, executed FBI search warrants to drug-dealing gang members, jumped out of planes, she told herself. But nothing matches this high. She imagined she could stay up for two more days if she had to. Going out to get bad men who were killing innocents and fellow soldiers and then living to tell the tale—well, making it to the other side of all that was a drug in itself, and Amber was sure that nothing else, ever, could match it.

Man, these mountains are majestic, Amber thought as the helicopter lifted them off the ground and over the trees that had, hours earlier, held so much gloom and terror. The sun rose in streaks of brilliant orange and red to greet them.

An hour later, back on base, she sat eating a microwaved s’more and listening to the team debrief the mission: what they had done right, what they had done wrong, the information they had gathered. What they needed to do better next time.

“Oh, yeah, hey, CST, good job out there,” the Ranger who led the brief remarked. “You corroborated the fact that we were missing somebody.”

In that moment she felt part of the team. Even if she still had a lot to learn on the job, which she did, she had contributed to the mission. And she had taken fire without crapping herself.

I love this job, she thought as she collapsed into bed that morning.