Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield (2016)
Making a Difference
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There,” the CST pointed. “There he is.”
Sarah Waldman, MP and former Girl Scout who loved sewing as much as survival training, stood before a cluster of surveillance monitors at the operations center. She was pointing to a blurry dot on the screen, an insurgent called “Hamidullah” whom the Rangers had been watching on-screen for more than a dozen hours. Her job was to serve as a second pair of eyes during the daylong surveillance, a backup to the officers and team members whose duty it was to watch every bit of footage coming in. The fact that a Ranger leader had given her this assignment was a backhanded compliment: the monitoring work was tedious and hard on the eyes, but it was undoubtedly important. Sarah was proud to have been asked, and for hours had been focusing intently on the monitor.
In the last few weeks Sarah had swung between epic frustration and sublime fulfillment with her new role. Some nights the Ranger forces brought her out on mission and put her to work; those nights she loved. Other nights they would tell her there was no room on the helicopter or they didn’t need her; those nights she loathed. She spent the down nights strategizing with Leda about how best to argue her case to the platoon’s commanders.
“Give it time,” Leda advised. “CST is entirely new for these guys; let them see what you can do and let your work speak for itself.”
Sitting and doing nothing while her team went on mission was frustrating, but Sarah knew Leda was right.
All over Afghanistan the U.S. military’s counterterrorism teams rely on technology to verify and amplify the intelligence gathered and help them “see” what is happening on the ground. Via satellites, balloons, manned and unmanned aircraft, the last decade of warfare has witnessed an explosive growth of visual sensors, “eyes in the skies” that offer a window on sites the American military could not otherwise observe. Air Force magazine called the new intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance—ISR—“a revolution” that’s changing the way war works by bringing superior technology to the battlefield in ever-more-real time. Or, as General McChrystal’s intelligence chief wrote in 2008, “airborne ISR has become critical to this war because it offers persistent and low-visibility observation of the enemy as well as an ability to detect, identify, and track him” in places where foes can easily “camouflage” themselves among civilians. This revolution began in Bosnia, but came into its own in the years following the initial invasions into Afghanistan and Iraq; by the time CST boots hit the ground in Afghanistan, its impact was visible all across the country. The presence of the sensors lowered the number of casualties by allowing the military to stop attacks before they could occur. They also allowed commanders to get a better sense of where and how the insurgents were operating so when they did pursue them, they could minimize the risks to innocents.
In the JOC, teams of specialists working with the Rangers had been watching Hamidullah most of the day as he got on and off his motorcycle, making his rounds throughout the village, traveling from stop to stop to meet with his contacts. Intel folks understood he was a central figure in a plot to bomb a target in a nearby town center—a high-visibility attack designed to strike a crowded location at a busy time of day and terrify as many as possible. The goal of Sarah’s commanders was to stop him before he struck.
Sarah carefully kept her eye on the blurry figure as it moved through the crowded streets. Finally, she saw Hamidullah stop before one of the biggest and most impressive compounds in the area. The building was built in Alexandrian style and boasted fourteen-foot walls with high towers rising from every corner. The house looked sturdier and more expensive than most in the area, as though it had been constructed from cement, usually imported from Pakistan, rather than the dirt or thatch that covered most houses in the insurgency-controlled rural areas. Most of those homes proved vulnerable to the harsh extremes of the Afghanistan climate, and looked like they might easily give way during even a modest storm. Like many of the compounds in the area, this one housed several extended families behind thick walls that offered privacy by making the house impossible to see from the outside. Inside, a network of narrow lanes connected one home to another, and a series of spacious courtyards provided areas for children to play and women to socialize. The families frequently consisted of one man with multiple wives and many more children, plus assorted visitors. This meant there might be three, four, or five men at home at once, along with at least three times as many women and children.
Minutes ticked by and Hamidullah stood by the door. On the other side of the wall, Sarah could see what appeared to be children playing. Then another figure came out and quickly returned inside, bringing the little ones with him. The children came back out and an adult brought them back inside again. She watched as Hamidullah rolled his motorcycle down the road by the handlebars to the entrance of what looked like a guesthouse and covered it with a sheet. A door opened and he quickly disappeared from sight.
Having confirmed the insurgent’s presence in the compound, a team of Rangers filed onto their helicopters that night. Sarah initially worried she would be held back, since he was thought to be armed and official guidance from the higher-ups required that a CST remain on base if there was arduous terrain or an imminent threat of “contact”—meaning getting fired at or shot. But she had seen the compound Hamidullah entered and so had the Rangers. Kids lived there, which meant women nearly certainly did as well. Her services would be useful. Sarah, like all the CSTs, understood that contact could come at any time on any night, on any mission—they were never safe, and they accepted that. They had come to Afghanistan to do a job, not to be protected from the hazards of the work. This time, she was asked to join the operation.
She now found herself running off the bird with members of the Ranger platoon and walking toward the very same walls the insurgent had recently passed through. Once they reached their destination she waited for the assault team to do its work.
From a hundred feet back she watched as the Rangers cleared the compound and entered the guesthouse. The U.S. soldiers and their Afghan counterparts moved from room to room, silently hunting for explosives, weapons, and intelligence items.
“CST,” she finally heard over the radio. “We need you here.” Sarah and her interpreter, Wazhma, moved inside the compound to the living area and found a woman and children huddled together, nervously watching every move of the men who had summoned her in. Sarah could feel their terror.
She began by addressing the only adult in the room, who turned out to be the woman of the house, Masuda. She sat in the middle of the richly decorated room, surrounded by her seven children. Wine-colored tapestries hung on the walls and the carpets were freshly washed and well tended. She wore a dress with elaborate beading and embroidery running through the fabric. As someone who grew up making blankets and pillowcases, Sarah could appreciate the effort such handwork required. The crisp, loose-fitting gown looked new, not at all like the fading, threadbare dresses covered with old woolen shawls she was accustomed to seeing here in one of the most rural parts of the country. Masuda looked as if she wouldn’t appear out of place in one of Afghanistan’s heavily crowded and rapidly modernizing cities.
Sarah closed the doors to the room so none of the men could see inside, and began speaking in quiet tones, in hopes of calming everyone and persuading them that she would do all she could to keep them safe. She promised that no one would enter or be able to hear their conversation, and she begged the woman to speak freely. The children quieted down and Masuda began to tell her story.
This man you are looking for, she said, invaded our home today. He began banging on our gate this afternoon and demanding that my husband let him in. My husband didn’t answer for a while because he wanted the man to go away, but then the man shouted that he carried guns and explosives and that if my husband didn’t allow him in our home he would simply blow up the door and kill everyone inside.
The only sound in the room came from one of the older boys, who was sniffling loudly between bouts of tears.
Finally my husband had to let him in. What were we going to do otherwise? So he came into our house and demanded that we feed him. We prepared dinner for him—I made everything we had so that he would be full and then leave our house—and served him in the main house, because he insisted. But he wouldn’t leave even after my husband pleaded with him to go. And then you came.
Sarah asked Wazhma to stand watch and left the room to confer with the Rangers. She and her fellow CSTs had heard this story of the “unknown intruder” frequently, and many times the facts proved it false. But tonight, Sarah thought, this woman’s story added up. She learned that the Rangers had quickly identified Hamidullah by the bounty of guns, ammo, and grenades he wore strapped to his person. The only question was whether the other man present had been acting as his accomplice. Sarah conveyed to the Rangers everything she had learned from Masuda, explaining how the entire family had been held hostage for much of the day. Her account backed up the intel the Rangers had gathered, and it all led to the same conclusion: Masuda’s husband had nothing to do with the insurgency and no connection to the would-be attacker. They just happened to live in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Sarah returned to the room with the tapestries to reassure the family that everything would be okay.
Finally relaxed for the first time that evening, Masuda stroked the arm of one of her sons, who was clutching a doll that Wazhma had given him. She described how a Taliban-allied network was running rampant throughout the region. Her husband made his money as a contractor for the Afghan government, which meant he earned coveted dollars that came from the Americans. This association with well-funded foreigners meant she lived with the constant fear that her home and family members would be a target. Sarah and Wazhma sat quietly speaking with her and the children until a soldier’s voice crackled through the radio.
“CST, time to move!” As she filed out of the compound behind the Ranger unit in the courtyard Sarah saw Hamidullah. She thought of all her fellow soldiers who had been injured and killed in her two months on the ground at the hands of men like this one. Sarah and Wazhma then heard a voice come through Hamidullah’s radio. It was now reaching very different listeners than the men on the other end of the connection expected.
“Where is Hamidullah?” the voice called out. Sarah knew enough rudimentary Pashto to understand.
“Hamidullah, where are you?” came a second voice.
“He’s not there,” said a third man.
Finally one of the Afghan interpreters had had enough.
“Hey, Taliban: don’t you worry about Hamidullah,” the translator said, interrupting their conversation. “We got your guy.”
The entire crew ran even faster than normal back to the helicopters, knowing they could still get blown up anytime on the way home. They called for air support to stand guard on the way out to protect them as they ran to the security of their lift back to their base. Sarah found the roaring of the bird’s engines oddly comforting: a soothing white noise against which she could empty her thoughts. Staring at the insurgent, Sarah wondered about the endlessness of it all, and the barbarity. If this man and his brethren had found the Americans before they captured him he would have beheaded them all and posted the video on YouTube for all the world to see. She had heard the voices of his fellow insurgents on the radio, men who no doubt were already forging plans for their next attack. She hoped Masuda and her children would stay safe.
In a few days, Sarah would turn twenty-four in this remote valley of Afghanistan. Her birthday would also mark the tenth anniversary of Operation Enduring Freedom, the official name for the military campaign that began in October 2001, weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Back in those dark days, Sarah sat with her father on the steps leading into their kitchen watching the TV blare news of the fight. She knew she would always remember the day America went to war, because in the middle of it her mother entered the room carrying a big yellow ice cream cake with a smiley face on it and belted out “Happy Birthday” to her girl. Now, ten years later, she was living in a spare outpost on the front lines of that very same war with a team that was tracking down insurgents. Instead of ice cream with her family she would share a hot chai and a CrossFit workout with her CST partner Lori. She wasn’t complaining; she had chosen to be there. But life here was so different, and few back home could understand just how, or why.
She wondered where she would be next year. Would she make it to twenty-five? Sarah had told her mother little about what she was doing, but enough for her to understand its gravity and seriousness, and to be prepared in case something happened. Back in New York, Sarah’s mother was composing a note for her daughter.
At 3:31 am they placed you, a purplish pink beautiful baby girl with dark hair on my belly. Daddy cut your cord and set you free to the outside world. What a magic, miraculous moment your birth was. As I was holding you and being wheeled to recovery, I was in awe of this new chapter of my life. I remember asking God to help me. I put you into His hands. Now more than ever, when I get scared or concerned about you, I think back to that moment. I think of God holding and keeping you safe because I can’t. It gives me a sense of peace and calm.
You have made me the happiest mother on earth. Even though I can’t give you a birthday hug, I know you can feel it in your heart as I can feel it in mine.
Continue to do the good work you have been doing on your missions. You are making a difference.
Back in Kandahar, Ashley too had just celebrated her birthday. She, Lane, and their bunkmate Meredith, who had first shown them around their rooms, had grabbed a couple of spoons and shared a Funfetti “cake in a jar” with frosting that Meredith’s younger sister had sent from Illinois. Then they smoked a hookah in their room.
“It was definitely a memorable twenty-fourth,” Ashley told the newly arrived Leda with a smile.
Having recovered in record time from the leg injury she had sustained in pre-mission training, Leda resumed her duties as officer in charge (OIC) in September, and traveled to Kandahar as part of her whirlwind tour of all the CST outposts. Her first order of business was to visit each one of her teams in person to make sure that everyone had what she needed.
By October, the CSTs had been in Afghanistan for almost three months and, as one officer commented, “the training wheels were off.” It was a more seasoned group of soldiers, and Leda’s role had shifted from helping them get ready for war to helping them succeed in it. While she had been back in the United States recuperating, she had tracked them closely by email and online and had coached some of them through the rough patches of integrating into their teams; now she was witnessing them in action, and she was gratified, if unsurprised, to learn about their successes.
Leda knew that some of the CSTs felt the burden of isolation at their remote outposts. They missed the camaraderie of the summer when they all lived together and could gather as a group for meals in the dining hall, joke around, or discuss tactics. To replace that physical camaraderie, Leda turned to technology: in addition to her weekly email report, the one that she sent to JSOC leaders that cataloged what they did, learned, and located each night, she created a second, internal-only version in which the CSTs shared moments only they would understand, from ordering Spanx bodywear so uniform bottoms slid on more easily to getting caught peeing or falling into a wadi (dry riverbed) while out on mission surrounded by a team of Ranger men. Leda also launched a series of regular video teleconferences for the CSTs so they could interact with one another while sharing the “best practices” they developed on the job as well as all the gory details of their battlefield mishaps. She knew that a key aspect of her job was to keep the team unified and morale high despite the physical distances between them.
Leda had long been a student of leadership strategies, studying everything from neurolinguistics to the work of Jim Collins and Tony Robbins. She viewed leadership in this kind of high-stress, high-intensity, high-performance environment as being all about caring for, supporting, and leading the whole person, not just his or her soldier self. The women, in turn, called on Leda for everything, small or large. When they hankered for Honey Nut Cheerios and the DFAC didn’t have any, Leda delivered. And when a young male officer began making uninvited visits to Amber at her base, it was Leda she confided in. Amber never saw the man again.
They had never felt so taken care of in their lives.
Throughout August and September, Leda stayed in close touch with Ashley by email and phone. The North Carolina Guardswoman had always been special to Leda, ever since the first days at the Landmark Inn when Ashley had confided her fears that her quiet shyness might somehow hinder her potential. From the moment they met at Assessment and Selection Leda was confident this officer would come into her own at war, but she hoped that her breaking-in period wouldn’t be any longer or more awkward than it had to be. Now she had come to Kandahar to see for herself how her younger friend and teammate was faring. And what she saw surprised her.
Leda’s first inkling that Ashley was fitting in perfectly well came the morning she arrived. Standing in the barracks door she watched Ashley roll out of bed around noon, hair scraggly, T-shirt wrinkled, and black sweatpants bunched up around her shins. She looked like everyone else around her, drowning in her hoody and bleary-eyed from the rhythms of the nocturnal life that had become her new normal. She welcomed Leda with a warm embrace and in no time began describing in precise detail the previous night’s mission.
Gone was the shy second lieutenant who had trouble addressing a group of Ranger men. In her place was an increasingly assertive, recently promoted first lieutenant who could comfortably and effectively communicate through an interpreter with Afghan women in the middle of a combat mission while searching for hidden insurgents and intel. Not only that: Ashley was eager to share with her OIC what she was learning each night and how it fit into the larger effort to end the war and make Afghanistan safer.
She’s actually beaming, Leda thought as Ashley walked her through the evening’s pre-mission brief. It seemed incredible to Leda that after just eight weeks Ashley’s biggest concern was that her platoon leader would think she was too injured to go out that night. She had Band-Aids on her legs to cover rope-climbing burns earned at the gym. Leda assured her that no one would notice. “Those guys all have their own nicks to tend to,” she said. “Keep the Band-Aids on and let your legs heal while they can.”
More gratifying were the reports she was receiving from Rangers around camp who said Ashley had proven tactically efficient and increasingly adept at getting what was needed each night. Just as Jason had predicted, his wife’s artless kindness and professionalism—boosted by Nadia’s experience and guidance—had proven to be powerful in winning over both the men she worked with and the women and children she met each night.
Satisfied with what she saw and heard from the CST and the men she supported, Leda asked Ashley what her thoughts were about the future. With six months left in Afghanistan, Leda wanted all her soldiers to begin thinking about what they wanted to do next—and about how their OIC could help. Earlier that day she had put the same question to Anne, who replied that all she wanted was to keep doing CST missions as long as she could. Period.
But Ashley was contemplating a different future. She still wanted to become a physician’s assistant (PA); the only question that remained was where she would go and what program would accept her. She also needed to find out where Jason would be stationed next and if he could remain at Fort Bragg, as she very much hoped, so she could try to find a job with JSOC after her deployment ended. Leda had once mentioned the possibility of finding a civilian role as a PA within the special operations community and after working with the Rangers, Ashley loved that idea even more. It had been a privilege to serve with special operations, and she also was keen to remain in the little house with the yellow kitchen in Fayetteville. She was already training for a marathon she planned to run in Ohio once her deployment was over. Leda sensed that the future was very much on her mind.
“There’s one other thing,” Ashley added.
“I think I want to be a mom,” she said. Leda noticed the shift in tone from confident to nearly embarrassed as Ashley uttered the word mom. She guessed Ashley didn’t want her hard-charging OIC to think less of her because she wanted to focus on family after this was all done.
“Ash, why are you hesitating? Were you nervous about telling me that?” Leda asked. “You want to be a mom? Of course I think that’s great. Hell, yeah, I think that is terrific!”
Leda knew that Ashley had been poring over kinesiology books in the broom closet office whenever she wasn’t on mission or asleep, and now said that if Ashley was serious about applying to physician’s assistant school she could start her family and her studies at the same time and keep working within the special operations community. Leda mentioned several people she knew who would be helpful to Ashley as she thought through her job options and courses of study.
“Really? You think I could still contribute to this work and be a mom?” Ashley asked. She looked thrilled, and surprised.
“Definitely,” Leda said. “You can do it all, Ash. You are going to be a phenomenal mom.” Leda knew that the perception of special operations was of hard-fighting warriors who lived out of duffle bags and never saw their families. But many of the civilians who supported them had careers that were far more family-friendly. Leda wanted to make sure Ashley understood that she didn’t have to deploy herself to support the men whose work she so respected. She could contribute in other ways and achieve her personal goals.
But for all her focus on a future family with Jason, Ashley still hadn’t told her own family in Ohio exactly what she was doing in Afghanistan. Beyond her conversation with Josh on the fishing boat, Ashley had left them largely in the dark. Anne, who went out on her own missions every night, decided to approach her partner about the wisdom of that decision one early afternoon. Lane had moved a month earlier to another part of Afghanistan to work with another team, and it was now just the two of them in Kandahar.
“I know that you don’t want to hear this,” Anne began. Bad weather had kept the teams grounded and the two soldiers were running around the base before hunkering down for a CrossFit workout. “But you really might want to think about telling your family what you’re doing. Or at least let Josh or Jason tell them about this job.”
Anne knew how upset Mr. White would be; Ashley had told her, only half in jest, that her dad would have taken Jason’s baseball bat and broken her knees to stop her from leaving if he had understood the reality of her assignment. Anne didn’t want to overstep her boundaries; the nature of their work created an almost instant bond, but they had only known each other for seven months, and Anne was now raising one of the most deeply personal questions a soldier faces. Still, it was one thing for Ashley to choose not to tell her mom and dad about her work before coming to Kandahar and understanding the daily realities of the role. It was another thing now that she knew the risks.
“This is a bad area; it’s incredibly dangerous,” Anne said. “It’s not impossible to imagine that one of us might not make it home, or might go home without all our parts.”
Ashley nodded, her eyes on her feet, pounding the pavement. “I know,” she replied. “I know I should. I will.”
Ashley spoke with her parents regularly, calling them faithfully every Sunday night, which was afternoon in Ohio. Her camp had a common area with computers and phones the soldiers could use to reach family and friends back home; it was one of the Army’s strategies for boosting morale among the troops. Her parents would pass the phone back and forth, sitting in their comfy loungers facing the television in the ranch house in Marlboro. The conversations always began with Ashley peppering her parents with questions about everything and everyone in their hometown, and thanking her mom for the delicious cookies and for all the coffee and bread mixes. But whenever Bob or Debbie asked her about her work she swiftly changed the subject. As they understood it, she was part of some special team and she worked at a hospital in Kandahar. That was it.
Not long after her conversation with Anne, Ashley called her twin sister, Brittany. They had shared everything for twenty-four years and it felt strange now that thousands of miles separated them. They used email and Facebook to stay connected, but when they wanted to speak about something important—a situation they were going through or a challenge they wanted to tackle—Ashley would head to the common room and call her sister.
“Hello?” Brittany whispered into her handset. It was 2 a.m. in Ohio and she was just leaving a patient’s room at the end of her shift as a neurology unit nurse at the local hospital. Brittany never took personal calls during her shift, but this was different; her sister was calling from Afghanistan. She popped into a patient’s bathroom to answer her phone in a whisper; the sisters agreed to speak in an hour, when Brittany was on her way home and could have an uninterrupted conversation.
Later, Ashley thanked Brittany for sending her the photos from her first fitness and figure competition, a sport that combines female bodybuilding with gymnastics and emphasizes taut muscles rather than bulging, gigantic ones. Brittany had won the top spot her first time out. Ashley, of course, was unsurprised.
“You looked incredible!” Ashley said, and told her she showed the pictures to her Ranger buddies. “You have some serious admirers over here; they were all talking about you.”
Sounding like the older sister she wasn’t, she told Brittany how proud she was of her, and made her promise to keep up her fitness routines and do more shows.
Brittany promised, and described the rigors of her diet and workout regimen, which sounded nearly as strict and disciplined as Ashley’s. The competitions required participants to be in razor-sharp shape and to perform choreographed routines to show off their finely toned physiques. Between her nursing job, her fitness and figure work, and preparations for a graduate program in leadership and management, Brittany was working around the clock, not unlike her sister.
Before she left for Afghanistan Ashley had mentioned to Brittany that she had won a competition of sorts, and had been selected for some elite assignment along with a group of extremely impressive women: some had served as FBI interrogators, others had gone to war three times already. Still others had won Bronze Star Medals for Valor. She had confessed then that she was intimidated by them. Now she talked to Brittany about her teammates with the fondness of the close friends and equals they had become. She told her about her conversation with Leda and how much support she had offered her. She felt certain about wanting to become a physician’s assistant, she said, even though she wasn’t sure she was “smart enough” for all the exams and advanced study that lay ahead. Brittany interrupted her sister and said she knew Ashley would be able to handle whatever came. “You always do, Ash, you just gut it out and work harder than everyone else. You’ll ace the exams.”
“You remind me so much of Leda, my OIC,” Ashley said. “She’s athletic and outgoing and beautiful just like you. And a huge cheerleader for all of us. I’ve been so lucky to have her support these last few months. You’ll have to meet her when I get back.”
“I can’t wait to see you when I get back, sissy. Love you.”
Brittany by now had reached her house. She would grab a few hours of rest, head over to lift weights at the gym, then make her way back to the hospital.
Brittany knew she would have to tell her parents about the call. She felt certain they’d want her to replay every moment of the almost normal conversation she had shared in the middle of a war with her best friend and closest confidante.
On the other side of the world, Ashley was off to the chow hall with Anne for her evening’s “breakfast,” then due in the briefing room to find out the details of her team’s mission that night.