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

II

Deployment

13

The Lies of War

* * *

A few hundred miles to Ashley’s north not long afterward, Kate found herself in the middle of a hell of a night.

“Is there anyone inside?” Kate asked a middle-aged Afghan woman who was standing in the huddle of women and children to the left of the compound. “Anyone still in the house?” Her nineteen-year-old interpreter, an Afghan-American from the Bronx who went by the nickname “Angel,” relayed the question.

The mission had started off a mess and gotten worse. Kate’s team was seeking a fighter who had already evaded their grasp several times. This was the second compound they had targeted that evening and since it was his own home, they believed he was likely to be hiding out there.

Two women and several children streamed out of the house as soon as the American and Afghan forces arrived, but so far no one was talking. Kate’s job was to protect the women she was speaking to while getting the information that would assist and protect the men with whom she served. Quickly.

The Afghan forces with her special ops team had taken the lead in tonight’s mission. This was part of a broader push to have Afghan security forces lead their country’s war as the Americans began their long-planned withdrawal. Several Afghan soldiers were now inside the compound hunting for the man their intel told them was a key Taliban fighter in the region.

“Is there anyone inside?” Kate repeated.

The Afghan woman’s face remained expressionless. “She says there is no one in there,” Angel told Kate.

Kate, Angel, and the two women stood about a dozen feet from the breach. Around them sat a cluster of children, ranging in age from infant to teenager. Kate kept thinking it didn’t make sense. This guy had to be there. Then again, he had known enough to throw them off the trail earlier that night. Maybe he was just wasting their time some more.

And then, just a second later, came a deafening explosion, near enough to rattle the ground on which they stood.

“CST, get those women out of here.

Kate heard the command over the radio a moment after the explosion. Then came the pop-pop-pop-pop of gun fire in a stream of percussion.

“Get up, everyone, let’s go, let’s go!” Kate spoke the words in English quietly but firmly and seconds later she heard them again in Angel’s Pashto translation. She pointed in the direction of a building that was fifty feet away, motioning Angel to move quickly. “Get them to that building to the right, at the corner!” Kate told her. They needed to get to the other side of the cement wall, just outside the compound. That should be far enough to keep them out of the firefight and within the line of sight so she could monitor what was happening and ensure that she and Angel didn’t get left behind when the mission ended.

“Let’s go, come on!” Angel said to the two women. She grabbed the hands of two children, one on each side, and took off running for the cover of the building. Meanwhile, the Afghan and American soldiers were returning the heavy fire that was coming from the compound. Kate and Angel had worked together long enough that the young terp knew to move everyone to shelter if shots erupted and things got hot. Kate took the rear to make sure no women or children got left behind in the chaos.

As she directed Angel, Kate scooped up a small baby, barefoot and crying. She threw the little guy over her left shoulder and took off running as the sound of gunfire grew louder behind her. Using her right arm she grabbed the hand of a small girl and drew her close to her body.

“Stay with me, stay with me!” Kate urged, hoping the child would trust and understand her movements even if she didn’t understand her words.

Suddenly Kate felt the jagged terrain take hold of her left foot. She began tumbling forward as one of her boots got trapped in a deep hole she hadn’t detected through the green film of her night-vision goggles.

The baby, Kate thought. Instinctively she held him tight against her chest as the momentum of her fall sent her spinning into a diving, forward roll. She released the little girl’s hand just in time to keep her from falling, too.

A second later Kate lay on her back with the baby tucked up against her body armor. He hadn’t moved despite the somersault and was now just looking at her wide-eyed and silent.

Kate felt the baby’s warm breath on her neck, looked up at the twinkling stars above, and heard the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire around her, now maybe three dozen feet away.

What the fuck is my job right now? she asked herself as she hugged the baby tight and again took the hand of the little girl who was standing nearby. This is crazy.

She jumped up, the two children in tow once more, and took off at a brisk trot for the building where Angel waited for her with the adult women and the other children.

“Do we have everyone?” Kate began counting all the women and children. They had indeed managed to move all of them to safety—even if she had eaten it in front of all of them on the way there.

Kate now looked at the middle-aged woman, the one who had told her there was no one inside. She had lied right to her face, sending the Afghan forces into a house where a shooter was lying in wait. The firefight Kate had heard—and shepherded the women and children away from —had been started by this woman’s husband.

Now Kate heard over the radio that someone had been hit. She was about to start questioning the woman about who else was inside when an Afghan soldier ran over to where they stood.

“You lied!” the soldier screamed at the Afghan woman. “You said there was nobody in there!” He stood only a few feet from her and his fury poured forth in an avalanche of rage. “You just got two Afghans shot. You didn’t get Americans hurt. You only killed Afghans. Your own people.”

The woman was not about to give him the satisfaction of tears, but her face now showed the emotion of someone who understood that her own husband, the man who started this gunfight, was unlikely to survive the night.

Kate found a secure corner of level ground for the little group, but the uneven terrain meant that flat space was in high demand. A medevac helicopter sent to tend to the wounded Afghan soldiers descended not far from where they sat. The women and children all pressed up tight against the building to give the medics space to run in and get the injured soldiers out of the building.

A few minutes later two stretchers passed within feet of where they all sat. One Afghan soldier lay silent and motionless as his brothers-in-arms carried him to the awaiting Chinook. The next stretcher passed by, even closer. Kate heard the moans of the second Afghan soldier, who was writhing from the agony of his wounds.

With nothing to do now but wait, Kate replayed in her mind that evening’s mission. A few nights earlier another Afghan woman had told her immediately that the American and Afghan team had come to the wrong compound. Her information led them directly to the correct house, where they found the insurgent they sought.

Tonight the opposite had happened, with disastrous consequences.

As she stood with her team awaiting the helicopter that would carry them back to base, Kate kept thinking about the men on the stretcher and whether there was anything she could have done to protect them, and keep them alive. She respected their courage, their commitment to serving their country. And now one of them was dead.

At last she heard the whoosh of the arriving helicopter, an almost spiritual sound as the whirring rotors pierced the twilight’s silence. In that moment of landing, they were all vulnerable to rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire, and right on the verge of the adrenaline rush that came with running onto the bird as quickly as possible through a nearly blinding cyclone of kicked-up dust and dirt. In an instant she took off with Angel right behind her.

Kate didn’t want to think every woman she met was covering for a hidden shooter. But she would never forget that night’s lesson and the life it had cost.