Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield (2016)
Last Roll Call
The First Death
* * *
Hey, Nadia,” Ashley said into her cell phone, “can you be back here in twenty minutes?”
Nadia was at a NATO-sponsored barbecue on the other side of Kandahar Airfield base and had been on the verge of biting into a juicy chicken kabob when the phone rang. It was around 10 p.m. and she was enjoying a lovely evening under sparkling stars, practicing her Spanish with an American soldier from New York over a traditional Afghan meal of rice, naan bread, and meat kebabs. It was a rare night off for her, and on such evenings she always took the opportunity to visit with the other interpreters or meet soldiers from another culture. She much preferred going out and talking with interesting people to sitting in her bunk and watching How I Met Your Mother or The Office on a laptop with the other girls. While Ashley and her teammates ate, slept, and dreamt their work, rarely leaving their section of the base, Nadia loved to explore the global village of men and women who had converged on Kandahar from every corner of the world.
“Um,” she paused for a moment, “you know I am not actually cleared by the doctor to go out yet, right?”
Even as she said it Nadia wondered why she had bothered to object. If Ashley needed her to go, she knew she would make it work. After all, she had been working with Ashley the night she hurt her wrist a few weeks earlier. They had run off the helicopter just as they did each night, but a brownout had blinded them as dirt from the helicopter rotors proved more intense than usual. They couldn’t see a thing ahead of them or behind. Just as they were sprinting away from the bird Nadia fell right into a ditch and landed on her right hand. She felt the searing pain before noticing that her entire hand was now facing backward. Ashley helped her get up and quickly return to formation; they still had several kilometers to walk. Tears of pain ran down Nadia’s cheeks, but she set her jaw and didn’t make a sound. She felt grateful that no one could see her in the pitch-black Kandahar night. It was bad enough that Ashley had stopped and helped her to her feet; she didn’t want a soldier to catch her crying.
Once they reached their destination Ashley insisted that Nadia see the unit’s medic. Only after he had given her a strong dose of Tylenol and a makeshift sling for her busted arm would Ashley let Nadia begin the night’s searching and questioning. There had been a lot of women at the compound that evening and Ashley took notes for both of them as Nadia did the translation. Once it was all over, Nadia returned to base respecting Ashley even more than she already did.
Another girl would have been like, forget it, carry on, when we get back to base we’ll deal with your little injury, she thought. The Afghan-American translators often said that the soldiers they worked with treated them like prostitutes, as if they had to get their money’s worth every night. Ashley and her group were different. When it turned out the following day that Nadia had broken her wrist and would need to stay back and rest it for a while, neither Ashley nor Anne complained or gave her a hard time for taking the spill that removed her from action. But still, they were eager to get their terp back into circulation. She was one of the best—a coveted female translator fit enough to keep up with the CSTs and the Rangers—and it always helped to have her there. Nadia’s competence and comfort in the local culture made them all feel safer.
Tonight, it looked like Nadia was going to get back to work, even if her cast had come off only a few days before and the doctor hadn’t yet given her the official go-ahead. When Ashley asked her to meet her in twenty minutes, Nadia knew that without a doctor’s sign-off no one would have questioned her had she said no. But Nadia was ready to do whatever she could for the CSTs, and especially Ashley, one of the most decent people she’d ever known. Heck, for Ashley I’d probably go out on crutches, she thought.
“Okay; no problem. It’s fine, I can make it work,” Nadia said into the battered cell phone she carried whenever she left the barracks. The war had created a boomlet in Afghanistan’s mobile phone industry and phones were easy to get and cheap to use. “See you soon.”
Ashley sounded glad to hear her answer. “It should be pretty routine, so don’t worry.” She explained that the helicopter would most likely land close to the objective that night. No five-mile marches, so no risk to Nadia’s wrist. “It doesn’t sound like it’ll be a long one—we’ll be back in no time.”
Nadia ended the call, bid her new friends goodbye, and hurried back to her room, balancing a paper plate stacked with chicken kabobs she would share with Ashley and Anne once they got back. She brought enough leftovers to feed some of the guys, too. Surely everyone would be famished by the time they returned to base.
She ran into the ready room and in less than five minutes greeted Ashley, changed into her uniform, and headed out to the bird. Months into her new assignment, Nadia had long since shed her fashion scruples. Her hand-me-down gear hardly helped. Lane often commented on Nadia’s lousy equipment—how it looked like it came straight from the landing at Normandy. “Your gear sucks, Nadia,” Lane told her the first night they went out. “Let’s try to get you some better stuff.” The CSTs pitched in where they could: Ashley loaned Nadia a Crye combat top, which had the dual benefit of a snug fit and breathable fabric that helps wick away sweat. Of course, they still hadn’t solved her night-vision goggle issue. After she finally got rid of the monocle she had been given a set of night optical devices, or NODs, to attach to her helmet. But the helmet was so old the NODs wouldn’t firmly clip onto it. “I guess your helmet is too ancient to have considered the possibility of night vision,” Lane joked weeks earlier. While the nearly state-of-the-art NODs that Ashley and Anne wore attached solidly to their helmets, Nadia’s jiggled and wiggled around on her head, which made her fiddle with them endlessly. She was still messing with them that night when Ashley met her near the barracks for the walk to an aging bus that would take them to the tarmac.
“Let’s go,” Ashley said. She smiled her familiar, reassuring grin. “You look nice!” Nadia still had her makeup on from the barbecue—eyeliner and a strongly defined eyebrow. There had been no time to remove it before heading out. Ashley walked her through the mission plan and briefed her on the intel so they could get what they needed as quickly and effectively as possible once they landed. Then the women boarded the helicopter as usual with the team’s leaders, taking their seats toward the front. Nadia psyched herself up for her return to action following her injury, reminding herself how many successful missions she already had behind her. She had been vaguely reassured by Ashley’s description of the objective back at the base, and also by the fact that the Rangers hadn’t prayed as a team before they left. Nadia had observed that a group prayer always came on nights when the men believed they were facing an especially dangerous task. Otherwise, she knew that most of them prayed as she did, quietly and in their own way, as they headed out on the helicopter.
I hope we come back with something, she said to herself. She may have been a civilian, but she was committed to her part in the fight. On nights when they came up empty and failed to find the insurgents they sought, her ego suffered—she had let her team down. But on successful missions where she played a part in stopping someone before he hurt American soldiers and innocent Afghans, she felt like maybe it was all for a reason.
Her mother never accepted Nadia’s desire to serve and remained miserable about her new job from the moment she learned about it to the day her daughter left for Kandahar. “The people are crazy there—even the insects are crazy,” she had said, referring to the scorpions she vividly remembered from her childhood. “Don’t go, I beg you.” But Nadia went anyway. It wasn’t long before Afghan women were cursing and spitting at her for working with the Americans, and Nadia realized that her mother might have been right. But she was there, and all she could do was work as hard as she could to do her part in stopping the insurgency. To resentful Afghans who cursed her with their ancient black magic, she simply suggested that their ill wishes would only come back at them. “You have to wish good for people,” she would say, and that motto is what she tried to live up to. She always brought along money to help the neediest people she encountered, though she never felt she had brought enough, given the number of children all these women seemed to have. Nadia may have hardened a great deal since arriving in Afghanistan, but she knew she would never be able to forget the wretched poverty and the children who had so few opportunities. Later, when she got back to the humanitarian work she had originally planned on doing in Afghanistan, she would try to do her part to help build schools and maybe clinics. But for now she was on a helicopter preparing to land and begin another mission. She prayed silently for all of her teammates to stay safe.
A few moments later, with the helicopter safely landed, they were on a short run to the compound where a Taliban weapons maker was known to live. Nadia was right behind her CST. She hadn’t noticed until that moment just how cut her teammate had become. Ashley and Anne sometimes asked Nadia if she wanted to join them in the gym and practice fast-roping, to which she would routinely smile and politely answer, “Heck, no.” But she had been impressed by the gusto with which these soldiers attacked their workouts, and she saw now in Ashley’s transformation that the dedication was clearly paying off. Nadia made a mental note to tell Ashley that she looked like G.I. Jane out there. Ashley may have been too modest to talk about herself, but Nadia didn’t know a woman in the world who didn’t want to hear how great she looked. Even if she was wearing Gore-Tex boots and body armor.
As Ashley had promised, the run hadn’t been far, and Nadia was relieved it was over. But all of a sudden she saw the Rangers moving around quickly, not with their usual methodical precision. She stayed close to Ashley, as was their practice, and moved nearer to ask what was going on; Ashley was intently listening to her radio, something translators don’t carry. Nadia waited in the tense darkness and watched as the men around her seemed to be moving in fast-forward.
She and Ashley stood on the side of the compound, close to one of the outer walls. The two moved closer to a footbridge that led to the house, then Ashley stopped to speak to Kristoffer Domeij, one of the senior Ranger leaders. His presence on the bird had also reassured Nadia; she knew from seeing him with his team around base, and Ashley said he was much loved by his guys, respected for what he’d seen and done over countless deployments. He was known for his competence and professionalism, but also for his sense of humor, smarts, and big heart. Nadia found his humanity reassuring. Ashley’s roommate, artillery officer Tracey Mack, had learned a great deal from Domeij, who was always generous about sharing insights into the job of Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC). His role as a JTAC was to direct combat aircraft that supported Ranger operations, from surveillance to lethal engagement. Kris was now on his fourteenth deployment, a number that filled Ashley with awe and had shocked Nadia when she first heard it. While Ashley stood next to him in quiet but animated conversation, Nadia began to grow antsy in the darkness.
Good Lord, let’s pick up the pace, she thought. She felt uncharacteristically impatient; she knew that sometimes missions get jammed up in the fog of a fight and it can take a moment to get everyone back in formation. But there was too much talking already. Just then all she wanted was to get the night’s work done and to get back to her kabob.
She decided to use the time productively and turned around to look for more even ground so she could adjust her NODs and try to get a firm fit. They’ll tell us where we need to be in a second, she figured.
Nadia walked a couple of feet toward a patch of grass. It had initially seemed close by, but when she reached the end of a gravelly pathway she realized she had misjudged the distance and the grass was a bit farther away than she had estimated. She turned back to check on Ashley and saw she was in the same place, still talking to the Ranger. She expected she’d be walking toward her in a moment, once they finished conferring about the mission details, so she decided not to stray far. What if she can’t find me? Nadia thought. Let me just wait for her here.
She returned her attention to her aging NODs.
And then, from nowhere, came the thundering boom of explosions. It was as if the ground had turned itself upside down and begun shaking.
The blast propelled Nadia some dozen feet into the air and she came down hard, landing on her head, her face now buried in the dirt.
Ashley and Kris Domeij had been standing on a pressure plate that was attached to other plates in a system known as a daisy chain, which is rigged to create multiple explosions when someone steps onto one section. Chris Horns, a young private from Colorado serving his first deployment alongside the veteran Ranger, had also been caught by the blast. The whole grounds had been rigged to light up like a firecracker. But it had been the boot of another team member, stepping onto a plate in another part of the compound, that set off the daisy chain that tore through the night. He had badly injured his foot in the explosion but nevertheless heroically proceeded to clear the building, hobbling on his shattered foot to get people out of the way and prevent any further explosions that might harm anyone else on his team.
Just beyond the compound, Ashley lay still on the ground. She, too, had been sent airborne by the power of the explosion, and several Rangers were hovered over her, wrapping a tourniquet around one of her legs. There were others injured as well, including an Afghan translator. A medic soon ran to Ashley’s side and began asking her questions.
“Where are you from?”
“The U.S.A.,” Ashley replied.
Minutes later she was loaded onto a helicopter headed for Kandahar Combat Support Hospital, the biggest on the base. While the helicopter flew through the night a medic worked to give Ashley the care she needed. He tried to stop the bleeding, checked her pulse and blood pressure, tried to keep fluids moving through her system. But her vital signs were dropping.
Nadia, still lying on the patch of grass, heard muted signs of chaos in the background around her, but it sounded miles away. A concussion from the blast had blunted her hearing, and she was struggling through the haze to get her bearings and figure out what had happened.
Her first question, once she was capable of a complete thought: Where’s Ashley?
She was alone in the darkness, seemingly far from the others, and her fear was rising.
Oh, my God, they’re not going to find me, Nadia thought as the ringing in her ears grew louder. It was pitch black, in the middle of the night, and there she was, lying in the dirt wearing camouflage. The fact that she was a civilian made her feel even more vulnerable, as if there were some invisible list of important military personnel and she was at the bottom of it.
I am never going to get out of here. The Taliban are going to find me here on this soil tomorrow and this village is going to have me for breakfast.
Just then a medic arrived. She hadn’t been forgotten after all.
“Are you Nadia, the interpreter?” the medic asked. He rolled her over on her back, so she now faced the star-filled sky.
“Are you Nadia, the interpreter!?” he asked louder this time.
On his third try the sound finally broke through to Nadia’s ears.
“Yes, yes!” she cried.
An Afghan army soldier rushed over and asked what he could do to help; Nadia heard the medic tell him to grab the other end of the stretcher and help him transport her to the helicopter. Nadia knew she was injured, but couldn’t tell where or how. Beyond a vague pain in her arm, she couldn’t feel where the wound originated. She looked up and saw an injured Ranger and again wondered where her teammate was.
“Where’s Ashley?” she asked again. Someone replied she was okay, and then a strong dose of some sort of painkiller took her out of the moment and away from her pain. All she was aware of was the rhythmic thudding sound of the helicopter’s rotors.
Kandahar Combat Support Hospital began as a temporary facility run first by the Americans and then, starting in 2006, by Canadian forces. Constructed of plywood that presented a fire risk, the facility was full of dust; it had just eleven inpatient beds, mounted on trestles, the most basic lab facilities and a portable ultrasound machine. Over the next three years, under Canadian leadership, the hospital grew to roughly two dozen beds, three operating rooms, a blood bank, and ultramodern radiography and ultrasound capabilities. Among the staff were highly specialized neurosurgeons, orthopedic surgeons, a maxillofacial surgeon, and mental health experts. The hospital treated NATO patients, Afghan National Security Forces, and civilians, and by 2009 it boasted more than a 95 percent survival rate.
That same year the U.S. Navy assumed control of the combat hospital and its state-of-the-art capabilities grew even further; the expected increase in military operations in the area meant that the hospital had to be prepared for a potential rise in the number of injured reaching its doors. The hospital innovated in trauma care by developing a system in which a team of doctors, nurses, radiologists, surgeons, and staff gathered around each patient and worked together in an “assembly line-like” fashion to deal with their wounds. This strategy was so successful in Kandahar it was later applied to other crisis areas, including Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and over time was introduced back home in NATO nations.
By the spring of 2010, a highly reinforced brick and mortar building designed by German engineers and built by a Turkish contractor under NATO supervision had replaced the original facility. It was designed to provide the most advanced care in Afghanistan, and opened just before the summer fighting season, which now included a bulked-up American force as a result of the December 2009 surge. The new combat hospital had a blood bank, imaging capabilities of every kind, and surgical, orthopedic, and critical care facilities; it looked like the kind of hospital you might find in the middle of a European city.
Even before the first patients began arriving that night, an advance call had warned the trauma team of the incoming injuries—including a number of “alphas,” shorthand to signify the highest-priority soldiers with the most serious wounds. The hospital staff immediately fell into its own formation: trauma team members gathered to wait for the injured while the team leader coordinated care with nurses, medical technicians, anesthesiologists, and surgeons of various specialties who could be activated if needed. Radiologists often worked right there by the bedside, reading images from their patients in real time to help doctors and nurses make the best decisions in the critical minutes and moments they had available. The doctors and nurses stood in the quiet, cool trauma center and knew that their patient bays were about to turn into hell. Mass casualties like this remained a rarity, though since the surge began the hospital had seen a number of serious injuries, many of which resulted from IEDs. A medic stood with her elbows perched on an empty stretcher, staring straight ahead and waiting for the wounded.
When the helicopter landed the EVOC—Emergency Vehicle Operators Course—team was already on the tarmac, ready to move the incoming patients into armored ambulances. They rushed on board to tend to the injured. A nurse on the EVOC team for the first time that night reached a stretcher and then stopped.
There lying among the Ranger wounded was a female soldier.
The nurse tried to keep moving, tried to hide from her colleagues the look of shock she now wore as she and her combat team of EVOC professionals went about their finely synchronized movements, but this professional who had hardened herself to the many horrible things she had seen in this war now encountered something for which she was entirely unprepared: a beautiful young lieutenant on a stretcher fighting for her life.
Everyone in the hospital knew that women were out there on these operations, but they hadn’t expected to see one so critically injured as to require their care. The stunned expression on the nurse’s face made it clear that this was the first time she had attended to such a gravely injured female soldier.
The helicopter’s smell—a mixture of fresh dirt, drying blood, helicopter fuel, and layers of human sweat from the many injured soldiers flying in all at once—was something the EVOC team would never forget. In moments the wounded were in the ambulances and speeding to the trauma bays.
“There’s a female!” a medic shouted amid the chaos. Otherwise the choreography at the trauma center followed the usual script, as the ambulance’s back doors flew open and a hive of staff burst into action. Ashley lay on the first set of stretchers and was lifted by blue-gloved men; for a moment, she was suspended in air between the black of the sky and the ambulance’s glowing red brake lights as the staff placed her on a gurney. As she was rapidly wheeled into the trauma bay a Navy serviceman sidestepped along the gurney as it moved, pressing his hands to Ashley’s chest to perform CPR. The blast had shredded parts of her uniform, but the two patches on her right arm remained intact. On top was an American flag. Below it, a rectangular patch with white letters against a black background that spelled out the letters CST.
Once inside the trauma team went to work with jaw-set silence. In each bay they drew IV lines, controlled bleeding, checked vitals, and took X-rays. They did everything they could do to find and maintain a heartbeat for each of the wounded. Under the harsh, bright hospital lights the extent of the soldiers’ injuries became starkly clear. Ashley was pale from the loss of blood. The explosion had hit her just below the torso.
In the hospital that had been graveyard-still moments before the injured arrived, the desperate bustling of short-lived hope ruled the room. But the expressions of horror that ringed every face in the room betrayed the truth. There was no hope for the three most injured soldiers, including the female whose presence had so shaken the trauma team.
Doctors and nurses stood wordless before the line of blue curtains that separated each trauma bay. A nurse approached a large whiteboard that listed the status of every patient. Under the category “Injuries,” she added three letters for each soldier: “IED.” Improvised explosive device.
Behind one of the blue curtains Ashley lay in her uniform above a green woolen military blanket. The doctors and nurses had done everything they could to save her, but the concussive force of the blast had proved more potent than their healing powers and all the modern technology that surrounded them.
Ashley’s heart had stopped. She was gone.
Anne was working in the Tactical Operations Center and speaking to a group of Rangers when she spotted something unusual in the hallway. People were huddled in animated conversation, not the usual, low-key, take-it-all-in-stride, Ranger kind of way.
She asked one of the Rangers what was going on.
“The platoon got hit,” he answered.
Before she had a chance to react, another Ranger pulled her gently to the side.
“There are potential casualties,” he said. “And it’s possible that one of them is Ashley.”
Anne nodded in reply, and in a moment she was gone, racing to retrieve the keys to a pickup truck she and Ashley had commandeered some weeks before to shuttle back and forth from the DFAC. They had a variety of cuisine choices on base, from Belgian to Indian, but Ashley always favored the East Asian dining facility. Earlier that same day she had enjoyed her usual—a grilled sandwich plus her favorite noodles, which she doused in a red, sweet chili sauce she loved.
“See you in a couple of hours,” Anne had said to her partner as she walked out. Both women had expected to be on mission that night, but in the end Anne’s team hadn’t gone out. “We’ll grab dinner when you get back.” Dinner being breakfast, they often went for omelets. Ashley liked the veggie omelets in particular.
Just another night.
Now Anne was hurtling toward the combat hospital so she could be there when the soldiers started arriving—just in case it was Ashley. She hurried inside and followed the signs for the emergency room. When she bounded into the trauma center she found a scene of quietly managed chaos. So many doctors and nurses silently hurrying from one hospital bay to another, the only sounds coming from respirators and the occasional calling out of a patient’s vital signs.
Anne spotted a senior Ranger in the hallway. She was about to ask about Ashley, but he spoke first.
“Do you want to say goodbye?” he asked.
He said no more, but handed her some of Ashley’s things. Then, taking a few steps alongside her, he walked toward the bay where Ashley lay. The blue fabric curtain hung half open.
Anne struggled to process what she was seeing. Her teammate, her partner, her friend, was gone. They had worked out together the day before, had eaten breakfast together that very evening. The letters IED on the whiteboard coldly confirmed the fact, but Anne couldn’t believe it.
Anne walked over to Ashley and closed the curtain behind her. She lowered herself into the chair next to her and took Ashley’s hand, then embraced her friend. Then she took her by the hand once more and bowed her head.
“I am so sorry,” she said. “Just so sorry I couldn’t protect you. I am so sorry that I couldn’t stop this from happening, Ashley.”
Her teammate was still dressed in her battle clothes and her blond hair streamed out of its ponytail. Her face was smudged by dirt but looked peaceful.
Minutes passed and Anne sat there alone with her head bowed and her hand in her friend’s. Finally, a chaplain came to say a final prayer and perform last rites. A young medic stood quietly behind the chaplain, ready to move Ashley’s body from the room. He looked uncomfortable, and Anne knew his arrival was her cue to go, but she wanted them both out of there. She needed more time. But there was none. Slowly, she stood up and said goodbye for the final time.
A small crowd of men remained in the corridor paying their respects to their brothers-in-arms: Private First Class Christopher Horns, one of their newest teammates, who had joined the Rangers earlier that year; and Sergeant First Class Kris Domeij, their much-loved leader. Next to them lay Ashley White. Three soldiers with such different stories from such different places: Santa Ana, California; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Marlboro, Ohio. They had little in common other than their commitment to serving the United States. One was twenty-nine and on his fourteenth deployment; another was just twenty, serving his first. And one was a National Guard member who answered the call to join a new, all-female, all-Army special operations team. Now history would link them forever.
Just before 2 a.m., barely an hour after she arrived, Anne headed back to the parking lot and sat in the truck, staring ahead. She would not cry that night—she had too much to do. In fact, the tears would not come for months.
But the grief enveloped her immediately.
Already, the word was spreading among the CSTs.
“Hey, do you know Ashley White?” a Ranger poked his head into the small tent that Tristan shared with another CST at a base in another part of Afghanistan. The entire CST class—direct action members and those who served on village-stability operations—had been separated for two and a half months and were now spread around the country.
“Oh, yeah, is she here?” Tristan replied enthusiastically. Recently, some fellow CSTs from the VSO missions had come to visit; she was thrilled at the notion that Ashley was there.
“No, she is dead, she was just killed in action,” he said.
“What?!” Tristan jumped to her feet. It was impossible, he couldn’t be right. But an instant later she had a phone call in the TOC, and it brought confirmation of the terrible news. It was Leda; she said she needed to speak urgently with Tristan, but first wanted to be sure she was in a quiet place.
“I want to let you know that First Lieutenant Ashley White has expired,” she said. She continued speaking, something about an explosion in Kandahar and Operation Enduring Freedom. But Tristan had stopped listening.
Cheese expires, milk expires, deli meat expires, Tristan thought. Beautiful twenty-four-year-olds don’t.
She put down the phone and walked toward the door of the operations center. She was suddenly feeling claustrophobic, and had to get out of there. Her mind couldn’t grasp what she now knew to be true. Heavy cloud cover had stopped them from going out on mission earlier that night, which is why the entire unit remained on base. But the clouds had passed, and now a crescent moon shone bright and clear. The stars formed a diamond-encrusted canopy overhead. Tristan stepped onto the three-hundred-meter gravel running track that circled the perimeter of her base and began running. Somehow the little track felt endless. Over and over, lap after lap, she pounded out the miles. On her iPod she played one song on a loop, Norah Jones’s “The Long Way Home.”
I’m so sorry, Ashley, she thought as she ran. Looking up at the sky, she couldn’t help but think it was Ashley who had brought the stars out to offer her some comfort. That would be just like her to think only of other people at a moment like this.
Hundreds of miles away, in another part of the country, Sarah’s XO took a rare step into the all-female hooch. He looked even more battle-exhausted than usual. Sarah was in her lightweight, half-cylinder-shaped tent known as a K-Span counting and sorting baby socks she had received from her old Girl Scout troop back home in New England to hand out to the kids she met on missions.
“Major Barrow needs to see you in the TOC.”
He had a weird expression on his face, as if he had eaten lousy food or heard bad news.
“Did something happen?” she asked.
“In Kandahar,” he said. Reading his expression, Sarah knew that something was very wrong.
“I know it is one of us,” she muttered to herself as she walked quickly from her quarters to the Tactical Operations Center. “I just don’t know who it is yet.”
She entered the TOC to find Leda typing frantically on her laptop. In the hurry to get the CSTs out onto the battlefield—and perhaps in the belief that they would remain far from the front lines, since the combat ban remained in force—the women had never filled out their casualty packets with paperwork stating where they would be buried and listing all of their awards. As she typed, Leda was speaking on the phone to Anne, assembling biographical details that would accompany the news release announcing Ashley’s death.
Sarah heard a snatch of Leda’s side of the conversation—“and what year did she get that award?”—and knew someone had been killed.
“Who is it?” Sarah asked Lane, who was sitting next to Leda. Lane motioned toward the door and together they walked outside.
Between sobs, Lane replied, “Zhari district.”
“IED explosion on mission.”
Throughout the night CSTs across Afghanistan learned about Ashley’s death, struggled to believe it, and put off the pain of their own grief by making sure their teammates heard the news from Leda or a fellow CST. Each of them felt the need to keep her composure, not only for Ashley but for the program itself. No CST had ever died in battle before and the scrutiny would be high; they all understood this immediately. Keep it together, they counseled themselves, as the long night wore on.
Back at their base, Anne was navigating the maze of mundane administrative duties that a soldier’s death unleashes. Cassie and her partner Isabel had been flown to Kandahar to help complete Ashley’s casualty packet, beginning with her rank and the recent CAB award. They included her dates of service with the North Carolina Guard unit and at Fort Sam Houston, where she got her medical training. They all knew one another so well that it took hardly any time at all.
One of the Rangers brought Anne a few documents his unit used for their soldiers, and offered his condolences. When he left, Anne saw that a group of men from Ranger Regiment was in the hallway, crying for their friends and teammates. Loss had won a round that night.
In the small hours of the morning, the CSTs sat in their little broom closet office, a place that was filled with reminders of Ashley. It didn’t feel real to any of them.
“Do you think they’ll shut us down?” Cassie finally asked the question that was on everyone’s mind. She knew that Ashley’s death would propel the CST program into the public eye, and the real question was: how would the American public react when it learned that a woman had been present on a direct action, special operations combat mission? The American public knew more about military dogs and their handlers than it did about anything called a CST. A lot of people were going to want to know just how a group of women had ended up in the heart of the fight against the insurgency in Afghanistan.
“I have no idea,” Anne answered. At that moment the only thing she knew for certain was that everything she and her teammates did from then on would define how their program looked to the outside world. Doing the job superbly was the most important thing they could do for Ashley. They were all soldiers, and death was part of their business. Ashley hadn’t wanted any special treatment in life, and she certainly wouldn’t have wanted it in death.
And still, no one knew how much information they could or should include about their mission, since the CST program had, from its very beginnings, navigated a fine line with regard to the combat ban. So Anne labored over every word; her eyes stung from fatigue and heartbreak as she stared at her computer screen and typed.
1st Lt. Ashley Irene White, 24, was born Sept. 3, 1987 and was a native of Alliance, Ohio. She was killed during combat operations in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan when the assault force she was supporting triggered an improvised explosive device.
She was assigned to the 230th Brigade Support Battalion, 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, North Carolina National Guard, Goldsboro, N.C., and served as a member of the Cultural Support Team attached to a Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan.
This was her first deployment to Afghanistan in support of the War on Terror.
Anne’s next duty was to pack up and inventory Ashley’s room, standard procedure following a military death. She walked the football field’s distance back to their barracks and entered the small bunk that had been Ashley’s home for ten weeks. It had felt almost cozy when she crossed the hall from her room to visit Ashley earlier that day.
She unfolded an Army inventory form and began tallying:
Pairs of socks
She counted them all and in a slow, neat hand wrote the number of each item on the form.
Among the books and pictures was a DVD, white instead of the usual silver and stamped in black cursive letters:
Our Wedding Portraits
The proofs of Ashley’s wedding photos from that May had arrived recently. Ashley had promised to show Anne the pictures next time they had a free day.
Early the next morning hundreds from around Kandahar Airfield—soldiers, special operations commanders, staff, and dignitaries—gathered on the tarmac as the CSTs and Rangers prepared to send their friends and teammates home.
Bagpipes sounded the mournful notes of “Amazing Grace” over a loudspeaker as the ramp ceremony, a tradition marking the final send-off for a fallen soldier, began. The crowd stood around the three flag-draped aluminum cases on the earthen field. The base’s flag flew at half-staff.
Cassie’s CST partner Isabel and a group of Rangers volunteered to carry Ashley’s transfer case down the airfield and onto the plane that would take her to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, home to the military’s largest mortuary and the traditional first stop on American soil for military personnel killed overseas. Cassie, as the most senior officer among them, led the ceremony, placing Ashley onto the cavernous C-17. She called for the soldiers to lower the silver case to the ground and, a few moments later, to present arms and salute their fallen comrade one final time.
But as she called for Isabel and the Rangers to return to their feet after lowering Ashley’s casket, Cassie realized she had made a mistake: she had underestimated the sentiment of her Ranger colleagues. The men needed more time to bid their CST farewell, and two soldiers remained crouched next to Ashley’s aluminum case for a few moments longer before rising to make their final salute.
Ashley’s pallbearers filed off the plane and onto the tarmac just beneath its wing. Now that they had no work to occupy them Cassie and Isabel both felt the enormity of Ashley’s death. Cassie heard sniffles all around her as she and her fellow soldiers tried to hold back their tears for Sergeant First Class Kris Domeij, Private First Class Christopher Horns, and First Lieutenant Ashley White. As he stood in formation behind her, one of the Rangers who had carried Ashley onto the plane patted Cassie on the arm.
“She was a great soldier,” he whispered.
Throughout the ceremony Cassie, Anne, and Isabel each noted one heartening fact amid the terrible loss: Special Operations Command had made no distinction in death between Ashley—the enabler, the CST, the female—and the two Rangers who had died alongside her. The command treated them all equally: before the ceremony they placed Ranger coins on top of each casket, and afterward hung Ashley’s photo on the wall of Ranger fallen, alongside pictures of Kristoffer Domeij and Christopher Horns.
It was small comfort, but one that would have made Ashley proud.
And then the plane soared into the sky.
Nadia awoke that morning in the combat hospital to find a collection of metal pins keeping her right arm attached to the rest of her body. She had nearly lost the limb, one of the medics told her; it had hung on only by tendons. After losing three soldiers that night, the doctors had been bound and determined to avoid an amputation. But that was a detail Nadia didn’t yet know.
“Nice toenail polish,” one of the hospital staff commented. He clearly hadn’t seen red toes on any of his patients before. Nadia hadn’t bothered to ask him for a mirror, but she did wonder what her makeup looked like after all that had happened. She was sure she was a mess.
She saw a bunch of Rangers milling around, visiting fellow soldiers who had been injured. She wondered when she was going to see Ashley. She was sure Ashley knew what had happened and could fill her in on the parts of the night she was now fighting to remember.
Then Anne appeared at her bedside. She looked tired, Nadia thought, like she hadn’t slept. In truth she had been awake for well over twenty-four hours.
“Where’s Ashley?” Nadia asked.
“She’s not here,” Anne said. She looked down while she spoke in a tone that had no emotion left in it. “She’s gone. She didn’t make it.”
Nadia’s mind sorted through shards of images from the night before: the tinfoil-covered leftovers, the rush to slip on Ashley’s Crye combat shirt, the helicopter flight, Ashley talking to one of the Rangers, the patch of grass. The helicopter flight. Now Anne was standing at her side, telling her that Ashley was gone and the Rangers had lost two men.
Nadia’s aging gear had been her saving grace. That short walk to find even footing to fiddle with her NODs had kept her from the brunt of the blast.
The IED had taken her friend and teammate and had nearly taken her own arm. Now it would take her off the battlefield. But the blast had not taken her memories.
She would think of Ashley every day.