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

III

Last Roll Call

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15

A Grief Observed

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The doorbell rang. And rang.

It took Jason a few minutes to realize that the strange sound that awakened him at the early hour of 6 a.m. was coming from his front door. It was a rental near Fort Sill in Lawton, where he was taking an officers’ artillery training course. He wondered, who on earth even knew he had come to Oklahoma?

He fumbled his way to the door still in the T-shirt and shorts he was sleeping in.

Not that he had been sleeping well. Earlier that week he learned that he would indeed be returning to Fort Bragg, which meant he and Ashley could stay in Fayetteville and the ranch home she loved. Plus, Ashley could proceed with her goal to keep working with JSOC, this time as a civilian. They had both been thrilled. She had six months left in her deployment; he now knew where he’d be working and was moving forward in his own career. The couple had planned to discuss everything by phone Friday morning, but Ashley had sent a note in the middle of the night Thursday his time saying her team had gotten in too late for her to call. She knew Jason had an artillery exam that morning and didn’t want to wake him. She wished him luck on the test and said she would call that night. He answered her email as soon as he woke up:

“Look, you are in Afghanistan. I don’t care if it is 3:00 a.m. Just call me. I’ll go late to formation and tell them my wife was calling from Afghanistan.”

She promised to ring later that day. But Friday afternoon came and went, and Jason had to attend an officer promotion party. Then his friends persuaded him to join them at a haunted house to celebrate Halloween, only a week away. He joined them on the outing, but every two or three minutes glanced down at his phone to see if he had missed his wife.

“She’s supposed to call,” he told his buddy.

“Oh, dude, she knows it is Friday night here; I am sure she’ll call you later.”

But Jason left the haunted house without hearing from Ashley, and finally managed to drift off at 3 a.m. He slept with his BlackBerry just a few inches away, on the empty pillow next to him, so he could be sure to hear the phone when Ashley called.

Jason walked to the front door and looked through the peephole. All he could see was a uniform. He opened the front door a crack and saw three Army officers in dress blues standing on his doorstep: a battery commander, a first sergeant, and a chaplain.

“Captain Stumpf, we need to come in and talk to you,” one of the men said.

“Let me put the dog out back,” Jason answered. Ashley’s Siberian husky Gunner barked at the strange men as Jason led him away by the collar. He left him in the yard, closed the gate, and returned to the front door.

I am going to Landstuhl, he thought. Ashley is hurt.

He ushered his visitors into the living room and remained standing in the doorway. His hand gripped the doorknob and he braced himself for whatever they had to say.

“Please sit down,” the first sergeant urged Jason.

“No, thanks, I don’t need to sit down,” Jason answered. “Just tell me what is going on.”

“We regret to inform you that First Lieutenant Ashley White-Stumpf was killed in action,” the battery commander began. Jason’s ears hummed and his chest thumped so loudly he could barely hear what they were saying. He looked at his phone, wishing his wife would call and tell them how wrong they were.

The men kept talking. They didn’t have many details yet, except that she had succumbed to wounds from an IED. They would give Jason time to collect himself and prepare for everything that lay ahead. They would return in a few hours.

They were very sorry for his loss.

Jason refused to let himself think. He went into Army officer mode and began doing what had to be done. It was the only way he would get through it.

But it was with a stab of dread that he realized the next thing he had to do was inform Bob and Debbie back in Ohio that Ashley had been killed. He feared they would see her photo on the news before he had been able to reach them, since officially her next of kin had been informed. He couldn’t allow that to happen.

“What’s wrong?” Debbie White asked immediately when she heard Jason’s voice. She was in the middle of icing eight dozen cupcakes for a catering job when the phone rang.

“Oh, a pipe burst and it’s leaking all over the kitchen and I’m not in my house so I don’t know what to do,” Jason lied. He just couldn’t bear to tell Debbie; it wasn’t his place. He tried to make his voice stronger, but he knew she knew something had happened.

“Where is Dad?” he asked. Debbie said he was at the shop. White Tool.

On the factory floor, Bob White heard the White Tool landline ringing. The clock read 8:32 a.m. and he wondered who the hell would be calling him Saturday morning; they weren’t even open. He had just come in to check up on some recent orders of metal flagpole bases and streetlight fixtures.

“Who is it?” he asked as he grabbed the phone.

“Jason.”

“Jason who?”

“It’s your son-in-law, Dad.”

“What’s up?”

“Are you sitting down?”

“Just give it to me straight,” Bob said. He had never been one for the soft sell.

“It’s Ashley. She didn’t make it,” Jason said. His voice started to falter. “There was an explosion in Kandahar and she didn’t make it back. I just got the news.”

Jason listened, heartbroken, as Bob fired off a hot stream of expletives. He felt powerless to do anything to ease his father-in-law’s agony.

Bob moved quickly to end the conversation.

“I gotta go home and tell Deb,” he said. “I’ll talk to you in a bit.”

Bob would replay that moment in his mind every day that followed. That phone call would cut through his life and create a “before” and “after.” He looked up once more at the clock, the same one that a teenage Ashley had used to mark her lunch hour and to see if her workday at White Tool had ended. . . .

Jason hung up the phone and buried his head in his hands. He had one more call to make. He knew that as hard as the last one had been, this one would be far worse.

“Brittany, you need to go home,” he said when Ashley’s twin answered her mobile.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“It is bad. Ashley didn’t—”

He got no further. He heard the phone drop as she cried out.

And then he called the only person other than Ashley he always turned to in crisis.

“Dad, Ashley didn’t make it out,” he blurted as soon as his father picked up the phone at his home near Pittsburgh.

“Well, isn’t there another plane? She can just catch the next one, no?”

“No, Dad, she didn’t miss her flight,” Jason explained. “She was killed in action.”

“What?” From his earlier conversation with his son, Jason’s father knew a bit about what Ashley was doing, and that there had been potential risks. But he never entertained the idea that she wouldn’t come home.

Ralph Stumpf started to cry, and the two men stayed on the phone in silent tears for long minutes.

Soon it was time for Jason to head to Dover Air Force Base to meet his wife for the last time.

Bob and Debbie White had their first clue about what Ashley had been doing in Afghanistan when they arrived at Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base, the first stop on American soil for soldiers who die overseas. Dover’s Port Mortuary is the Pentagon’s largest, and the only such facility in the continental United States. Until just a few years earlier families of the fallen had to travel on their own dollar to witness the “dignified transfer” of their loved ones from the C-17 carrying them home. (The military did not use the word ceremony for such an event, because that would imply that it was an event in which family members needed to participate.) In 2009, under Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Pentagon changed the policy to allow public access to the media if the grieving family so desired and to pay for up to three family and friends to travel to Dover at government expense.

The first person to greet them upon arrival was a Ranger Regiment casualty assistance officer, whose job it was to support and assist family members when their loved one had died in service. But the Whites were unusual in that most times family members knew more or less what their loves ones had been doing. And usually the fallen weren’t women.

Debbie did her best to stay quietly composed and keep everything—and everyone—together. She wanted to get her family through the next several days. Then she would deal with trying to figure out what Ashley was doing out there.

But Bob had a lot of questions. He was aware that Ashley was on some sort of a special team; this much he knew from Ashley and Brittany. But he had almost zero details beyond that. As far as he and Debbie had known, she was working at a hospital on a base, “setting up tents,” as she had told them one time, and helping women and kids. The previous day the Whites had read a press release from Army Special Operations Command. It said Ashley “was assigned to the 230th Brigade Support Battalion, 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, North Carolina National Guard, Goldsboro, N.C.,” and that she had been “attached” to a “joint special operations task force.” It went on to say that she was an “enabler,” and a member of something called “a Cultural Support Team.” She had “played a crucial role as a member of a special operations strike force.” It was a long way from setting up tents, and the Whites had been confused by the details of the job their daughter had been doing overseas.

The release ended by stating that Ashley’s efforts “highlight[ed] both the importance and necessity of women on the battlefield today.”

Bob had no idea what it all meant, and he was determined to get answers. He looked the Ranger in the eye and unleashed a barrage of questions.

What was my daughter doing with the Rangers?

Why was she with them on night raids?

What was she doing on these missions?

Was she helping women and kids? Was she working as a medic?

Finally, Bob wanted to know how Ashley died. He wanted to gather every bit of information he could about how that IED had found Ashley in the middle of the night in Kandahar.

The soldier tried to answer Bob’s blizzard of questions, but some he simply couldn’t. There was information he didn’t possess, and there was intelligence he wasn’t at liberty to share. Already he had crossed well beyond his job’s usual boundaries: the casualty assistance officer program was created to help with funeral arrangements and honors, assist in processing of benefits, and make sure personal effects were returned. Facing a father who had just learned his daughter was the first-ever on her team to die in a special operations fight he hadn’t even known she was part of was entirely new terrain. For everyone. But he fielded the questions as deftly and respectfully as he could.

Ashley was attached to a unit of Ranger Regiment serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Bob learned. Its main purpose was to reach out to women and children and to support the strike force’s work of disrupting and destroying insurgent networks.

The Ranger explained that Ashley would be honored as a Ranger enabler, and he explained that enablers were teams of service members with specialized skills who supported special operators. Because her role was vital to Regiment, Bob heard him say, a Ranger would be with them in Ohio for the funeral and they would offer her every funeral honor. But there is a difference, the soldier tried to explain, between Rangers and the people who support them, or, in the military’s terminology, enable them.

It was a difference that Bob, a civilian, was struggling mightily to understand. If women are out on the front lines marching with the Rangers every night, Bob asked, what is the difference? If they go out on missions and wear uniforms and carry weapons, and put themselves in danger to help the American military achieve its strategic goals, what is the difference?

If they are getting killed out there, what in the hell is the difference?

There was nothing the Ranger could say to satisfactorily explain Ashley’s death to Bob. It was a reality he would simply have to accept. And there was another reality Bob would have to live with: his sense that if he hadn’t given in on ROTC back at Kent, perhaps she would have stayed home. And he wouldn’t be bringing her home to Ohio now. She could have become a physician’s assistant, she could have started a family, she could maybe even have one day opened that bakery back in Ohio she and Debbie always talked about starting.

Now all of that was over. He and his wife had not only lost their Ashley, but generations of her to come.

Finally Jason signaled to the Ranger with a glance—apology, frustration, anger, confusion—and took Bob by the arm, slowly walking him into a room reserved for families. He tried to explain what Ashley had been doing, to explain what it meant to be part of this new team of women and how honored Ashley felt to serve with Ranger Regiment on counterterrorism missions. But Bob could not absorb it and at first couldn’t understand why his son-in-law had kept Ashley’s real mission secret. He knew that it was “classic Ashley”—as ever she had thought about others first and had wanted to keep her parents from worrying. He told Jason he understood why he did what he did, that it was what any good spouse would do: stay loyal to his wife’s wishes.

But Bob and Debbie kept thinking that Ashley shouldn’t have protected her parents. They should have been there protecting her.