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

III

Last Roll Call

16

The Man in the Arena

* * *

The night before Ashley’s funeral hundreds who knew her and many her family had never seen before poured into her old high school gym to pay respects to their fallen soldier. They filed through in a line that lasted more than six hours and snaked all the way around the gym and out the door into the same hallways Ashley had walked as a senior six years earlier. Little children, aging women and men, parents whose children had grown up with Ashley and her siblings, they all came to pause at the table covered in red velvet upon which Ashley’s Army medals were now displayed. Some, Leda included, made the sign of the cross as they stopped. Behind the velvet-covered table hung a banner with an empty military helmet and a rifle emblazoned with the words, “Lest they be forgotten.”

Leda had barely slept since leaving Afghanistan three days earlier. As the officer in charge she had accompanied Ashley back to the United States on the C-17 and stayed awake watching over her throughout the trip to Dover via Ramstein. When she at last arrived at Dover she hurried to find Bob and Debbie and to introduce herself. She had heard so much about them from Ashley.

Leda told them what a beautiful friend Ashley had been to her. How dearly loved she was by her teammates. And how good she had been at her job. She told them how the Afghan women responded to her kindness and told her things that helped Americans and Afghans stay alive, how Ashley had been respected by the Rangers for her physical strength and professionalism, and how she had seen this all, firsthand, for herself during her trip to Kandahar in October.

She had expected to return to Afghanistan immediately after the ceremony for the fallen at Dover. She was desperate to get back to her soldiers, whose missions continued. But then Bob and Debbie had asked Leda to please accompany Ashley all the way home to Ohio. They needed her there, Bob said, to help them deal with this onslaught of military attention for which they had been unprepared. And to explain to their family and friends what Ashley had been doing there on the front lines in a job they hadn’t even known existed.

Now the CST officer in charge sat among the imposing special operations leaders with rows of bars and medals on their uniforms in Ashley’s high school gym where she had cheered for her brother, Josh, during so many basketball games. Leda looked on as the Rangers offered their funeral traditions to their female teammate. A young soldier in the Rangers’ tan beret and dress green uniform stood at attention at Ashley’s casket and did not move. Leda listened intently as one of the highest-ranking officers in the entire United States military stood to speak about her beloved friend.

The head of Army Special Operations Command, Lieutenant General John Mulholland, a highly regarded Green Beret and an architect of America’s early successes in Afghanistan, came to present the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and Combat Action Badge to Ashley’s family. But before he did, he said, he wanted to explain just what the CSTs and their mission meant to him, to the Army, and to America. Just a few feet in front of him on folding chairs sat Bob and Debbie, working valiantly to hold together amid all the unexpected attention and their overnight baptism into the special operations community. Jason sat in his Army dress uniform next to Debbie.

“It is important that we do recognize that what Ashley was doing is something that a very small number, a very select group of women have raised their arms for,” Mulholland said.

“They come from all across the United States and they come to Fort Bragg because they have heard this call for women willing to do something unique in our country’s history to serve alongside the Rangers, alongside our Special Forces that are the best warriors that our nation has.

“Make no mistake about it, these women are warriors; these are great women who have also provided enormous operational success to us on the battlefield by virtue of their being able to contact half of the population that we normally do not interact with.

“They absolutely have become part of our special operations family. They absolutely will write a new chapter in the role of women soldiers in the United States Army and our military and every single one of them have proven equal to the test.”

As Leda listened to his speech, she was moved by Lieutenant General Mulholland’s very public accounting of this program built for the shadows: who the women were, why the program existed, and where she and her sisters fit in America’s fight against terrorism. Mulholland hadn’t known Ashley personally, but her death had pushed all of the CSTs out of the shadows and into the public arena.

I want you to have that sense of context for what it is that Ashley did. She and her sisters have set an entirely new mark on what it means to be a woman soldier in the United States Army, which is the finest army on the face of the earth. She will always be part of Army special operations, and we are extraordinarily proud of her and all of her sisters.

Next, Lieutenant General Mulholland presented Jason with Ashley’s Purple Heart, “established by General George Washington at Newburgh, New York, August 7, 1782,” in the name of the president of the United States of America. Jason stood to receive the award. Then came the Bronze Star. And the Combat Action Badge for which Lane and Anne had cheered Ashley on just a few months earlier.

Leda understood how rare it was for the head of the Army Special Operations Command to devote days from his schedule to honor a fallen lieutenant. She knew that Lieutenant General Mulholland attended Ranger funerals, but she didn’t imagine he often attended memorial ceremonies for their enablers. For their part, Bob and Debbie knew nothing of the backstory of the CST program, or its politics; what they saw, and marveled at, was all these decorated, senior officers praising their daughter. They received a letter from Admiral William McRaven, the former JSOC leader and current SOCOM commander whose Request for Forces had turned the CST program from idea into reality.

“I didn’t know Ashley personally, but I know what kind of woman she was. She was courageous beyond all measure,” McRaven wrote. “She was patriotic. She had a sense of duty that could not be suppressed. She was full of energy and made everyone around her better. She was exactly the kind of woman we needed in the service of our country.”

That her honor, her integrity, her humanity, her generosity had meant a great deal to many, her parents had imagined to be true. After all, it was Ashley. But even they were shocked the following day, Halloween 2011, to see the hundreds upon hundreds who turned out to line the main highway in Marlboro, Randolph, and nearby Alliance to her burial mass. Crowds of friends and strangers, Vietnam veterans and wounded warrior advocates, stood two- and three-deep to salute Ashley as she rode by. Boys and girls clasped their small hands in prayer and then waved goodbye.

Inside Ashley’s funeral mass the wooden pews filled to capacity then overflowed with mourners. Her casket was carried down the same aisle she had walked as a bride only five months earlier.

Colonel Mark O’Donnell of the 75th Ranger Regiment picked up where Lieutenant General Mulholland had left off the previous evening and spoke to the crowd.

“From an intelligence standpoint what they provide by engaging women and children on the objective contributes immeasurably to our success,” he said of the CSTs.

He read “The Man in the Arena” from President Theodore Roosevelt. The speech, given in April 1910, focused on the importance to democracy of holding all citizens to the highest of standards. The colonel noted that though the person described in this narrative was male, the words did indeed describe this female fallen soldier.

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,” he quoted Roosevelt, “because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds.”

“On countless operations in which elite special operations strike forces targeted senior Taliban and al-Qaeda safe havens in which contact was likely, Ashley was frequently the only female on the objective,” O’Donnell finished. “Think about this and the great courage that that took.

“She is the Man in the Arena,” he said. “Ashley, rest in peace. Know that your Ranger brothers have mourned and now continue the fight, a fight that you have committed your life to.”

Jason offered the final speech and talked of his wife’s devotion, her patience, and her ability to listen to him “rant,” whether he was deployed or she was. “I am not the ideal husband,” he said. “She was the ideal wife.”

Those days around Ashley’s burial would come to be a blur for Bob and Debbie, but a few moments would puncture the fog of sorrow and the numbing motion of all the funeral preparations.

They would remember the horse-drawn black carriage that carried Ashley to her grave with hundreds marching behind and a bagpipe playing “Amazing Grace.” They would remember Leda as she spoke at Ashley’s funeral about her sister-in-arms and listed name after name of Ashley’s fellow CSTs who sent their love and admiration and “their greater resolve” to continue their mission in Ashley’s honor. Ten days earlier the Whites had never heard of these women; now they felt like members of their family. And they would remember the condolence card they received from the Rangers with whom Ashley served. “Having a woman come out with us was a new thing for all of us,” wrote her weapons squad leader. “Being one of the first groups of CST, she really set a good impression not only on us, but also the higher leadership. I am sorry for your loss, but I want you to know that she was good at her job and a valuable member of this platoon.”

And Debbie would never forget the stranger who approached her after the burial ceremony on the hill overlooking the church’s playground. She stood taking a final moment alongside her daughter’s pale gray casket, now covered in red roses left by those who had loved her.

“Mrs. White, I brought my daughter today because I wanted her to know what a hero was,” the woman said, holding the hand of a little girl. “And I wanted her to know girls could be heroes, too.”

That the Army had entered new terrain with Ashley’s death had been clear from the outset, from how to announce it to the presence of Ranger leaders and Lieutenant General Mulholland’s words at her funeral. It wasn’t long before Jason began to see that the survivor community was breaking new ground, too. Gold Star Wives was the name of the group of widows/widowers whose spouses died while serving in the armed forces. And while the group worked hard to be inclusive, the name said it all. The soldier who came to talk to him about all the survivor programs the Army offered the bereaved had said as much, telling Jason that they faced such a small percentage of widowers, let alone dual military widowers, that they really didn’t have that much in the way of support or grieving resources tailored to men. But the Army was there for Jason and would do whatever it took to take care of him, the officer had promised. Jason appreciated his candor. He was beginning to see how Ashley’s death challenged the machinery of the United States military. And the society of which it was a part.

It began with offhand, thoughtless questions from fellow soldiers who asked him what his wife was doing there. Why had she gone to Afghanistan? Was he okay with her decision? And had he tried to stop her? At first he had answered patiently that he wouldn’t and couldn’t have done anything differently. He tried to explain to them who Ashley was and what motivated her to do this deployment. But he never felt he got through to people. And that became even clearer when an acquaintance asked him, if he could go back in time, would he do it again? Would he let her go? Or would he be a “real husband” now and look out for his wife? The question had infuriated him. And added to his pain. He wanted to answer that they had made this decision to join the program together. And that she wanted to contribute to her country, to do something she thought mattered, that belonged only to her, before they started their family. But he knew it was pointless. He only glared back in response. His wife had taught him to be the bigger man and he was trying to honor her memory and remain calm in the face of such ignorance. As his buddy told him, “You can’t train stupid.”

But it wasn’t easy.

At night he would sit home alone with Ashley’s dog, Gunner, on the couch he and Ashley used to share and mull over all the reasons why he had chosen to support his wife.

He always arrived at the same one: he wanted her to be happy. That was his job as a husband. He hadn’t failed Ashley; he had kept his marriage vow to her.

And now he would have to learn to live without her.

But he wasn’t yet ready to do that. Her Glamour and Marie Claire magazines remained where they sat in a wicker basket on the floor next to the couch, as did her collection of Minnie Mouses. He finished the to-do list she had stuck to the refrigerator the day she left for Pope Air Force Base. He kept her kitchen just as she had so carefully arranged it. But nothing was the same.

He reread the journal they had shared during his own time in Afghanistan and returned often to her notebook, the one in which he found the letter telling him about her CAB. And he thought about her looking down on him and urging him to keep going, not to give in to his despair.

As he told his buddy one night when he came over to see how Jason was doing, he would never regret anything that had happened. Even with all the pain.

“Ashley taught me so much,” he said. “Some people are married fifty years and don’t have what we did in the short time we were married.”

That thought got him through each day.