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

III

Last Roll Call

17

Kandahar

* * *

Ma’am, are you okay?”

Tristan was sitting in a biplane run by a special operations contractor. Only one other passenger was on board: a warrant officer whose presence she had immediately tuned out the moment the plane was airborne. She was lost in her thoughts when the officer leaned over to check that she was properly strapped in. She had no idea what he was talking about—of course she was okay—and then she felt the plane perform aerial jumping jacks over the Hindu Kush, bobbing up and down in sharp vertical jerks just above the mountain range’s jagged peaks.

Tristan hated to fly, but right now she was too nervous about her new assignment to care about the unsettling plunges of the bouncing plane.

She was heading from Bagram to Kandahar, that hotbed of house-born and vehicle-carried IEDs that had just claimed her friend’s life, to replace Ashley. She wanted to feel gung ho about the job. She wanted to say that she felt bold and brave and ready to do honor to Ashley’s memory. But in reality she felt nothing but worry. And fear.

We’re about to crash, she thought, noting the irony, but here I am, more worried about what’s about to happen on the ground in Kandahar.

At last the plane landed safely. The day was just turning to dusk; it was dinnertime for most people, but it was midday for the Rangers and their enablers, and they had work to do. Anne met Tristan at the flight line and showed her around her new home.

“We’re going out tonight,” Anne said. “Let’s get your gear ready and make sure you have all you need.”

Tristan noted how calm and collected her new teammate was, and she tried to assume the same no-nonsense air, as if going back out on mission a few days after your partner was killed was just another day at the office. Tristan would have preferred a day to settle in. A day to get accustomed to her new environs, a day to quiet her fears. She figured Anne knew that but that Anne thought the best way to deal with Tristan’s anxiety was to get her back to work. She knew Anne was right, but that didn’t make it any easier.

A few days earlier special operations leaders had flown Tristan from her base to the memorial service in Kandahar in honor of Ashley, Kris Domeij, and Chris Horns. She arrived just in time to hear the wrenching ritual of the last roll call for the fallen.

“Lieutenant White,” she heard boom over the loudspeaker.

“Lieutenant Ashley White.”

“Lieutenant Ashley Irene White”

At last a voice answered.

“First Sergeant, she is no longer with us.”

After the roll call they lined up before a photo of each of the soldiers alongside their boots and dog tags. Tristan knelt next to Ashley’s picture and said goodbye.

A few minutes later it was over. Three soldiers gone. And now everyone back to work.

Before Tristan flew back to base that night Anne had taken her to dinner at the Asian DFAC, the same place where she and Ashley had enjoyed a meal together the night she died. Tristan pushed her lo mein noodles around her plate and listened as Anne talked drily about the threats, how IEDs lay everywhere, over the walls and throughout the orchards, and how she couldn’t wait to get back out to find the men who had planted the device that killed their friend. While Anne spoke Tristan looked at the Buddha stickers on the dining facility’s windows and listened to new-age meditation music from 1990s-style boom boxes. She couldn’t think of any place less soothing and tranquil in all the world.

After the meal Tristan watched Anne head back to her room to suit up for that night’s work. She felt awed by her teammate’s stoicism and fearful of the risks she faced.

I am so glad I’m not based here, Tristan had thought as she and her CST partner flew out of Kandahar. It sounds horrible.

And then, two days after the memorial service, she was reassigned as Ashley’s replacement in Kandahar. For the next six months, this frightening place filled with ghosts and IEDs and smelling of human excrement would be her home.

Tristan walked into her new room and froze.

Ashley’s white ASICS sat there at the foot of her new bed.

She left the shoes there and moved toward the white wall locker to unpack her plastic bag of toiletries. There she found Ashley’s travel-size Jergens lotions and some hair bands. There was also a candle in the scent “Puffy Clouds.” How fitting, Tristan thought. She would safeguard it all as a reminder of her friend. And a warning to herself to never, ever get comfortable in this job.

Tristan entered the broom-closet-turned-office determined to pick any desk but the one that had been Ashley’s. The moment she sat down and opened the desk drawer she realized she had chosen exactly wrong. Inside were Smart for Life protein bars in Green Tea flavor, which Tristan immediately recognized from their summer train-up. Ashley had selected them especially for their protein-to-carb ratio.

“It seems little bits of Ashley are everywhere,” Tristan wrote in a letter home. She saw the bread maker in the corner already gathering dust from the Kandahar air and knew that no one would ever use it again. At least not while she was there.

With Anne’s coaching she got her gear set up in the ready room—every team had different protocols and ways of doing things—and went to introduce herself to the Rangers with whom she’d be working. Ashley’s old team. They greeted her kindly, but stiffly. She was now officially “the replacement CST.”

The first night Anne accompanied Tristan, to help her get her comfortable with her new team. At the outset Tristan thought only of IEDs; she knew that every step she took could be her last. But after a while she found her rhythm. She and Anne ended up searching and talking with dozens of women and children that night and divided the work between them. They had arrived by ground, in Stryker armored vehicles, and afterward, as they returned to base, Tristan felt a surge of relief. The new base, new teammates, new terrain, she would get used to them all. Being back in action had helped. Anne was right. She could move forward now.

But not everyone could. Tristan could tell how much respect the guys had for Ashley by the way they talked about her. One of the senior Rangers, a gruff guy whose deployments she imagined reached into double digits, approached her before the first mission. “Listen, please be really careful,” he said. “No offense to you, but I can’t deal with it one more time. Ashley was so young and she had so much to offer. I just can’t go through that again.”

Tristan realized how hard Ashley’s death had been on these men. But she couldn’t promise she wouldn’t die and she didn’t think the fact that they weren’t used to women dying alongside them meant that she shouldn’t be out there. She understood the risks going in. They were all soldiers, after all. These guys knew what that meant better than anyone.

Soon Tristan picked up a pen and began writing in her notebook.

Dad,

I’m writing this note; I guess in case something happens. I have witnessed second and third hand how much pain is associated with trying to pick up the pieces if the worst should happen. I’m not sure this letter will save you much pain, but it will at least save you the pain of searching for it.

Every night before I go to sleep I think of you guys. I think about all our times as a family. Summers in Vermont. Family softball games.

You always had a way of making us believe we could do anything. Whether it was making the softball team or becoming astronauts or just squeezing by in that math modeling class, you never doubted that any of us were capable of anything we set our hearts to. I could never tell you how much that has meant.

If something is to happen to me know that I wanted to do this job and that I placed myself in this position because I felt it was something I needed to do.

I’m grateful that I had such a wonderful family and that I had parents who were ever in my corner.

Love,

Tristan

As November and December wore on the CSTs kept going out each night and doing their jobs, though they all sensed that higher-ups were still trying to figure out what the first CST battlefield death meant for their work.

Back in Ohio at Ashley’s funeral, one of the special operations leaders had asked Leda whether the women wanted to keep doing the job.

“Not one of us wants to stop doing this mission,” Leda answered, reminding him that each of them had accepted the risks by signing on to work with the Rangers. “Nothing would dishonor Ashley’s memory more.”

He urged her to tell the CSTs to keep “serving with pride” and to make sure they knew the entire Special Operations Command stood behind them and wanted them to stay out there.

Leda returned to Afghanistan immediately after Ashley’s service and shared that message. The CSTs needed to put their heads down and just keep doing their job better than ever, she said. Don’t worry about anything else.

Around the same time, a special operations historian came through Kandahar to interview soldiers as part of his regular tour of bases across Afghanistan. When he sat down with Tristan, he asked how she felt when she learned of Ashley’s death.

“Did it make you want to stop doing this job?”

“Just the opposite,” she said. It made her more motivated to honor her friend and teammate’s legacy.

Then the interviewer mentioned the chatter in Washington, D.C., and on military bases about ending the CST program with the war in Afghanistan. He asked Tristan how she saw the future of the program. “Should it be developed further or is it just a necessity born out of a specific conflict, because that’s how we felt about the canine program during Vietnam.”

Oh, great, now we’re dogs! Tristan laughed to herself. But she told the historian that the program should not be dismantled, it should be expanded.

“They could really build out this job and get a whole lot more from the role if they wanted,” she said. “Our team of CSTs will keep doing this mission as long as we can.”

At last Christmas arrived. For Tristan, holidays had always been important; she wasn’t going to let the fact that she was at war rob her of all her holiday cheer. She sketched a Christmas tree on a piece of scrap paper and taped it to the wall in her room, then put all the neatly wrapped packages from her family back in New England beneath it.

Things had gotten easier in the eight weeks since her arrival. At November’s end a new team of Rangers rotated in, and the platoon alongside whom Ashley had died finally got to go home after a deployment that had cost them so much and so many they loved. For this new Ranger crew, led by a fellow New England Patriots fan, Tristan was their first CST, and they had been open from the very start to her ideas and her suggestions for how she could contribute to their work. The more useful she felt she was, the better she got at the job, and the better she got at the job, the more they put her to work. Tristan and Kate instant-messaged regularly about how nothing that they would ever do afterward in the Army—short of Ranger school or Ranger selection opening to women one day—would ever compare to this mission.

Tristan would see Kate and all her teammates at Bagram the day after Christmas—the halfway point for their deployment. Leda had arranged the one-night, all-CST gathering; officially they had come to talk about their CST experience with their Afghan counterparts and to prepare Afghan women to do the CST job. Unofficially, Leda knew that the women needed to be around one another after Ashley’s death and in light of all the questions about the program’s future that were being raised.

Tristan snacked on muffins as she listened to Leda discuss ideas being floated among special operations leaders to make the CST teams a real MOS, or Military Occupational Specialty, rather than a temporary program. She wanted to pursue whatever MOS they managed to create, and told Leda and her teammates that she thought they should just be like all the other Ranger enablers, on the same training and deployment cycle of the guys with whom they served.

Then they began to swap stories.

“I actually thought Leda was calling to yell at us for fast-roping,” Kimberly said about the call, the one she’d never forget. Official guidance had said that CSTs shouldn’t fast-rope onto an objective given the injuries team members had sustained from it during PMT and in Afghanistan. Sliding quickly into a potentially hostile situation down a rope from a swaying bird wearing two pairs of gloves to prevent burns while holding steady all of your body weight plus fifty pounds of gear was dangerous work, and the Ranger leadership didn’t want any more CSTs hurt. But after seeing them in action—both on their missions and with the Rangers—the SEALs Kimberly worked with decided she and her teammate Maddie could handle the assignment. They showed Kimberly, Maddie, and an Afghan army officer on their team how to climb up a thin, portable ladder and then come back down on the two-inch-thick rope that ranges from fifty to ninety feet in length that they had hung from the top of a building. They repeated the exercise twice without gear and twice in full kit. Next they practiced fast-roping out of an actual, hovering helicopter by day and at night to make certain they knew what they were doing. Still, Kimberly said, she and Maddie never thought they’d get to put the training to work given the debate about what was and wasn’t allowed. Then one night they were flying to a mission when the SEALs announced they should all get ready to fast-rope in. Kimberly and Maddie had nudged each other there on the bird.

You gotta do this, Kimberly told herself in the moment, and not just for your sake but for all the other girls who can’t. Don’t go sliding down and don’t land like a jerk and don’t fall off the rope. Whatever you do don’t get hurt. And don’t you dare need a medevac to take you out of here tonight. Then she heard the command Go. Down, down, down she went. And then, suddenly, she felt the firm, cold earth beneath her. She balled her body up and did a combat roll away from the bird, just as the SEALs had taught, then leapt onto one knee to grab her weapon and pull security for everyone else. A moment later Maddie followed. With everyone safely descended from the bird, the team began moving toward the objective, just like any other night. But not before she and Maddie stopped to exchange a quick high-five. Kimberly saw one of the guys laugh silently from under his green night-vision halo and shake his head at the girls’ display, as if to say, “You rookies.”

Laughter greeted the end of Kimberly’s story. Then Kate began.

One of the first nights out, she told her teammates, she and her platoon’s first sergeant stood at the end of formation. Suddenly they heard the pop-pop-pop of fire and the sound of grenades on the radio and ran a hundred yards to take cover in a ditch alongside the road that was nearly as deep as Kate was tall. The guys up front started shooting at the insurgents firing upon them and her first sergeant put her up against the side of the ditch facing the back column and pointed. “That’s your sector of fire,” he had told her. “I was like, ‘Fuck, yeah,’” Kate said. “That is the beauty of being a soldier. Right there in that moment with your rifle propped up against the dirt, knowing that even if you don’t get to be the guy up at the front shooting, you have a sector that is yours and you know in your heart you will shoot any enemy that comes into it. That’s how simple it is,” she finished.

She had finally found her people, Kate said. Both her CSTs and the men she admired and was prepared to die for.

“I love you guys,” Kate said. She confessed that after Ashley’s death she now checked every night to see who was going out on mission and that they made it back okay. “You mean more to me than anything.”

For Tristan the visit was the breath of fresh air that she needed. To see all her CST teammates and to know that everyone else was doing okay, too, did her heart good.

She flew once more from Bagram to Kandahar. This time the turbulence frightened her.

Tristan had just finished listening to the rundown of what they expected on the objective that night and now she was walking back to the ready room to make sure she had everything she needed for the evening’s mission. On the wall just outside the briefing room hung photos of all those killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ashley’s smiling face was next to Sergeant Domeij and Private Horns.

“Stay with me, Ashley,” Tristan silently told her friend. “I think it’s going to be a long night.”

An hour later she was running off the Chinook and headed into what looked like the Afghan version of a trailer park, with homes all built close to one another. She and Anne, on a rare mission together, divided the labor: Anne searched the women while Tristan talked to them. It was going to be a long night; dozens of women and children were now standing in front of them.

Tristan flipped up her NODs and began talking to a pretty teenage girl with light green eyes and wearing a regal purple dress. She began asking her about what was happening in her neighborhood.

The night wind blew cold, and some of the other soldiers wore their puffy Army jackets. Being a New Englander long accustomed to running in twenty-degree weather, Tristan wore just a couple of layers—a waffle top, a shirt, and a vest—under her uniform.

Tristan noticed the girl looked nervous, as she bounced from one foot to another and looked over at her mother every time she spoke. When Tristan asked her once more what was happening in the house, quietly, the teenager started to talk. Yes, she said, the guy they were looking for was there in one of the houses. She didn’t know anything more than that, but of that she was certain.

Just then Tristan heard the call over the radio:

“Nothing here,” the Ranger said. “Let’s move on.”

“Platoon Sergeant, where are you?” Tristan spoke into her radio. “I just got something here. I think we should stay.”

It was rare for her to push for more time, but the Rangers had encouraged her to speak up if she had something they actually needed to know; she was part of the team. Each night before mission she and her Ranger counterpart would exchange notes and talk about what they expected and what they were looking for as they sought to keep the pressure on the insurgent networks of Taliban and al-Qaeda guys operating around the area. Even out on the objective the Ranger and the CST would often huddle quickly to share anything critical they were learning and finding.

“Okay, we’ll give you ten more minutes,” he said; “see what you come up with.”

While Anne spoke with the girl’s mother, the teenager began telling Tristan about the men who often came around to the house, and some of the conversations she had heard.

Tristan wrote down as many details as she could. She grabbed her Ranger counterpart and he agreed: they would search the house once more, especially the back part of the compound where the animals lived.

Soon enough the Rangers unearthed more than a dozen, not yet connected, pressure-plate IEDs hidden in the ground. Even more immediately relevant to that evening’s success, they learned from the insurgent singled out by the girl in the purple dress that IEDs set to detonate lay buried all along the path they were just about to walk to the next compound.

If they had moved on as planned, they would have stepped right onto them.

That night, after her trek over brambles and through wadis and back to the helicopter that would lift them home, Tristan went to listen to the post-mission brief and offer up a quick slide on what she had learned that night. On the way out she saluted her friend once more.

“Thanks, Ash.”

April came at last. For the last few weeks Tristan and Anne had joined some of the operators on their camp in “tan ops,” which entailed staying up long enough to catch the first rays of the potent Kandahar sun. No one wanted to return home pale and wan. Or fat. Out went the Christmas cookies and care package M&Ms. No carbs. Only proteins, veggies, and energy drinks now.

Tristan couldn’t believe they’d soon be going home. She dreamt about laying around aimlessly with no place to go and spending entire days reading celebrity gossip magazines and watching TV with her sisters and brother.

I’m going to miss this place, she thought. The guys she worked with, the missions she went on, the women and children she talked to each night, the children and their beautiful eyes. The moments of compassion and caring buried among the horrible moments of war. Even the smell of the poo pond.

On their way back to America all the CSTs would meet in Bagram for one last time as a team. They would fill out the last of their paperwork and find out for certain whether they could stay on as CSTs doing the job they now knew well, felt qualified for, and loved. Tristan missed Kate and Amber and Cassie and Sarah and Kimberly and all the other girls. She couldn’t wait to hear their stories; she knew that as soon as they started to tell them it would feel as if they hadn’t been apart for the last four months.

But before she boarded a plane out of Kandahar for the last time she would write one last letter.

We are leaving today.

Everything is packed and I have returned to my room for a few short moments. Just wanted to take one last look at the bed where I spent so many hours lying awake. Where I silently thanked God for returning me every night. I wanted to look one last time at Ashley’s sneakers. Just waiting faithfully to be taken for a spin. I wanted to thank Ashley for the quiet strength she has given me over the last few months. I know we all have a lot of talking to Ashley to do in the next few weeks. I know watching KAF disappear will be hard. We will feel like we are leaving Ashley for good. But we are not leaving Ashley anywhere. Ashley will be with all of us, wherever we go, for the rest of our lives.

Goodbye little room.

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