Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield (2016)
On Memorial Day 2012, Lieutenant General John Mulholland stood before an assembly of grieving families to honor the Army special operations soldiers who had given everything to their country.
“It is important that we never forget that Ashley and her brothers-in-arms were truly exceptional people,” he said during the annual ceremony held on the U.S. Army Special Operations Forces Memorial Plaza. “They had and always will have a value beyond measure; they are supremely competent in what they chose to do, were clearly committed to making a difference in the world in which they lived, and they unquestionably did so.”
Bob and Debbie White, along with Jason and Ashley’s siblings Brittany and Josh, sat among the audience on their folding chairs, holding red roses and listening as Ashley’s name took its place on the Army Special Operations Command Memorial Wall alongside SFC Kris Domeij, PFC Chris Horns, and eight other Rangers killed in action in 2011. Ashley was the first CST whose name would be etched on a nameplate and join the granite memorial to the fallen.
Back at Bagram a month earlier, a number of the CSTs asked if they could extend their mission. But it was not to be. CST was a one-year deployment and now it was time for the soldiers to return to their home units. The next class awaited. More female soldiers had put their hands up to serve with the fighters of special operations and now it was their turn to deploy.
The problem was, returning to their pre-CST lives was the last thing many of the soldiers wanted.
Cassie couldn’t fathom going home. She had been out regularly on missions with her strike force. She had cheered when her partner, Isabel, had been nominated by the Rangers for an IMPACT Award for finding explosives and other intel-related items that “would have been overlooked” in her absence. She even had the privilege of having one of the officers she served under inscribe her copy of Sebastian Junger’s book War just before she left her base.
“You are a true warrior leader and your exploits in ‘Leading the Way’ for women in combat will be told one day,” he wrote to Cassie. This officer had been one of the soldiers featured in the book she had carried with her to Afghanistan.
Next thing she knew, she found herself in an auditorium at Bagram listening to Kate explain to one of the generals who had come to offer his thanks to the CSTs that she and some of the others wanted to keep doing what they had been doing.
“Sir, with all due respect, you don’t understand,” Kate had dared to blurt out. Given the ban on women in direct action roles, “This is it for us. There is no place else for us to go. We have done nothing better and will do nothing better. And now we are being sent back to our units. Nothing else will compare to this.”
When they returned to Fort Bragg, Cassie walked back into the Landmark Inn, this time without the hope and excitement of her last visit. How could she possibly go back to her old Army assignment and “normal life”? Whatever that was. The only people who understood her now were her fellow CSTs. They were as much her family as her family. Maybe more so.
Six more CST classes followed in the years that intervened. I recently had the privilege of spending an evening with a group of women from different years of the program, nearly all of whom had served the direct action mission. The connection they shared, even among those who hadn’t before met, was obvious and immediate. What struck me that night was the same sense of intense friendship I felt the first time I met Ashley’s teammates. They finished one another’s sentences, served as each other’s career counselors, divorce therapists, spiritual advisors, and baby shower hosts. It was clear the soldiers were bound by a bond that no one outside their small, invisible band of CSTs would ever truly understand. Leda’s leadership, Ashley’s loss, the mission they had loved and couldn’t go back to, the fact that no one outside the group of soldiers and SEALs alongside whom they served knew what they had done and seen, all combined to create an unbreakable connection forged at war and cemented at home. They were all they had and they understood why.
In the years that followed Ashley White-Stumpf’s death, being her parent became a full-time job for Bob and Debbie White. Ceremony after ceremony, memorial after memorial, they would sit in the audience and hear people honor and talk about Ashley. Sometimes they spoke as well. Each week they returned to her grave behind the church to clear the many mementos people had left her: kettle bells, silver charms, flowers, letters on lined notebook paper telling her she was their “motivation.” Their mailbox filled with letters from people who knew her in Afghanistan, had met her in Ohio, or simply had read her story in the local newspaper. At Kent State a memorial scholarship and an annual run were established in Ashley’s name. Her old high school hung her photo in a glass case. The North Carolina National Guard unveiled a granite memorial to her at the Goldsboro National Guard Armory. Her brother Josh gave a powerful speech at the Ohio Statehouse memorializing his sister and addressing the loss experienced by every family who loses a son or daughter at war. The Ohio legislature named part of Route 44 in Marlboro Township the 1st Lt. Ashley White-Stumpf Memorial Highway.
In January 2013 the ban on women in ground combat units officially ended. The rules had at last caught up with reality.
“A hundred and fifty-two women in uniform have died serving this nation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Female service members have faced the reality of combat, proven their willingness to fight and, yes, to die to defend their fellow Americans,” said Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta at a news conference with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey. “Every time I visited the warzone, every time I’ve met with troops, reviewed military operations, and talked to wounded warriors, I’ve been impressed with the fact that everyone—everyone, men and women alike—everyone is committed to doing the job. They’re fighting and they’re dying together. And the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality.”
Said Panetta, “If they are willing to put their lives on the line, then we ought to recognize that they deserve a chance to serve in any capacity they want.”
Six months later, in June 2013, the Cultural Support Teams came up at a Pentagon news conference focused on integrating women into jobs that previously had been off-limits to them, including roles as special operators.
“Quite frankly, I was encouraged by just the physical performance of some of the young girls who aspire to go into the cultural support teams,” said SOCOM’s Major General Bennet Sacolick, who called the program a “huge success.” He went on to say, “They very well may provide a foundation for ultimate integration.”
By January 1, 2016, special operations command and each of the services will either fully open up all roles to women or explain the reasons why they will stay male-only. All exemptions will have to be approved by both the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
On Veteran’s Day 2013 First Lieutenant Ashley White-Stumpf marked another milestone: she became the first woman to have a tree dedicated to her on the Memorial Walk of Honor at the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Georgia, just outside Fort Benning. Her fellow CSTs led by Amber and Lane raised the money for the tree and plaque in her honor. Then, almost exactly two years after Ashley’s death, a second CST, First Lieutenant Jennifer Moreno, an Army nurse, died in action in Kandahar Province alongside two Army Rangers and an Army criminal investigator. She would join Ashley on that Memorial Walk.
At that Veteran’s Day ceremony on the grounds of the National Infantry Museum, members of CST-2 gathered before a square, gold-rimmed plaque whose first line read:
CST PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE
That mild November day beneath a blue-gray sky Bob and Debbie White sat next to the soldiers who had known and loved their daughter and who, by now, had become members of their own family.
Tristan took to the podium.
When Ashley White-Stumpf became an angel she was at the apex of her life. She was a newlywed with an incredibly loving and supporting husband. She had just purchased her first home. She had a good job and an amazing family. And yet Ashley asked, “what can I do, how can I make a difference?”
Think about that for a minute. How much better would this world be if every person, at the happiest, most fulfilled point in their life, thought not of themselves, but of the good they could do for things bigger than themselves?
It is a question for each of us.