Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield (2016)
For two years Bob and Debbie White have allowed me into their home, their lives, and their family. Their unending generosity and relentless determination to remember their daughter made it impossible for me ever to forget the stakes of this story. At a time when we seem as a country to have strayed from some of our most deeply held values: hard work, a commitment to merit, humility, sacrifice for the next generation, and the importance of serving others, the White family is a reminder of who we are at our best—and proof of the power of kindness and courage in action.
Ashley’s husband, Jason, is an example of valor and grace in the face of grief. Those who knew Ashley at Kent State and afterward inevitably began conversations by mentioning the central role her husband had played in helping her to become who she was. Experiencing his commitment to honoring her legacy was both incredibly moving and an urgent reminder of why this story mattered.
Ashley’s twin sister, Brittany, and her brother, Josh, and his wife, Kate, shared stories and memories and much more, and I am thankful for their openness in the face of such a monumentally difficult task. It is a kindness I have never taken lightly.
To everyone who serves America each day and each night, I hope these pages have done their small part to remind readers of the reality of your work, the value of your service, the costs of your sacrifice, and the importance of engaging with the wars you fight in America’s name. I will be thankful always for the opportunity to shine a light on a world with which too few of us are familiar.
Getting to know the leaders who shaped the fight in Afghanistan has been a privilege and a pleasure, and I feel daily the weight of the responsibility of these stories. Thank you for allowing me to see the world as you do and for trusting me to share your stories with a country which must better understand what is asked of you, why you do it, and what that means for all of us. And to all the public affairs teams who shepherded my early calls, thank you for what you do and for your wisdom and care.
The soldiers in these pages share the unbreakable bonds of war. They are friends in battle and family for life. I knew the first time I heard Ashley’s story that America had to meet them as well, and I am thankful for the opportunity and the great responsibility of this challenge.
And to the Afghan-Americans who served in this war and who helped to create this story and make it theirs, thank you for sharing your insight and your world.
So many people offered their views, their voices, and their memories to this project. I have worked to do justice to all that you have shared. To the ROTC leaders at Kent State, Ashley’s friends from home, classmates from college, and fellow soldiers in North Carolina, thank you for making the time to help assemble this story.
Jim Gregory offered a gracious hand to help this story and incredibly valuable insight. Claire Russo, Matt Pottinger, Zoe Bedell, and a slew of others helped me to understand the origins of this program, and I am thankful for their wisdom. My Council on Foreign Relations colleague Janine Davidson, an Air Force pilot who flew C-17s and C-130s, offered valuable time and perspective, as did Susan Marquis and Linda Robinson of the RAND Corporation, author Dick Couch, Rebecca Patterson, and retired U.S. Navy Captain Lory Manning, who got me started with a reading list and a sense of history. Vice Admiral Lee Gunn offered his help and encouragement from the start. Jeremy Bash shared valuable wisdom and a big-picture perspective. Thank you to all.
My literary agent, Elyse Cheney, is the one you want next to you no matter the project; her tireless devotion to getting the shape and structure of this story right at the outset made all that followed far more manageable. Sam Freilich, Alex Jacobs, and Tyler Allen helped alongside. Jonathan Burnham at Harper believed in this story and pushed for it throughout. My wise and wonderful editor, Gail Winston, turned around the pages in record time, and each time the narrative returned stronger, sharper, and far more succinct. The incredibly capable Emily Cunningham made words flow and our production schedule manageable. Lisa Sharkey believed in Dressmaker from the outset and this book from the start, and I am thankful for all her support. Big thanks to our tireless publicity leader Tina Andreadis, marketing’s Leah Wasielewski and Stephanie Cooper, and the sales team, including Doug Jones, Josh Marwell, and Kate Walker. To everyone at CFR, including Richard Haass, Jim Lindsay, Irina Faskianos, Hannah Chartoff, countless military fellows, and the indefatigable Lisa Shields, thanks for the encouragement throughout.
I am blessed with wonderfully talented—and generous—friends and colleagues. My assistant, Christy Morales, kept me on track and our research organized. Melissa Stack lent a spare office and Robin Wood Sailer and Tara Luizzi their spare rooms. Marketing mind Chris Villareal shared his wisdom and his creative talent, as did Gina Bianchini. Laurye Blackford helped to map out the book’s launch from the start and offered invaluable advice and perspective all along the way. Willow Bay offered the very first set of notes for this book and the story was far stronger for them. Arash Ghadishah saw the power of this story at the same moment I did and was a consistent champion for this book. Lucy Helm, Anne Kornblut, Melinda Arons, Marc Adelman, Anna Soellner, Lee Gonzalez, Betsy Fischer Martin, Juleanna Glover, and Anna Robertson all supported this story in important ways. And you couldn’t have a wiser friend or smarter sounding board than author and editor Annik LaFarge.
Family is at the heart of this story and I must thank my own. My mother-in-law is the best agent a writer could have and helped in countless ways. My aunt and my godmother, Gloria Rojas and Elaine Cameron, told me to keep going no matter what. Laurie Sheets Forbes served as resident designer and Mark Cohen taught me a while back to never look for the easy path and that doing work that mattered was “supposed to be this hard.”
And finally, thank you to my husband, a former Naval officer who talked with me at length about military culture and offered unwavering support for this story. He is at the center of making this and much else possible.
This book is for so many and a great number of people helped bring it to life. Telling this story has altered and moved me beyond anything I had imagined at the start. It is in the memory of all who have served and sacrificed that I say thanks to each of you reading these pages for being part of it.ax