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

I

The Call to Serve

2

Hearing the Call to Serve

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Lane Mason heard the ding of an incoming email and gazed down at her aging laptop. Tall, with ice-blue eyes, walnut brown hair, and tattooed arms, she looked like a Harley-Davidson model. A twenty-three-year-old Iraq War veteran from a small town in northeast Nevada, Lane worked for the local National Guard shepherding new recruits and transitioning them into the Guard.

Despite motherhood Lane’s body still possessed the taut strength of the track star she had been. In high school she had led her team to the state championships year after year, but didn’t realize until it was too late that she could have ridden her athletic talent all the way to a college scholarship. Instead she signed up for the National Guard because she knew her parents could never afford her tuition. The Guard would pay for college.

From childhood she had fended for herself. Her mother’s life collapsed after her dad walked out on them when Lane was fourteen. After that, track and field raised her and kept her out of trouble. Together she and her older brother ran the household, cared for the pigs and cows on their small farm, and pushed each other every night to at least try to finish some portion of their homework.

At the moment the email sounded she was thinking about her Guard unit, trying to figure out when it would deploy and how she would prepare her two-year-old daughter for her absence. Her unit had served in Iraq early in that war and she had led supply convoys in the south through some seriously heavy fighting. She was prepared to deploy again; with two wars on, most every Guard member had to go to Iraq or Afghanistan at least once, often more. But she did not want to go to war again with her particular unit, which she felt was not well disciplined—or prepared to protect its members.

Now a friend from the Wisconsin National Guard was forwarding an email about a new job on something called a “Cultural Support Team.”

“Hey, Lane, this sounds just up your alley,” she wrote.

The subject line of the email read: “Female Volunteers for the US Army Special Operations Command Female Engagement Team Program.”

Females in Special Ops? Lane was intrigued. Everyone knew that women couldn’t officially serve in any unit that engaged in direct ground combat, and Special Operations was among the most combat-focused parts of the American military machine. But the email made it clear the women would not be operators themselves: they would be supporting Army special ops. It went on:

Currently, the US Special Operations Community has very few trained soldiers which limits Army Special Operations Forces’ ability to connect and collaborate with this critical part of the Afghanistan society. As mitigation, US Army Special Operations Command has begun a Female Engagement Training program at Ft. Bragg, NC, to meet this critical mission requirement.

Lane’s heart beat faster as she continued reading. She saw another benefit: the deployment was already scheduled and would last only six to eight months instead of the usual year. She would finish training by July and be back home with her daughter well before summer vacation began. Plus, anything beat driving convoys and sitting in a truck for up to twelve hours while people shot at you. Lane had mastered the art of peeing in a bottle, a skill that had yet to prove useful back at home. She was eager to do—and learn—something more.

But Lane had another, more urgent reason for wanting to leave her Guard unit and do the CST mission. Back in Iraq, a fellow soldier in another unit had raped her. Not knowing where to turn, she had said nothing to anyone. Her marriage was already on the rocks, and she worried this might tip the fragile balance. But the experience had haunted her, and changed her. After returning home to Nevada she enrolled in college, only to find she couldn’t focus on her studies and kept suffering flashbacks. A doctor at the local veterans’ hospital told her it couldn’t be post-traumatic stress: that could only come from combat injuries, not from trauma caused by rape.

A year after returning stateside Lane’s Guard unit played a video about rape in the military, in which experts counseled soldiers on how to spot the “predators” among them and introduced the concept of “acquaintance rape,” which put a name to Lane’s personal nightmare. Watching the video unleashed a tsunami of horrific memories Lane had been trying to suppress. She ran out of the room desperate for fresh air, eyes watering, leaving her fellow Guard members whispering to one another, trying to figure out what the hell had just happened. When she returned, she sat down with her team and finally, for the first time, shared her story about Iraq. She assured them that what they were watching on that video was very real. They needed to watch out for their fellow soldiers—and not just on the battlefield.

Talking about what happened to her left Lane feeling suddenly lighter. Her fellow Guard members wrote letters to tell her how much her admission had meant to them and taught them. She vowed that from that moment on she would not let the rape define who she was or what kind of person—and soldier—she would be. When the email announcing the CST program arrived, Lane felt a door opening; she believed it would offer her a rare opportunity to both serve alongside the Army’s finest fighting units and confront her demons in the open, on the battlefield. She would put herself in the most challenging combat situation possible with the most elite fighters possible, and prove to herself she was no victim. Lane knew she was tough enough.

“If I get to Bragg,” she vowed, “there is no way I am letting them turn me down.” She felt her old intensity return for the first time in years. “No one is keeping me out of this.”

Two thousand miles away, in Columbia, South Carolina, another soldier received an email from a fellow sister-in-arms. Amber Treadmont, a twenty-eight-year-old first lieutenant, had enlisted just as soon as she could, at the age of seventeen. Now a message arrived announcing that the Army was seeking exceptional females to support special operations. She read the cover note from her company commander:

If I weren’t about to become a major I would absolutely do this. You should go for it.

Amber had wanted to be in the Army for as long as she could remember. With blond hair and blue eyes, everyone thought she looked like Heidi in the popular children’s movie, a fact that made her passion to be out shooting guns all the more surprising to those who didn’t know her. In high school in rural Pennsylvania she spent hours every week shooting targets and dreaming of the day when she could aim her weapon at a real enemy, not a piece of paper or a Coke can. But Amber was a girl, and women could not serve in the infantry. So she joined the Army’s intelligence teams, training at Fort Huachuca, a dozen miles north of the Mexican border in Arizona. Her first deployment, at the age of nineteen, was to Bosnia, where she analyzed terror networks for a task force hunting war criminals and terrorists transiting through the region. Her skills as an analyst became known, and the FBI brought her on for three years to help with counternarcotics operations in Pennsylvania. Her team’s efforts led to the indictment of thirteen members of the infamous Bloods gang.

By the early 2000s the Afghanistan war was well under way, and Amber decided to build upon what she had learned and become an interrogator. As part of her training the Army sent her to learn Farsi at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. The idea of being an interrogator appealed to Amber; she liked using her brains to keep other soldiers safe. If she couldn’t join them on the front lines she could at least give tactical support and find out about terrorists and insurgents before they had a chance to put their plans into action.

After seven years as an enlisted soldier and following graduation from college and the birth of her son, Amber decided to head to Officer Candidate School. She became a rarity in the Army: someone who has been both an enlisted soldier and an officer.

Amber was serving as an officer at South Carolina’s Fort Jackson Army base, doing a job she hated: overseeing paperwork and processing awards for returning soldiers. She was far from the action, bored by the work and stuck in a marriage that was all but over. She was just sitting around, waiting to see when her next deployment would come.

And then the CST email arrived. The timing couldn’t have been better. This was the best chance she was going to get to go out on missions with special operators, and she was fully prepared to embrace the rigor of CST selection.

It took Amber less than a minute to print out the application form and get to work.

Kate Raimann first learned of the CST program from a flyer she spotted on a crowded poster board just outside a drab building where she worked at Fort Benning, Georgia. It featured a large photograph of a female officer crouching with an M4 assault rifle in her hands. The headline blasted its invitation in bold block letters: FEMALE SOLDIERS: BECOME A PART OF HISTORY.

Approaching the poster Kate felt a surge of adrenaline and curiosity. “Join the US Army Special Operations Command,” it announced. She was already reaching into her backpack for a pen, scribbling down the website address, and hoping the ad wasn’t too good to be true. As she wrote, Kate felt something she hadn’t experienced since returning home from her deployment to southern Iraq: a sense of purpose.

Kate was an MP—military police officer—and had been home from war for just five months. Even with the twin burdens of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army gave its soldiers time at home between tours, and Kate still had several months before she had to start preparing for her next rotation. But already she yearned to get back to the fight. She missed the sense of direction, the focus, the shared mission that she felt while deployed. Here, who needed her? Her time was wasted, and so were her skills.

Kate had never contemplated another career, though occasionally she wondered why God hadn’t made her taller than five feet, since He knew she was going to be a soldier. Or male, since He knew she wanted to be infantry. Petite and blond she may have been, but Kate’s compact body was ripped with muscles. Since she was a kid people had called her a tomboy, but Kate didn’t care; all she knew was that she liked running and competing, playing soccer, basketball, and softball with her brother and sisters. A child of Title IX, she played high school football all four years at her western Massachusetts high school. Local newspapers wrote about “the girl who liked to tackle,” but secretly Kate hated football with all its concussions and endless practices. But the fact that guys in her school believed a girl couldn’t play football guaranteed Kate would never quit. Ever. No way would she give in to their doubts. Concussions be damned.

The Army was in Kate’s genes and wrapped around her family tree. Her father had spent twenty-three years as an Army pilot and he inspired all his children to follow his path. Kate and her younger siblings all headed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point when it came time for college.

After graduation, Kate became an MP because it was the closest she could get to the infantry. MPs overseas perform the whole range of law enforcement functions for the military, from searching homes and suspects to running patrols, doing reconnaissance, and joining search operations. Now a poster on the wall was pointing the way right into the heart of the action, offering a chance to return to the purity and clarity of life at war. Kate wanted to get to Afghanistan, she wanted a mission that mattered, and she wanted to be as near to the front as possible. Here was a groundbreaking team that would let her do all three.

All across the country in the first months of 2011 this same story played out as friends of soldiers, commanding officers, and fellow warriors spread the news about a program that would match America’s toughest fighting men with a special team of women who could fill a gap that no other force could. From Florida to Alaska, North Carolina to South Korea, women answered the call. Most of them had been itching all their lives to go to war—not as nurses or typists or machinists or any of the other jobs that gradually, over decades of struggle, came to admit women, but as special operations soldiers. Or as close as they could get to them. As one CST put it: “All my life, all I ever wanted was to belong to a group of ass-kickers battling on the front lines.”

When Ashley White heard about the CST program she was running drills at the local armory in Goldsboro, North Carolina, where she was serving with the National Guard. Ashley had come to the Tar Heel State two years earlier to be with her fiancé, Jason Stumpf, a lieutenant stationed at the Fort Bragg Army base. Ashley had met Jason during her first months at Kent State University, less than an hour’s drive from her small Ohio hometown of Marlboro, at a pizza party in the offices of the school’s ROTC program. It was love at first sight, though neither did anything about it for more than a year.

It surprised everyone in Ashley’s tight-knit family when she signed up for ROTC. She had never offered the slightest hint that she wanted to serve. Her grandfather had been a Marine as a young man and a great-uncle had won a Purple Heart as a Navy corpsman in the Korean War, but the military tradition did not otherwise run through her family. Yet there was a deeply ingrained sense of duty in the White family when it came to work, along with spirited—and intense—competition among her siblings: twin sister Brittany and older brother Josh.

The Whites formed complementary and opposing forces. Debbie, Ashley’s mom, was warm and caring, a nurturer who loved swimming and diving and hiking. She worked as a school bus driver and teacher’s aide so she could arrange her days around her most important job: being a mom to her three children. The house was always filled with young people: classmates of Josh and gymnastic teammates and cousins of Ashley and Brittany. Known as “Mama Whitie” to Josh’s high school football teammates, Debbie traveled to every game in her minivan stocked with snacks for the kids. At pregame dinners Debbie always made room at her table for boys whose parents couldn’t make it.

Bob White was as tough-minded as his high school sweetheart wife was kind. He had had to be: his parents operated on the premise that children “made money, not cost money,” and put him to work as a kid in his family’s toolmaking business in Akron. He would stand on milk crates to reach the machines he was responsible for operating. Extracurriculars were discouraged; when Bob wanted to play basketball, his dad said he would have to find his own way home. That meant walking more than five miles each way, even in the dead of winter. But all that work did pay off: he bought a candy-apple-red 1973 SS Nova—his high school’s “car of the month” eight times—and won the heart of a leggy blonde named Debbie, whose parents owned a pizza shop.

Right after they were married, Bob made a promise to his wife that he would be a dedicated and engaged father. They both wanted a family. Doctors said that Debbie couldn’t have children, but after ten years of marriage Josh arrived. Three years later the twins followed. Shock greeted the September arrival of the two baby girls; the doctors had told the Whites all along to expect boys. So certain had they been that Bob and Debbie hadn’t even considered girls’ names. Bob, then working the overnight shift at his family business, sometimes caught the soap opera The Young and the Restless during the day before heading to bed. Thinking quickly he named his first beautiful baby girl after the show’s stunning fictional character Ashley Abbott. Bob kept his promise to his wife: though he would work ten-, twelve-, even sixteen-hour days to provide for his family, he made sure that he knew every detail of his children’s lives—who their friends were, how they were faring academically and in sports. Bob believed in teaching his children the value of hard work and vowed that each would have the college opportunities he hadn’t, no matter how hard he had to toil. If the kids weren’t at school, they were studying, and if they weren’t studying, they were either training for sports or working at White Tool. Nearly every weekend from the time they were teenagers, Ashley, Brittany, and Josh logged a full day on the toolmaking assembly line, helping their dad and earning money for themselves. They complained constantly, but the truth was they loved it, even as their fingernails collected a distinct type of dirt—oily and noxious—that they nicknamed “White Tool grunge.” Quiet Ashley made a name for herself as one of the White Tool “chucker chicks”—despite being left-handed, a hindrance in factory processes, she could produce 1,000 metal clips in an hour when most of the guys who ran the machines could barely reach 700. Bob attributed her success to her work ethic: when she ran the machines Ashley didn’t leave for the bathroom, for a soda break, or for a chat with her siblings.

The White family was intense with competition, from the basketball court to the football field and gymnastics meets. “If you’re not first you’re last,” Bob regularly reminded his kids. “You can’t settle for second.” “Don’t start what you can’t finish,” he would add. He wanted them to see early on how tough factory work was and how excellence could be both its own reward and a path to an easier life built on education. He was constantly telling his children that “actions trump words.” His mantra: “Don’t tell people what you’re going to do, or what kind of person you are. Just show them.”

Josh and Brittany both had natural athletic talent that propelled them into local headlines and won them medals and trophies—a whole room in the Whites’ basement was dedicated to their glittering awards. During his senior year Josh was thrilled to break his high school record for pull-ups, logging 35 straight from a dead hang, but his pride was short-lived; his freshman sister Brittany trumped his achievement with 45 pull-ups that very same afternoon.

Despite the competition, the siblings were one another’s greatest supporters and best friends. To motivate Ashley before her cross-country training runs in high school, Josh would blare Metallica’s “Seek & Destroy” as they drove to school. At night, Ashley and Brittany would creep across the hall into one another’s rooms and swap problems, daydreams, and plans for the future.

Bob taught Ashley to push herself beyond her limits and to always do what she thought was right. But he never meant for his daughter to learn his lessons so well. When she first came to him during her freshman year at Kent State and said she wanted to join ROTC, his answer was “absolutely not.” Nothing in his own upbringing prepared him to believe that military service was the right path for his children: not the fact that ROTC would pay her tuition; or that her fellow cadets shared a camaraderie and a value system based on integrity; or that she thrived amid the intense physical challenges; or even that the discipline and high standards reminded her of the same high bar he had set for her for as long as she could remember.

When he put his foot down and said no to her first request for support, she came back with two ROTC recruiters to help make her case. They too failed to win him over.

“Ash,” he said sharply, ignoring the men who sat in his living room, “nothing is free. They are not just paying for school; you will be paying for that education with your life. There’s no guarantee you won’t have to go to Afghanistan or Iraq. And I don’t want to lose my daughter.”

But Ashley was determined. She told him she was only seeking his blessing because she respected him so deeply; she was of legal age and could sign her own paperwork to join the program without her parents’ approval. Debbie, who had once put aside her own ambitions to serve, would not stand in her daughter’s way. “I won’t stop her,” Debbie answered Bob’s entreaty. “I always regretted not joining the Navy and I don’t want her to do the same.” Eventually he relented. On the issue of ROTC he and Ashley came to see they would not agree, but would respect one another’s views.

By February 2011, Ashley was working as an athletic trainer at a local college and a medic in the North Carolina National Guard, living in a cozy starter home with Jason. But she felt something was missing. Surrounded by fellow Guardsmen who had done at least one deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan, she felt guilty about wearing the uniform without having served in at least one of the two wars America was fighting. Accepting a check and school tuition without completing the work to deserve it felt like freeloading. And that was not Ashley. Already some of the guys she commanded had jeered at her, claiming they didn’t have to take orders from some green, young officer who hadn’t ever deployed. It burned Ashley to see herself the way they did.

It was Ashley’s commander who handed her the CST flyer one Saturday afternoon after the daily drills were over. “I can’t do this, Ashley,” she said, “but maybe it’s for you.” It was the same poster Kate had seen in Georgia and hundreds of other potential young recruits had received by email from their friends and fellow soldiers. “Looks pretty interesting. And it would get your deployment out of the way.”

The timing couldn’t have been better, and Ashley, studying the photo of the intimidating soldier kneeling with her M4, was intrigued. It wasn’t long before she was determined to apply.

Now she just had to convince Jason.

Jason had always supported her. He had pushed her throughout her time at ROTC, urging her to take on the toughest challenges and to speak up when she disagreed with what she saw or experienced. Debbie said it was Jason who had made Ashley “sparkle.” For proof, she pointed to her family photo albums, which showed that until she met Jason, Ashley rarely smiled in pictures, too self-conscious to let her real self show. But with Jason she would grin with abandon come photo time.

By the time she rang Jason that Saturday from Guard drills, Ashley had not only prevailed against her formidable father, she felt ready to compete with the best women the Army had to offer no matter that she was just a second lieutenant in the National Guard. Her husband had made it possible.

“Hey, I want to tell you about this new program,” she said when he picked up the phone in their bright yellow kitchen that Saturday morning.

From the sound of his voice she had a feeling that persuading “Mr. Sexypants,” as she lovingly called him, was going to be an even bigger challenge than getting her father to agree to ROTC.