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

I

The Call to Serve

3

The Landmark Inn

* * *

Four weeks later, Ashley was filling her cup from a hotel coffee urn, about to begin the first day of the very first all-Army “Assessment and Selection” for the new CST program. She pulled a lever on an industrial-size milk machine and watched the white stuff pour into her coffee. She would definitely need caffeine to begin this day. It was March 2011, and this was the initial round of what would be two separate selections: the Guard and Reserves first, then, two months later, active-duty soldiers.

Gripping her cup she leaned against the Formica counter and watched as a swarm of high-octane women assembled in the breakfast room of the Landmark Inn, a hotel located on the grounds of Fort Bragg dedicated to serving soldiers, their families, and civilian guests. It was quite a sight: dozens of sweat-suit-clad Army Guard and Reservists, many of them with flushed cheeks and disheveled ponytails fresh from working out, were milling around the dining room. The high-backed chairs at the large, round tables were covered in a durable fabric designed to disguise spills of everything from maple syrup to ketchup. An arrangement of bright orange silk flowers sat at the center of each table, the only burst of cheer in an otherwise drab setting. Ashley grabbed an apple—part of a limited offering of healthy fare in this land of waffles and pancakes—and quietly observed the scene.

The women came from every region of the country, from cities, farms, and suburbs, and they came in a variety of heights and builds: some were lanky and lean, others were squat, compact, and broad across the shoulders. These girls look like they lift some serious weight, Ashley thought. They also ranged in age: some, like Ashley, had barely crossed into their twenties. Others looked nearly two decades older, but, amazingly, were no less fit. An uninformed observer would have thought he had stumbled across either a championship softball team or a women’s soccer league. But it was unusual for another reason: rarely did Army women gather in large groups. Aside from the Army Nurse Corps—none of whom were permitted to participate in that CST selection—there usually weren’t enough women in the same place at the same time to fill a conference table, let alone a hotel dining room. Women may have been serving in most Army roles by 2011, but they still accounted for just around 15 percent of all active-duty soldiers and a bit more for National Guard and Reservists. Those small numbers meant that women rarely found themselves surrounded by other women.

And then there was the alpha thing. The female soldiers who had come to take part in this CST selection had genuine swagger. Ashley spotted a trim woman whose sculpted muscles were bulging beneath a gray Army T-shirt. Thick veins lined her strong arms. Another had a book propped up against her oatmeal bowl: Get Selected for Special Forces: How to Successfully Train for and Complete Special Forces Assessment & Selection.

A buzz filled the room, even as the women tried to hide their amazement at seeing so many people just like themselves. Ashley had never before seen anything like it. She guessed that neither had anyone else who was there that morning.

Ashley didn’t know what to expect at the Landmark Inn, but she knew she would be doing a lot of paperwork—“in-processing,” in Army terms. Then at some point they would move to Camp Mackall, the World War II–era site nearby used for Special Forces selection and training. This was where the real test of the soldiers would begin. In the meantime, the CST hopefuls talked loudly and acted tough over their morning coffee. Gazing around the room, it occurred to Ashley that not a single person here looked like she had ever endured a moment of self-doubt in her entire life. More than the muscles, shoulders, and popping veins, this thought intimidated her. Ashley knew how to put on a game face—childhood gymnastics and then ROTC had taught her that—but she wondered whether she really fit in with these women, some of whom looked like they could bench-press five times their body weight and strode around like female John Waynes.

Hey, she commanded herself. Get your mind in it, Ashley. Focus.

To do that, she took herself back four years to Ranger Challenge, where teams of the best ROTC cadets from each school competed against other colleges in the region. For years prior to Ashley’s arrival at Kent State, the Ranger Challenge team had consisted solely of men. They trained at a facility with a long military history, the Ravenna Arsenal, where more than fourteen thousand Ohioans had produced weapons during World War II. Most of the men were surprised to learn that this quiet blonde who didn’t even reach five foot three wanted to join the big boys in the competition. They couldn’t believe that “Little White” could keep up with their long strides, and throughout the training sessions they waited for Ashley to fall out of formation. But every morning the determined sophomore cadet showed up at the Arsenal to march the morning’s miles, and every morning she kept up, even when they moved the start time to 5 a.m. They were required to add first twenty, then thirty pounds of gear to weigh down their rucksacks in preparation for the actual competition. Every time team leader Jason Stumpf turned around, he expected to see Ashley way back in the rear, but there she was, right behind him in the formation, keeping pace with the guys.

The biggest test aside from rucking was the rope bridge. Cadets would string a line of knotted rope between two wooden posts and clamber across it upside down, belly up, legs straddling the rope and propelling the body to the other end. Arm over arm they raced, with fully packed rucksacks and rifles slung across their backs. Time was critical—and so was teamwork. Small and fast, Ashley had learned as a girl on the uneven parallel bars to use her stomach muscles to force her body into one line and make her weight lighter on her arms. That training meant she could zip across the rope faster than anyone could imagine.

It was Jason, then a senior and already her boyfriend, who had put her on the Ranger Challenge team, with support from Sergeant First Class Stewart McGeahy, the NCO who oversaw the ROTC cadets. McGeahy was a veteran of the Army’s bloody fight in Fallujah, an armored cavalry guy who had seen combat close and fierce in Iraq. He recognized warriors when he saw them, even if this one—the quiet little blonde—didn’t look like any he had ever met before.

It was Jason’s job to make the final selection for the Ranger Challenge team, and he sought out McGeahy’s advice. “You don’t see that kind of heart very often,” the older veteran observed. “I’d like to see you take her.”

During the Ranger Challenge competition, Ashley had proven to be a real asset to the team with her physical endurance, her land navigation and rope bridge skills, and her ability to keep cool under pressure. The sweetest moment came toward the end of the final event, a ruck march with more than thirty pounds of gear. Ashley stayed in the middle of her team’s pack, not setting the pace, but not slowing it, either. And then her group passed their bigger and better-funded rival, Ohio State.

“Oh, fuck,” one guy bellowed as Kent State passed. “We’re screwed. Pick it up!” And then, a moment later: “Holy shit, they got a female. And they are fucking passing us. Pick it up!

“I’m trying, dude, I can’t go any faster,” one guy huffed to his teammate. “Man, I’m hurting all over.”

“What the fuck? Are you kidding me?” the first cadet answered. “That girl’s not complaining. Step it up. Now!

Jason laughed. “See you at the finish line, boys!”

Ashley slogged along and remained expressionless. One foot after the other. Eyes straight ahead. No way she was reacting to that nonsense. As she had learned from her father as a girl, she would let her actions show what she was made of. Forget them, just focus and move on. Ashley had mastered the art of silently pushing herself onward, and she was tougher on herself than anyone else could be.

Now, as the much more competitive CST selection process was set to begin, Ashley would channel that dedication. She had fought hard to be here, not only against the wishes of her beloved father and role model, but initially against Jason, too. Ever since her first year in ROTC he had been her biggest champion and most devoted ally. Sitting in the motel dining room surrounded by some of the Army’s toughest female warriors, she reflected back on the conversation that Saturday night after she first learned about the CST program. It was one of the most heated they had ever had.

Over a dinner of broiled chicken she had prepared after returning home from Guard drills at the armory, Ashley gently pressed her case. Ten years of war meant that nearly everyone who served in the Guard had done at least one tour in Iraq or Afghanistan. Young officers like her who had no “combat stripes”—the gold “Overseas Service Bars” on their uniforms indicating they had served at least six months at war overseas—were noticed by others. And not in a positive way.

“I have to do this,” Ashley said. “People at the Guard unit are making fun of me—you know I have to get this deployment out of the way. My regular unit won’t be deploying for Kuwait until 2013, and that will be a whole year of us apart. If I do this CST program, it’s just six or seven months, and it’s now. We can begin a family all the sooner.”

Jason listened, stone-faced.

“Listen, Jason, this is special operations,” Ashley said. “You’re the one who said they’re the best of all the guys you saw in Afghanistan. You know I’ll be working with a top-notch, professional community. I’ll knock the deployment out and come home and then we can move forward with our lives.”

Jason reminded himself to breathe. He had just returned from a year as a field artillery officer in eastern Afghanistan, where he had seen firsthand the war’s dangers—what it was like on the battlefield and what it did to the people who made it back home. The absolute last thing he wanted was Ashley going over there. It was only now—two months after his own tour ended—that he had finally gotten used to normal life again, and that was because of Ashley. She hadn’t pressured him to talk about Afghanistan or smothered him with attention once he got home; instead, she gave him space and let him get accustomed once more to life’s daily rhythms.

Jason had served at a particularly grueling time in the long war. The surge that was announced in December 2009 was in full swing, and he provided artillery support to both conventional and special operations units operating in the field. Insurgents regularly attacked his NATO base, lovingly referred to as “Rocket City” by the soldiers who lived there. Enemy fighters even managed to breach the base’s wire one night, sending him running to his position ready to shoot artillery if needed. Fortunately the attack ended in short order with no one on his side dead or injured, but the enemy had literally brought the fight to him, and it was sobering.

For Jason the rules of engagement were frustrating. He understood that protecting civilians was critical to the war effort, but he knew the enemy followed no such rules and that counterinsurgency’s reluctance to use artillery firepower—for fear of civilian casualties—meant that American soldiers now had to fight without the full arsenal of the United States Army at their side. He also witnessed internal turf wars and political battles he hadn’t expected to see in wartime play out before his eyes. He still loved the Army and his men, and he remained committed to serving his country. But he returned home questioning America’s chances of success given the years of commitment the mission would require.

Worse, he was unable to forget what he had seen in the southeastern province of Khost: one of his men twitching in a morphine coma, his leg torn apart by rocket fire, another soldier severely injured, with a pint of Jason’s blood helping keep him alive. He relived it every night when he first returned home and he sure as hell didn’t want that for Ashley. Afghanistan changed everyone it touched, and his wife would be no different. He couldn’t bear to think of the nightmares that would accompany her back to North Carolina from whatever remote outpost would be her home for the better part of a year. Right before he deployed they had a secret wedding in a minister’s office, sealing the ceremony with a temporary ring from Walmart. This way Jason could be certain that Ashley would get his survivor benefits if something happened to him overseas. Their “real” nuptials—the big, white dress, huge party, proper Catholic mass—were planned for May, just two months away.

And now that Jason had made it back safely she wanted to go to Afghanistan and upend their lives once more? He struggled to get his mind around this.

“Ash, this is Afghanistan,” he finally replied. He wrapped his hands around a glass of Jack Daniel’s and Coke and worked to keep his voice steady. “These are the people who successfully fought Alexander the Great, the British, the Russians, and now they are fighting us. This is no joke. People are getting hit all the time now. Do you have any idea what you’d be getting yourself into? You don’t need to deploy now—I just got back. Let’s think about this for a while, find you a good medical deployment you can do another time, once we’ve had our wedding and honeymoon and some actual time together.” Ashley had studied sports medicine in college—often with Jason serving as her test patient—and trained as a medic at Fort Sam Houston during her ROTC years. Jason saw no reason why she couldn’t deploy as a medical officer—and one who stayed on base.

It was Ashley’s turn to sit quietly and listen. She heard him out, but it was clear she was unmoved by his entreaties.

“I promise,” he continued, “I’ll help you find another tour. Why do you want to go looking for trouble?”

“I want to do this, Jason, I think this program is important and I want to go for it. I am not going to train all of these years and then not serve when my country is at war.” As she pressed her argument to the one person who had always encouraged her to speak her mind, Ashley’s eyes were now watering. “What if I wait for another deployment and then the war is over? I can get this out of the way and do something I’ll be really proud of when I’m a grandma and rocking on our porch.

“Besides,” she added, moving next to her big husky dog, Gunner, on the couch where she and Jason snuggled and watched movies on weekends, “who knows if I’ll even make the team? We don’t have to decide anything yet.”

She motioned for Jason to join her, but he sat silently in his recliner, trying to put himself in her place. He knew his wife was tough and talented. If she wanted something she would get it. He wasn’t worried she wouldn’t be selected; what worried him was he was certain she would.

He saw in her eyes that same look of determination, that total indifference to everything around her that had been so evident in Ranger Challenge. If she really thought this was something she had to try for, how could he do otherwise, when he loved her so much and she had done exactly the same thing for him a year earlier?

“All right, Ash, if you want to go for this, let’s do it,” he finally said. It was long past midnight, and he was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. “But you better dig in. You’re going to have a tough fight at selection. You don’t quit. If you call me and say you need me to come pick you up because you didn’t make the cut, it had better be because you broke a bone and couldn’t walk yourself out of there. You want this? We’re going at it full throttle. No half steps.”

This is what Ashley was thinking about at the Landmark Inn as she grabbed a yogurt and set off to find a seat with the other girls. She had promised then to give it her all, and she was ready.

No half steps, Ashley thought. Time to dig in.

She sat down and began introducing herself to her tablemates.

Anne Jeremy was one of the first people Ashley met that morning. Tall, fit, and blond, she looked more like a television anchor than a soldier, but her temperament was serious, no-nonsense. She had proven herself on the battlefield at just twenty-three after Taliban rocket fire blew up and sliced through a caravan of vehicles in the supply convoy she was leading. She never felt she deserved the awards she received for her bravery and thought only of her soldiers killed in the battle, but her commanders felt otherwise after seeing her composure in leading her convoy through more than twenty-four hours of intermittent heavy arms fire and hours of prolonged enemy contact. Back at her base she went on to become her combat engineer company’s first female executive officer, or XO. Officially the role was off-limits to women, because the Army had coded the job for men only in its personnel system. But the colonel she served under in Afghanistan thought she was one of his most promising officers, so he simply left that entry in her personnel file empty while she served in the role. Her records could be corrected later.

It was another senior officer Anne worked with in her new role who told her about the CST program. He was a tough-talking Yankee and a true professional; she credited his leadership with her success in the position. “Hey, Anne, I hear they’re letting chicks go to Q Course now.” He was referring to the Special Forces’ qualification course, a direct line to the Green Berets that had always been open only to men. “You gotta check this out, you would be great.”

Anne was an engineer by training. She had completed the highly competitive Sapper Leader Course, a body-numbing, twenty-eight-day program that teaches combat leadership skills and small unit fighting, and had earned the right to wear the prestigious Sapper patch on her left shoulder. Sappers are trained to clear mines, deploy field defenses, and fight in close quarters. Women account for barely 3 percent of all Sapper Course students, and only 2 percent of its graduates. Not that Anne had ever thought of herself as being a “groundbreaker” or a feminist; in fact, she paid little attention to the fact that she was one of only three females in the course. She preferred to focus on her grit, not her gender, and wanted others to do the same. It was the difficulty of the Sapper Course—both mental and physical—that motivated her, and she finished strong among her male peers.

Special operations had been a dream for her. Having seen bloody attacks in Afghanistan and lost soldiers in battle left Anne with a powerful feeling of unfinished business. She wanted back in the fight, and the Cultural Support Team was the perfect way to get there.

Her colonel gave Anne a phone number for a civilian who was involved with the nascent CST program, Claire Russo, Matt Pottinger’s old pal from Afghanistan, who by then had been sent to Fort Bragg to help prepare candidates for the new teams. In February 2011 Russo had been quoted in a Foreign Policy article written by Paula Broadwell describing the new all-female unit headlined “CST: Afghanistan.” Within days the former Marine was fielding a barrage of calls and emails to her personal Gmail account from female soldiers who wanted to know more about this chance to work with special operations and exactly what they needed to qualify for it. Anne was among them.

“You should come to Assessment and Selection,” Russo told her when they spoke in early 2011. “Sounds like you’d be terrific for it.” Not long afterward, Anne was sitting next to Ashley White over a bowl of cereal at the Landmark Inn.

She looked around the motel and was astonished. Wow, all these girls could form their own little company of soldiers, she thought. She laughed as a serviceman who was staying at the motel wandered in to grab some breakfast, only to stop in his tracks, visibly startled, at the sight of thirty buff women dominating the room. He quickly turned and hurried out.

Anne was ready. CST selection couldn’t be that much more of a mental and physical test than Sapper school, but whatever it was she felt prepared. War had changed her; most significantly, it had made nearly everything else seem easier by comparison. She welcomed whatever the week would bring.

Leda Reston was also at the Landmark Inn that morning. She had known about the CST program before the other women, having learned about it from colleagues in the special operations unit she was working with just then. There was only one problem: the cutoff level was captain, and Leda had just been promoted to major. She was too senior for the program.

Reston had served in the storied 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq as a civil affairs officer. Among her responsibilities was accompanying and advising the local U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team as they opened women’s centers and vocational training schools, which were designed to build goodwill among Iraqis. In addition, her brigade commander had made her the direct liaison to all key Iraqi officials with whom they worked, including the local governor and deputy governor. No woman had ever served in this role, and Leda was determined to live up to the faith her colonel had placed in her by picking this young captain to replace a battle-seasoned major. She may have been the sole female on the colonel’s staff, but, like Anne, she thought little about it. She considered herself first and foremost a soldier entrusted with a job that could further America’s mission and keep soldiers alive if she did it well, and she was determined to succeed.

She did that by developing solid working relationships built on mutual respect with Iraqi officials. They would call her cell phone directly at all hours of the day and night, often to warn her when ambushes lay in wait for U.S. military convoys on the most well-traveled roads. She also received valuable intel from the Iraqis about how the American forces could track down certain insurgents. This was the height of the surge in Iraq and the fight was escalating. During her service with them, the 82nd’s deployment was extended from twelve to fifteen months, a blow for many, especially those who had previously deployed and had now logged a series of holidays away from their families. Leda carefully studied her commanding officer as he led his soldiers, and absorbed everything she could about leadership and about the new rules of counterinsurgency.

Leda was one of the few females serving in the military who fully appreciated the advantage their gender difference could bring to the fight at hand. Being a female had proven handy in Iraq; like her compatriots in Afghanistan, she inhabited that “third gender” Pottinger and Russo had identified (neither American male or Iraqi female). This enabled her to be taken seriously without being viewed as a threat. She loved being outside the wire, mingling in Iraqi communities and developing relationships with military men and civilians alike. She also loved working with the special operations guys, whom she saw as embodying the integrity and high standards she had always hoped to find in the Army.

Leda’s experience in Iraq had cemented her determination to deploy again, and she especially wanted to work with special ops. Already her career had taken her on a circuitous path from cross-country star—she attended a small college in Florida—to Army reservist to high school teacher and, finally, back to the military after 9/11. When she learned the Army was looking for women willing to go out on dangerous missions with special operations teams, there was no way she was going to miss out on this one-of-a-kind opportunity because of some technicality.

Eventually she won approval from Lieutenant General John Mulholland, the decorated Special Forces commander who led his men into Afghanistan following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Mulholland now headed the Army’s entire Special Operations Command. If he would sign off on her application, no one would overrule him.

There was only one caveat: the more senior Major Reston would have to serve as the officer in charge and handle all the team’s administrative demands as well. She agreed immediately. For a workaholic like Leda, with little need for sleep and few outlets aside from running marathons and working out at the gym, the twin jobs were hardly an issue.

She couldn’t wait to get started, but the scene at the Landmark Inn threw her off kilter, just as it had Ashley. First: There were dozens of tough, strong, women roaming around the room, cautiously sizing each other up. Each knew that the program had a limited number of spots, so they would naturally be in fierce competition with one another. But the vibe in the room went well beyond competitiveness. Here was a group of women who cared more about being the best they could, not besting the girl next to them. A sense prevailed that this was a unique Fort Bragg event.

“Let’s kick this thing’s ass!” That was the attitude of the moment.

On her way to work out at the gym across from the Landmark, Leda ran into Ashley, who was heading to the same place. Both of these women were gym junkies; neither would go a day without hard-core exercise. Each started her morning with a dawn workout that included CrossFit routines and a several-mile run.

CrossFit for most of these women was a way of life. Many of them did at least one workout a day, and sometimes two. This results-oriented fitness regimen was stacked with movements such as squats, jumps, sit-ups, handstands, and pull-ups, and reflected influences from gymnastics to rope climbing, rowing, and weight lifting. In CrossFit every exercise is measured and the routine is constantly varied, so the body gets stronger while always being forced to adapt to a new set of strength tests. The program started in California, then spread to gyms around the country, and it particularly attracted members of law enforcement, and special operations—men and women alike. Virtually all the CST hopefuls were CrossFit devotees who tracked their workouts meticulously in their quest to be stronger, faster, fitter, and tougher.

Leda had spotted Ashley earlier that day standing by herself in the Landmark’s lobby. While most of the other women were buzzing around and talking a big game about their physical readiness for the upcoming selection, Ashley seemed content to quietly take it all in while she waited in line at the front desk for her room key. It takes a great deal of self-possession to look so at ease in that sea of type A women, Leda thought.

Now working out next to Ashley in the gym, Leda was impressed with her raw strength, to say nothing of the ridiculously high number of dead-hang pull-ups she could bust out. Most men couldn’t make it to twenty-five as Ashley was doing now, Leda thought. She looked forward to getting to know this girl.

She had no idea then just how intertwined their paths would become.

The second group of fifty applicants, the active-duty soldiers, gathered at the Landmark Inn two weeks later, and included Amber Treadmont and Kate Raimann. Also there was Kristen Fisher, a military intelligence officer just months out of liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. Kristen’s father was an Air Force veteran who had impressed upon her the importance—as well as the fun and camaraderie—of serving. Like Ashley, she had turned to ROTC to pay for school. Somehow the four years of college snuck by her and before she knew it she was in the Army. She and a fellow intel officer, Rigby Allen, had both spotted the “Become a Part of History” poster at Fort Huachuca in Cochise County, Arizona, where they were training, and decided to take on the CST application process together. Polar opposites—Kristen was a bubbly former NFL cheerleader and Rigby was a self-described “roughneck” who played rugby in college—the two were just three months into their intel officer training before they arrived at the same gloomy assessment: their future held endless desk jobs, not the excitement of the front lines they had had in mind when they signed up.

All Rigby had ever wanted was to be a soldier. She grew up in Michigan playing “army” in the woods with her older brother and sister, and dreamed of leading a real maneuver one day. Her grandfather had served in the 82nd Airborne Division and her dad was a Navy photographer for three years during Vietnam. Without them ever explicitly pushing the children to serve, both men had made it clear that being in the military and serving your country was the most important and patriotic work an American could do. After the Navy, Rigby’s father took a job as an engineer at the defense contractor Northrop Grumman. On “Take Your Kids to Work” day she and her siblings would scamper through the helicopters he designed. When she finally landed in ROTC at Western Michigan University, she felt more focused than she did in any classroom; the program trained cadets to be infantry platoon leaders, which was exactly what she had always wanted to do in life. But soon reality set in. “Then,” as Rigby later put it, “you realize you are a woman. And women can’t be infantry platoon leaders.” Stuck to a desk in Arizona, she spent so much time staring at a computer that she finally had to see a doctor about her eyestrain. That was the last straw. Rigby decided she was going to find a way to get as close to the front row as she could, and the minute she spotted that female with an M4 on the poster taped to the bathroom wall at Fort Huachuca, she knew this special operations program was her ticket out.

When she first met Kristen at officer school, Rigby was surprised that the ebullient cheerleader wanted to pursue the CST program, too. She seemed unserious, a “stereotypical” Army female more focused on her marital status than her military record. But then they went on a six-mile ruck march together and the beauty queen kicked her ass. Kristen made the hike look virtually effortless despite the thirty pounds of gear she carried on her back, and instead of passing Rigby and letting her stay behind, she marched right next to her and encouraged her fellow soldier to push harder. The rugby player who thought she was so tough finished the outing with an entirely new respect for her far fitter classmate—and made a harsh rebuke to herself for falling prey to such easy prejudice.

Rigby and Kristen had called the CST recruiter every week to plead with him to let them apply for the program despite how young and how new to the Army they both were. In the end both got the green light to attend the selection process. They made the long drive together from Arizona to North Carolina full of excitement and self-confidence. And then they walked into the motel, took one look around them, and realized they had just landed in the big leagues. “Kristen, these women are specimens,” Rigby whispered. She had just overheard one of the women in the lobby talking about the Ironman competition she had just finished.

Rigby checked in, made her way upstairs, opened the door to her room, and was immediately confronted by a vile smell. She thought there must be a body decaying somewhere inside.

She stepped tentatively into the room and discovered instead a smiling brunette with sparkling blue eyes sitting on one of the beds. She was decked out head to toe in running gear and was still sweating from what must have been a very long workout.

The woman leapt to her feet and extended a hand. “Hi, how’re you doing? I’m Tristan Marsden,” she said. The breezy, peppy tone was as grating as the stench.

“Why does it smell like that in here?” Rigby asked. She couldn’t believe the assault on her senses.

“Oh, I am so sorry, I tried to open the window to air it out, but they’re sealed shut,” Tristan said, smiling. “I just went for a run—and it’s my sneakers. . . . I never wear socks when I run or ruck, and well, you know what happens inside the shoes . . .”

Rigby looked at the Nikes in question and picked them up by their shoestrings.

“These are going in the bathroom,” she said. She grabbed the plastic bag that lined the trash can, dropped the damp shoes inside, and dumped them in the bathtub. She was utterly indifferent to any offense caused by her actions.

“I’m Rigby, by the way,” she said, now returning to the work of making an acquaintance of her roommate.

Like Rigby, the military was in Tristan’s blood; the second oldest of five children in a tight-knit, conservative, New England Catholic family, she had grown up with her father’s Marines flag hanging in the basement weight room. By the time she was five she and her older sister could sing the Marines’ Hymn together, by heart:

From the Halls of Montezuma,

To the Shores of Tripoli;

We fight our country’s battles

In the air, on land, and sea. . . .

Tristan had been an elite runner—an all-state standout in high school—and had her choice of colleges offering her full athletic scholarships. But while touring college campuses she felt wooed by the siren call of West Point, with its rugged beauty and history nearly as old as America itself. She was drawn to both the physical and mental challenges that West Point offered, and went on to become one of the U.S. Military Academy’s top track stars. But she was hardly a typical warrior-in-waiting. Each time a West Point graduate was killed in action the school made an announcement over the public address system, and the entire community observed a moment of silence in the mess hall over breakfast. By 2008 the booming announcements became so frequent that Tristan felt haunted by the pointlessness of it all. What did any of the athletic achievement or the years of study matter when they were all going to go off and die? How could these people just keep passing the eggs when one of their own would never return home? War had sounded a lot more glamorous before those who were killed were people she knew, fellow students who had sat at that very same breakfast table only a year earlier.

“It just seems like no one is even affected by it anymore,” Tristan told her track coach one afternoon. “Everyone just goes about their business.” Her coach tried to explain to her that that was the reality—and the risk—of being an officer in wartime. “You have to come to peace with that,” she advised.

As time went on, Tristan did come to terms with her trepidation, and by the end of her studies she was ready to deploy. The desire only grew as she watched more and more of her classmates heading to Iraq and Afghanistan. What use was she here at home? At West Point she had chosen field artillery as her specialty because at that time, seven years into the Afghanistan war, she had heard the artillery branch was opening a lot of jobs to women and it meant she would get to shoot big weapons and be in the fight. She specialized in the Multiple Launch Rocket System, an armored rocket launcher that could hit critical targets at distances both short and far. When an infantry unit was in trouble the MLRS was one of the weapons they called in for precise—and lethal—backup. But Tristan soon was disappointed to learn that the most exciting jobs—the ones that would put her in combat next to the infantrymen who called in the artillery during critical battles—remained male-only.

By the time Tristan showed up to her first assignment out of West Point, she was already determined to find a way out of artillery. But her brigade commander had read her file along with all the other new officers and noted her mix of West Point experience and athletic fitness. Shortly after she arrived at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he sent word that he wanted to formally interview her. “I want you to be a platoon leader,” he told her. It was a job that officially only men could hold, but Tristan, like Anne Jeremy, was clearly worth betting on. “I read your file and I think you’re the best person for the job,” the commander said. He made it clear he didn’t care if it was “coded” male-only. Army policy or not, he offered it to her.

At first the noncommissioned officers and enlisted men Tristan led, most of them veterans of at least one war deployment, unleashed a pile of grief on her. They had never had a female platoon leader and had no intention of changing their ways for one now. Their behavior spanned from rude and crude to just plain silly, and they went out of their way to make sure Tristan overheard their colorful stories of sexual exploits and conquests. Tristan shrugged it all off and kept her focus on her work. She had heard a lot worse at West Point and had learned how to ignore it. A few weeks into her new role, after they realized she wasn’t the stereotypical, shrinking female who would take offense from their rough talk, the men moved on. But just because the men supported her presence didn’t mean the women in their lives did, and Tristan regularly received angry, sometimes drunken calls from wives ordering her to “stay away from my husband.” Tristan patiently answered that she would be very happy to, just as soon as her time as their officer ended. In the end, Tristan’s men became her biggest champions and most vocal backers, and they fully supported her when she became the battery’s first female executive officer, the number-two position in her battery. It was another job that was officially open only to men.

And then, a little more than a year later, Tristan was walking back to her office from a brigade maintenance meeting when she saw the bold headline above the female soldier. BECOME A PART OF HISTORY, the poster beckoned. She stopped to take a closer look, and as she read the fine print a senior officer passed by and ribbed her. “Oh, yeah, Marsden, you going to go change the world? Going to go be ‘part of history’?” Ten minutes later, back in her office staring at the small mountain of administrative paperwork on her desk, Tristan felt like she was in a version of the movie Groundhog Day. Every morning she came into her office and pored over reports, paperwork, and Excel spreadsheets with training schedules. One day the same as the next wasn’t what she had hoped for when she chose West Point.

When she told her commander—the one who had kidded her about making history—that she wanted to apply for the program, he looked up from his desk with a quizzical expression. Seeing she was serious, his reply was immediate.

“Okay,” he said, “you got it. Let me know what I can do to help.”

Now, only a few months later, sitting in the Landmark Inn breakfast hall with several dozen like-minded women, she finally felt like she was close to reaching her goal. She had rarely had female friends, other than one or two of the girls she knew from the track team, but she instantly connected with the women at the Landmark. Part of the bond came from the intense athleticism they shared, but it was also about the unusual mix of intensity and femininity they had in common. They were all out to push their own limits and achieve as much as they could. Incredibly, they all looked as hungry as she was to venture into the unknown and tackle a special operations mission that meant more to them than any desk job ever could.

Back on her bed at the Landmark, trying to figure out what to make of her plainspoken new roommate, Tristan looked over at Rigby’s overstuffed bag filled with uniforms, socks, military boots, T-shirts—all items she recognized from the long list of gear each soldier had been instructed to bring to selection. She asked herself if she had any idea what she had gotten herself into? Probably not, she thought. But I’ve gotten this far. No turning back.

Beyond the parade of Amazons, the first day of CST assessment and training was an otherwise dull affair, with nothing but paperwork on the agenda. By lunchtime, with all the candidates checked in, they were free to do whatever they liked until 0800 hours the next morning.

“Kristen,” Rigby mischievously whispered to her friend as they filed out of the motel conference room. “Let’s get some of the girls and watch G.I. Jane!” Rigby had already seen the movie five or six times and still felt inspired by the sight of Demi Moore as Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil, crew cut and all, fighting for a fair shot at joining the Navy SEALs. Like Rigby and Kristen, O’Neil was an intel officer who wanted only to be out in the field. Most war movies had no female characters—this one was different. It was Hollywood, for sure, and over the top, but Rigby was inspired by the heroine’s unwillingness to quit. And they needed some inspiration right about now. The two CST candidates headed over to a sprawling Walmart near the base, and of course the movie was in stock.

That night a few of the women piled into Rigby and Tristan’s room to enjoy Thai takeout and a double-feature: G.I. Jane and Two Weeks in Hell, a documentary about Green Beret selection. They laughed when Lillian DeHaven, the senator who arranges O’Neil’s entry into SEAL selection, complained that one of the female candidates for the program looked “like the wife of a Russian beet farmer.” And they all nodded in agreement when O’Neil announced, “I don’t want to be some poster girl for women’s rights.” None of these women was looking “to make some kind of statement,” as Ashley had told Jason. All they wanted was a shot at going to war on a mission they believed in with America’s best fighters.

Tristan leaned back to rest her head on one of the extra-firm motel pillows as she watched Demi Moore bust out a row of free-hanging sit-ups on a Navy ship bound for the Middle East. Might as well enjoy a rest now, she thought. Starting tomorrow we’ll all be out there with old Jane getting our asses kicked.

The next day, Tristan and the other women would find out if they would make the cut.