Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield (2016)
The Call to Serve
100 Hours of Hell
* * *
Get your bags into the vehicle. Now!”
A training instructor was standing on the sidewalk before a large military transport truck, its open bed facing the fifty soldiers who were lined up in formation holding giant rucksacks. He had come to transport the women to the real action: CST Assessment and Selection.
Or, as the officer who designed the program called it, “one hundred hours of hell.”
“Finally,” Amber said to herself, smiling in relief. She hoisted her pack onto one shoulder and strode toward the idling truck.
“All right, ladies, let’s load ’er up!” she yelled to the others. Amber leapt into the open truck bed and began dragging bags toward the rear to make it easier for others to toss theirs in without creating a chaotic mess. Following her lead the soldiers formed a single line and began dropping their rucksacks in an orderly fashion. They all knew they would be graded in Assessment and Selection as individuals, but they also knew, as Admiral Olson had noted back when he put the word team in the name of their program, that collaboration was central to everything in special operations. Their instructors would be watching to see how they performed as a team and what kind of leaders they were, particularly at the most trying moments. But it all began here, at the loading area.
For her part, after forty-eight hours lingering around the Landmark Inn, Amber was damned ready to be back at work. The former interrogator had been up since before dawn mentally readying herself for the test to come. By 7 a.m., according to her Timex wristwatch, she was done with breakfast and racing back up the stairs to her room, taking them two at a time. She grabbed her gear and jumped in the elevator, rucksack on her back and her mind in the moment. Another group of soldiers boarded on the floor below. A particularly fit young woman—one of the few African-American soldiers at selection—eyed Amber without a word, offering instead a nod of mutual respect. “Kimberly,” she said, extending her hand to introduce herself. Amber did the same. On Amber’s other side stood a six-foot-three woman who was built like a WWE wrestler. Amber had to look twice to confirm she was actually female.
By 7:45 a.m. she stood cooling her heels in the now-crowded lobby, where several dozen women were getting ready for what many expected would be the biggest test of their lives. By 8 a.m. the truck arrived to take them to Camp Mackall at Fort Bragg, where the men’s Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) also takes place. The women, by contrast, would have a week of selection. And, if they were lucky enough to make the team, six weeks of training.
By late morning the would-be CSTs had reached their destination: a line of evenly spaced large canvas Army tents they would call home for the next six days. They were arranged in a semicircle, and Amber thought they looked like brown caterpillars waiting to become butterflies. She located her assigned tent and stepped through the wooden door into a space large enough to fit five cots comfortably on each side, along with a few desks and some standard-issue metal folding chairs. Lightbulbs dangled from wooden struts lining either side of the tent. Power outlets could be found here and there for computer work and writing exercises.
One of her tentmates, an officer who held the rank of major, Amber guessed was the most senior female trying for this new position. Judging by her officer rank, age, and the fact that she had worked for Admiral Olson, she was clearly a star. Also in the room was a soldier she nicknamed “the Trucker,” who chewed Copenhagen Long Cut tobacco, stashed her spit cup beneath her cot, and had a mouth that would put a sailor to shame.
The only distinguishing feature of the uniforms was a rectangle-shaped piece of tape with the candidate’s ID number written upon it attached to their camouflaged arms and legs. No tabs or insignia displaying rank or any other outward sign distinguishing between enlisted person and officer was permitted. Everyone had an equal chance to shine or shrink in the course.
The first official test commenced right then and there at the tent. Of the many challenges that would come over the next several days, this should have been the easiest, since it judged not endurance or intelligence but organization. The Army special operations trainers had given the women a precise packing list in advance of their arrival, and now they wanted to see if the soldiers had followed instructions and brought everything on it.
Among the mandatory items:
Two pairs of standard Army-issue boots (or their commercial equivalent, since almost everyone found other brands more comfortable)
Two pairs white cotton socks
Five pairs green/black socks
Gore-Tex top, Gore-Tex bottom
100 mph tape (better known as duct tape to civilians)
Two reflective belts
Three pens, three pencils
Eyeglasses if needed. (Contact lenses are prohibited.)
One rucksack with frame
Officially issued laptop
They were also provided with a list of the only additional items candidates were allowed to possess:
Pace count beads for tracking distance traveled
One book (and one book only). It could be a Bible, the Ranger Handbook, or a novel. No magazines were permitted.
A stern-looking female instructor approached, and Amber suddenly felt queasy as she realized in horror that she had failed this first, most simple test. All her gear was neatly sitting there, on the gravel entryway in front of her tent, at perfect attention. Everything, except for one item.
“Where is your duffle bag?” the instructor asked in a monotone. She was maybe a decade older than Amber and had a similar no-nonsense demeanor.
“I didn’t need it, ma’am,” Amber answered. “I packed tightly enough that I fit all the other gear on the list in my rucksack.” As she spoke, she realized the folly of her hubris. She had only just stepped off the truck and already was showing herself incapable of following simple instructions.
The instructor didn’t allow a hint of emotion as she began her interrogation about the missing item.
“Was it on the packing list?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am, it was,” Amber answered. Her stomach roiled.
The instructor scribbled something in her notebook and moved on.
Dammit, Amber thought. Seriously, if my own cockiness is what keeps me out of this . . . She forced herself to buck up her crushed spirit and remain at attention as the instructor moved down the line of fellow CST hopefuls. It was hardly an auspicious start to the week. And it had begun so well.
As the instructors proceeded from tent to tent Amber learned that others had also left stuff behind: a notebook, a canteen cover, an extra pair of socks. She watched as other aspiring CSTs who had completed their checks ran the missing items over to their fellow soldiers. The spirit of solidarity and leadership surprised and impressed her. Sure, they all were competing against one another, but they understood that each had to succeed if anyone like them was ever going to get this chance again.
The first physical challenge came in the form of the Army’s standard physical training (PT) test. Amber busted out push-up after push-up in the two minutes she had, careful to focus on form so that every one counted.
“All the way down,” she commanded herself. Focus on making them count. Don’t go for one hundred, just make sure a few dozen are picture-perfect. But she went ahead and pounded out a lot more than that, a benefit of her own intense CrossFit training and a heavy surge of adrenaline.
For Amber and many of the others, including Kate, the West Pointer MP who had played football in high school, and Tristan, the sockless track star, the PT test was largely a formality. Much to their consternation, the Army had different standards for male and female PT scores, and they yearned to be treated equally in every respect. In any case, most of them always performed so well they left the top score of the female scale in the dust, proving they could be measured against the male standard on any metric, from push-ups to two-milers.
Amber, like most of the others, had long ago dedicated herself to spending hours in the gym and out on the track each week. She was not a naturally gifted runner—lifting weights was a lot easier for her—but, like Ashley, what she lacked in talent she made up for in tenacity. As soon as she had heard about the CST program Amber began training in CrossFit with kettle bells, Olympic lifts, and lunges upon lunges. By the time she arrived at Bragg in May she was in better shape than she had ever been. Here, at the start of the most demanding program she had ever faced, Amber felt more alive than she had in years, and more confident.
That first road march for an “unknown distance” quickly separated the crowd of candidates. Ruck marching—walking a long distance with a heavy backpack packed tight with gear—is a physical and mental trial some soldiers love and others loathe. Every pound matters since the weight will be borne across hours and miles and hills that would test even the heartiest soldier. In this case the would-be CSTs carried around thirty-five pounds of gear from the detailed packing list, plus the weight of the water in their canteens; all of it would be measured on a scale to make certain no one was cutting corners—or ounces. For Amber, Ashley, and the fittest CST candidates, years of training and growing their endurance had accustomed them to the physical misery. Many had come to find a certain kind of solace in the lengthy treks through every kind of terrain, their mind and body focused on transcending the next step to reach that rush of endorphins that over time rewards hours of exertion. Amber had learned how to mentally approach the trudge ahead by measuring the distance in klicks, military slang for one kilometer—1,000 meters or .62 miles—and running calculations in her head to estimate at what point she would reach the correct stride and pace that would carry her through the remaining hours. Ruck snugly packed, weapon slung across her chest, hat firmly in place keeping sweat at bay and every strand of hair pinned: she found herself in love once more with the work of soldiering for her country. Traversing the soft earth up and down the hills in her trusted Altama boots on this mild May day, she felt there truly was no place she’d rather be.
Of course, it was not all inspirational and bucolic. Eyes straight ahead, feet pounding out the first few miles, Amber passed a fellow CST candidate who was crying. The soldier moved slowly, clearly hobbled by pain of some sort, maybe a turned ankle or an aching tendon. It was easy to trip on a rock or fall over some uneven terrain out here in the wilderness. As she passed the woman the hard-edge side of her won out over the compassionate team player. Come on, Amber thought to herself. Really? If you are crying you shouldn’t be here. There are things you should shed tears about—death, severe illness—but a ruck march isn’t one of them. She kept marching.
I got this, she promised herself. Just don’t get cocky again. And for God’s sake, don’t screw up.
A few tents away from Amber, Kate rejoiced at having hit the selection group jackpot. Rigby was part of her team and her enthusiasm for the week ahead showed in the first emphatic handshake she offered when introducing herself. Given the ban on contact lenses, Rigby sported dark-framed glasses that gave her the air of an aspiring PhD candidate. Tristan was also in her tent, and as it turned out, Tristan and Kate had been classmates at West Point. They hadn’t been close in school, but since women made up only around 15 percent of their class—about the same percentage as in active-duty military—most of them knew one another by face if not by name. Tristan and Kate became instant friends.
Rigby, for her part, had not expected to bond with or even like any of the women she roomed with in this selection. She had grown up with a hippie mom and a Navy veteran dad who taught her that nothing in life was either easy or handed to you, a reality that was reinforced by her dad’s job woes, her parents’ eventual divorce, and years of financial precariousness. She had arrived at Assessment and Selection with something of a chip on her shoulder. The West Point women, she thought, were sure to be an uppity bunch; her lower-middle-class upbringing made her mistrust anything that suggested pedigree. But just as she had been forced to question her stereotypes after Kristen bested her back in Arizona, Tristan and Kate made her feel embarrassed about her prejudices. These West Point women weren’t just tough as hell; they were smart and funny. And nice. She wanted to dislike the naturally perky Tristan with her ridiculous physical stamina born of decades of race running and track training, but she simply couldn’t: her good nature and her self-deprecating humor had won her over during their time as roommates back at the Landmark.
Instructors informed the women about what would be required of them during selection week by using a system of postings on a whiteboard that were updated throughout the day. Instructions were sparse and by design omitted much critical information; it was up to the women to figure it out. This meant that the soldiers had to be ready to leave the (relative) comfort of their tent at any moment, including during their rare rest periods, to find out what was coming next and when. In a selection process designed to keep soldiers off balance at all times, staying abreast of information was critical to success.
Tristan volunteered to be their tent’s messenger, and neither Kate nor Rigby objected. After all, from that first day she looked like she had been born on her feet. When the ten team members returned to the tent after the opening ruck march, they crashed on their beds, peeled sticky, aching feet out of damp socks, and gingerly nursed their new blisters. Everything hurt—standing and sitting—and the thought of rucking again in a few hours was daunting. But not for Tristan. She was perched on her cot, airing out her infamous smelly boots and breezily chatting with the others as if she had just returned from an afternoon of sunbathing on the beach. Years of running and marching barefoot in her sand-colored Nike military boots had hardened her feet against blisters. Her feet were so calloused and tough it would take far more than twenty miles of marching to faze them.
Tristan also had her own unique strategies and mental tricks for bearing up under the stress of no sleep. First and foremost: she stayed ready, 24/7. On one of the first nights of selection the candidates had to pull a near all-nighter working on a written assignment their instructors would judge early the following morning. When they finally finished they all slid into the comfort of their PT gear—a cotton tee and nylon shorts—to grab an hour or two of sleep. But not Tristan. When dawn arrived barely a few hours later and Kate yelled for everyone to get up, it was Tristan who leapt from her cot first.
“What, what? Okay, I am here, I am ready,” she said, fighting through a haze of sleep. The sight caused Kate to laugh out loud.
“Tristan, how in the hell are you dressed already? Did you sleep in your uniform?”
Tristan was already reaching for a batch of Handi Wipes that would serve as her mobile shower.
“Yes, I slept in it, of course,” she replied. “You don’t know when they’re going to come and tell us to get up and get moving. I want to be ready.”
Rigby took one look at her teammate and, between laughs, asked how she had managed to keep her hat on all night.
Tristan just smiled.
“Laugh away, friends, but when we are the first team to know what’s coming next because yours truly was dressed and ready to go before everyone else, you will all be seriously grateful,” she said.
As the days stretched on the women realized that each member of their team brought a different set of skills and talents. For Kate the physical tests had been a real challenge. Running with a full box of dummy ammunition or lifting on her shoulders the weight of a huge wooden log during one of the obstacle courses was tough for her.
But her ability to problem-solve under duress made her a real asset to the team. Early in the week the women faced an obstacle course that interspersed physical trials—climbing thirty-foot wooden walls and hiking long distances—with the kind of mental agility tests for which special operations is famous. In one exam the women had to disarm a (fake) bomb while blindfolded. Another required the soldiers to devise a way to get everyone across a rushing river using only wooden planks and rope. Kate was often the first to offer up a plan—and to give ground if someone else’s sounded more logical.
And she knew how to use her grit and courage to bolster the spirits of the other women. During one of the many long ruck marches Kate realized that a teammate was lagging. The ten women had started out in one line and were told to assume they were on their own, no talking allowed. An hour later Kate saw that her tentmate was injured; she was limping so badly she needed to lean on a tree for support. Without saying a word, the other women nodded their heads toward the young woman, making sure that each team member was aware she was in trouble. Then they took turns staying close to her so no one would finish much before the others.
The instructors were not pleased.
“Do not help her, do not touch her, this is an individual assessment,” one of the sergeants yelled. He got up close, right in their faces, and shouted from a distance of only inches, nearly spitting his words at them. Kate had read about special operations selection processes and she knew that much of this was an act, that the instructors were testing the soldiers to see how they would deal with stress. They wanted to judge the candidates’ ability to stay together as a team when something went wrong.
“They are just mind-fucking you, don’t listen to them!” Kate yelled to the other women marching next to her. She had always been outspoken and she prided herself on being a good teammate as well as a good soldier. This may have been the all-important Assessment and Selection process, but she wasn’t going to start holding back now, even if it harmed her career. “They’re just testing you. Don’t be a jerk and leave a fellow soldier in the field.” The young woman limped alongside them, at times falling to her knees and proceeding in a crawl to give her ankle some relief, and sure enough the others stayed with her, offering encouragement and moral support.
“You are messing with the system, guys,” the instructor warned. “This is an individual assessment.”
Kate had no idea if this was just a part of the test or if he really meant it. And she didn’t know whether men in the same situation would be praised for surging forward or lauded for staying back to make sure all the others made it to the end. But she would leave no woman behind.
A few minutes later she helped her teammates reach the finish line. All of them.
By day four the all-night work sessions and all-day marching, running, and obstacle testing were beginning to take their toll on the women, and Tristan’s strategy of sleeping in full uniform was looking increasingly sensible. The instructors were testing their mental and physical mettle, and that meant some of the Ironman women weren’t faring as well as they thought they would. This was a mental game as much as a physical challenge, designed to reinforce the fact that staying focused and motivated is absolutely critical to mission success and basic survival in war. For many aspiring CST members who soared through the athletic tests, it was the verbal jousting that proved tricky.
Even the relentlessly upbeat Tristan was bending under the pressures of the program. She returned to the tent exhausted and demoralized after a day at the Soldier Urban Reaction Facility, established to help soldiers better navigate the cultures in which they would be operating. Tristan had been thrown during a role-playing scenario that took place in a sparsely furnished room filled with dark carpets and floor pillows meant to resemble an Afghan living space. The test encounter had started fine, but went south quickly when “husbands” of the “Afghan women” she was supposed to be interviewing burst into the room and began hitting their wives and screaming at the American soldier. Tristan simply froze where she sat, unable to conjure up, in the shrill chaos of the moment, the words and actions needed to calm the situation. Eventually she muttered something to explain why she was there, but it was too late: she had lost control of the situation. As a field artillery officer sitting at a desk and doing math problems to figure out the exact coordinates needed to fire precisely on the right location, she was not used to dealing with interpersonal crises.
It hadn’t gone much better for Tristan later that evening when the instructors interrogated her about how field artillery bears any relevance to counterinsurgency. They kept demanding increasingly specific examples. A dull film of exhaustion now coated every corner of her brain, suffocating her best thoughts. She was overwhelmed by frustration, convinced she had failed miserably and that the trainers had already found the one chink in her armor. She was 100 percent confident in her physical abilities and her endurance, but as a field artillery officer who had never deployed she hadn’t had much daily contact with COIN, or counterinsurgency. And it showed.
“Guys, I don’t know if I can do this,” she confided late that night from her bed, her head in her hands. “I know I want it, but I think I just lost my chance.”
Kate and Rigby came over to her small cot and put their arms around her shoulders. “Come on,” Kate said, “you’re doing great out there and you’re going to be even greater after this. Stay in it. One lousy test doesn’t take you off track.”
Rigby had had a grueling day as well, having pushed herself as well as her teammates through their misery. At dinner she had to prod Kristen to finish eating her MRE, or Meals, Ready to Eat, after she threw up half of it. Her body simply could not take in as much food as she needed to get through the day’s tests. “You gotta keep going,” Rigby insisted, pushing the unappetizing meal of chicken-with-something back toward her after she vomited just beside her seat. “Keep eating it.” Everyone in her tent was physically depleted from the marches and runs and mentally drained by the exams and the need to impress their assessors at every moment. But they were determined to stay in it regardless of what their bodies and their minds told them.
One night Rigby found inspiration in an unexpected place.
“Hey, you guys, check this out,” she said, running back into the tent after her visit to one of the port-a-potties that stood in a row behind their sleeping quarters. “The john has a message for us!”
“You gotta be joking!” Kate shouted. “Are you really bringing us wisdom from the shitter?”
Tristan too was preparing for a few moments of rest, in full uniform, and let out a big laugh. It was the first smile her face had found in hours.
“Yes, I am indeed, ladies,” Rigby said in her matter-of-fact tone, pushing back her glasses. “There is some really good stuff in there. I’ve been reading a lot of it. Think about who has sat on those toilets before us—every man who has ever gone on to join Special Forces. They know what they’re talking about when they leave that wisdom behind.”
The entire tent was listening.
“Seriously,” she continued. “Listen to this. And take it to heart, girls, as the last day approaches.”
She paused for effect.
“The mind is its own place. And itself can make a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell. Don’t quit.”
The room was pin-drop silent.
“Pretty good, isn’t it? Going to have T-shirts made for us with it when this is all done,” Rigby said. Then she jumped onto her cot. “It’s my favorite one so far. Good night, my friends, see you before I want to.”
The room went dark as someone turned off the main light.
Don’t quit indeed, thought Kate. Just one more day . . .
Two hours later they were awake.
“Up, up, get moving!” one of the tentmates yelled. “Cadre are out there—time to get up!”
It did not count as predawn, Kate thought; it was maybe 2 or 3 a.m. Her blistered feet burned and her body ached. Her eyes were completely dried out; they felt like glass that was being sandblasted. Meanwhile, Tristan, now recovered from her brush with hopelessness of several hours earlier, was trying to rally her troops.
“Come on, guys, let’s go,” she said, bounding from cot to cot to make sure no one was still asleep. She checked to make sure Rigby had on fresh socks since her last pair was soaked through with blood from her blisters. “This is it—last day.”
The night ruled quiet and crisp. North Carolina has the brightest stars I’ve ever seen, Tristan thought. She inhaled the air and psyched herself up for the march that was soon to come. The women carried rucksacks, canteens, and fake weapons, and were poised to begin the most grueling physical and mental tests they would face in their weeklong training cycle.
“It will be a suckfest,” Kate promised the others. “Get ready!”
It started with a ruck that had no end. The women marched on long stretches of flat brown dirt, up rock-strewn hills and alongside murky, mud-filled creeks lined by trees on either side. For more than six hours they rucked, and as they did they watched as the pitch-black sky slowly faded and gave way to a few rays of sunlight that signaled the approaching dawn. Many suffered from bleeding feet through layers of moleskin and medical tape, but they marched on. For some, like Kate, it was tough but bearable, since the end was so near. Rigby found it hard in a way that thrilled her; she had wanted to be tested to the full extent of her physical and mental faculties, and so far the CST selection hadn’t disappointed. For Tristan, after the horrendous night before, it was a relatively easy day: rugged but entirely manageable.
Occasionally the instructors stopped the marchers to ask them a riddle. Some of the women used the break to kneel on one knee and give their feet a rest. During one such pause, the instructor had no sooner gotten mid-sentence in his question about how to move an item across a gulch when Kate stopped to interrupt him with the answer.
“I got it,” she blurted out. “Move this, move that, move that, you’re done.”
Her answer was correct.
“What the heck?” Rigby said. “How did you do that? That was amazing.”
“It came to me like Jesus,” Kate said, stepping back to take a bow before her team, and inspire a moment of laughter. Then it was back to the march.
By the time the march ended some of the women were dizzy with exhaustion. Others sat down for the first time in hours for their ten-minute break for mealtime—more MREs—and believed they had never eaten anything so delicious in their lives. But the break was not to last long. Another obstacle course required they scale a thirty-foot wall by hoisting one another up in the air using their cupped hands as ladders. By 3 p.m. they had been at it for close to twelve hours and there was no end in sight.
Next on the agenda: more running. Out of boots and into track shoes. Tristan took the lead for her team and once again motivated them all to keep pushing through their mental exhaustion and physical pain. “Keep going, guys,” she urged them as they swapped footgear. “Just a little more to go.” Kate marveled at her stamina. She’s a beast, Kate thought, filled with respect for her fellow soldier’s strength.
Finally, late in the day when some of the soldiers thought they might not be able to stay awake much longer, let alone stand up and perform yet another physical task, they reached the capstone of the Assessment and Selection training: a long run followed by a series of “buddy carries.” In the Army every soldier has to be fit enough and perpetually ready to carry a fellow soldier off the field in case the worst happens and he is injured or dead. Over the past fifty years in America, one of the central questions raised in the endless debates about whether women could serve in ground combat—even in support roles—has always been: would a woman be able to carry a large man off the battlefield under fire?
Kate’s male Army friends had always told her that while they thought she was a great soldier, they could never trust a woman to hoist them to safety if they got shot or hurt. “It’s not personal,” they would say. “It’s just biology.”
“But what about guys who are five-four and a hundred and thirty pounds?” Kate would respond. “Why are they okay and not girls who are the same size?” No one could ever give her a satisfactory answer to that question. Out there for CST Assessment and Selection that afternoon, Kate was determined to let her actions prove her worth. She would neither give in to her exhaustion nor fail to carry a single soldier—no matter how heavy—out of harm’s way.
As the afternoon wore on the cadre took turns walking up to the soldiers in the field and pretending to shoot them. “You’re dead,” they’d say, and walk away. The soldier’s job was to fall onto the ground and go completely limp.
In the buddy-carry, three or four soldiers encircle the fallen comrade. Depending on how she lay, one would get behind and underneath her body and grab her armpits while another took her legs. Together they would hoist her over a third soldier’s neck and that soldier would carry the “dead” soldier, forming a sort of P around her neck. Most of the women on Kate’s team were on the small side, so carrying them presented no real challenge, but still she took inspiration from Amber, who had a bunch of weapons slung over her and was carrying one of the bigger girls on her shoulders as if she were light as a feather.
Kate now was fully motivated. Whoever she is, Kate thought, that girl knows what she’s doing. Kate pressed ahead and picked up a teammate who had dropped right in front of her.
A half hour later it was Rigby’s turn to “die.” She had already carried several of her more petite teammates to safety and joked to herself that the real test would come when they had to carry her, for while she was hardly big, she was taller and thicker than most of the other women in their tent. Finally the instructor came by and “killed” her.
By that time the temperature had climbed well above eighty degrees and the soldiers had sweated through every inch of their camouflage uniforms. Rigby’s blisters bled freely and she was soaked through with perspiration from top to bottom. It was almost a relief to lie quietly on the dirt lane, playing dead and gazing at the gray sky, waiting to get picked up by her teammates. And then she looked down and saw that her pants were soaked in blood from her waist to her knees. She felt a jolt of panic wondering if all their combat role-playing had started to play tricks on her mind. And then she burst out in laughter. She had been out there in the field for well over twelve hours and had somehow missed the fact that her period had started hours before.
Kate looked over, saw her “dead” buddy laughing, then followed Rigby’s eyes to the source of the moment’s absurdity. “Oh shit,” she said, “this one’s going to be interesting!” She was already hatching a strategy for how the team would carry her safely home.
But Rigby darted off in another direction, and behind the spare cover of a spindly North Carolina tree she dealt with her feminine hygiene.
“I just gotta take care of my business,” she shouted back. “Be there in an instant . . .” Kate looked on, trying unsuccessfully to suppress her own laughter.
“The bears are going to have a field day!” Kate shouted to her teammates.
Along with a woman’s inability to carry a comrade off the field, another reason soldiers frequently gave for keeping women out of the infantry was that their periods would attract bears out in the wild. Among Army women there was a long tradition of joking about the ridiculousness of this idea, as if a bear would find a menstrual cycle any more attractive than they did.
The male cadre was standing twenty feet from the women and watched without saying a word. His own training had taught him to be stoic at all times and to betray no spontaneous expression. This guy is good, the soldiers thought, but of course he had never dealt with an all-female selection before and this body stuff was entirely new terrain. His eyes grew large, full of what Kate later called “shock and awe,” but he stood there and simply watched as the women arranged themselves like nothing at all had happened, then got on with the task at hand.
“Okay, let’s go,” Rigby called out a minute later. Another teammate hoisted her up with help from Kate and another soldier and heaved Rigby’s torso behind her shoulders and on top of her rucksack. The fake-dead Rigby hung limp, as the team humped its way back to the staging area.
“One hundred hours of hell” had lived up to the promise of its name.
Ashley’s preparation for the hours of hell had started six years earlier when she was a freshman at Kent State and became addicted to rucking. On school breaks she would pack rocks into her backpack and head out of her family’s house in Marlboro for her own “unknown distance” road marches.
“What are you doing, Ashley?” Bob would ask. “Why would you make it heavier?”
“I’m training, Dad, trying to get stronger,” she would call back to him as she walked out the door and began to set a pace for herself on the two-lane highway that ran alongside their ranch home.
Now her years of preparation were paying off. The scale that weighed everyone’s gear before the first ruck started, tipped well above the minimum requirement when Ashley’s pack was placed on it. No way she would get penalized because the instructors found her pack was too light—if it came in underweight at the end she would have to start all over again, and she wasn’t about to let that happen. Ashley had prepared her body for the long ruck marches in very specific ways. Unlike running, which is nearly all cardio exertion, the rucks require abdominal and back strength. The thousands of sit-ups and crunches and hours of CrossFit she had performed in the months leading up to selection meant Ashley’s core was strong enough to bear the load of her pack without buckling. Pull-ups had built up her shoulder muscles. She may not have been a Pegasus like Tristan, but she was an outstanding athlete.
From her first stride to her last, Ashley never let up. Some soldiers fell out of formation. Others were slowed by the creeping burn of played-out calf muscles that began to atrophy from overuse. The soldiers who weren’t suffering from physical discomfort struggled with the ruck’s “no talking” rule, and found relief in swapping daydreams about the foods they would eat when the week had finished (lasagna and ice cream won the day) or the jobs this suffering would lead to.
But Ashley pressed on—quiet, focused, always at the front, just as she had been from the first day of ROTC training. She relished the silence and the clop-clop of her Gore-Tex boots as her feet hit the ground. All around her the North Carolina fir trees stood tall, lush, and green, stretching their limbs toward the sky. They reminded her of the state park where she ran races with Josh and Brittany as kids. Her every sense was tuned in to the moment and remained there. She heard the flapping wings of birds flying above against the steady, in-and-out pattern of her own breath and the tap-tap-tap of her heart.
The road ahead stretched out before her as she tracked the klicks on her pace counter. Nearly everyone else was now marching behind her. Only her tentmates Leda and Anne, the engineer, hiked alongside her, sometimes in front, sometimes slightly behind. These fittest of soldiers challenged one another by wordless example to be the best they could be.
That night, nearly every soldier was struggling to stay in one piece.
Along the route medics stood by at first aid stations to monitor injuries and examine soldiers who looked hurt. Not wanting to quit the selection process and miss out on this unique opportunity, most of the CST candidates hurried past the medical teams, assuring them they were “just fine.” Even if they were lying prone on the ground, they wouldn’t admit to an injury. Those who acknowledged any pain simply vowed to defy it. But the medics checked the soldiers’ feet each evening to make certain they didn’t overlook any serious injuries.
Lane, the Guard soldier and track star from Nevada, had been in extreme pain that morphed into agony by day three. Her Achilles tendon, which she had injured during high school track and field, was on fire. As she rucked, she considered the possibility that each step she took could be her last, but still she marched on, refusing to seek out the medic. When he made his nightly rounds, however, what he saw alarmed him.
“Hey, you know that Achilles tendon could snap at any moment,” he said. “If I were you I would quit. That is a terrible injury—it takes months to heal and if the damage is severe enough it might never fully recover. It’s not a good idea to risk it.”
He was holding a folder that contained all the paperwork necessary for a medical drop.
Lane gaped at him and yanked her foot away.
“Are you kidding me? I am here. I made it this far. I am totally fine.”
“Seriously,” she said, looking up at him as she laced her boots back up, “if it rips just glue it back together.”
A few tents down from Lane, Ashley’s team awaited their own medic check. One soldier’s blisters had worn through four layers of skin, down to what she thought must have been the dermis. Ashley put her medical training to work.
“If anyone needs her feet taped up, the doctor is in,” she announced, facing two folding chairs toward one another so her “patients” could elevate their feet while she examined their blisters and swaddled them in moleskin. Back at Kent State, Jason had often been Ashley’s guinea pig in such situations, allowing her to tape up his uninjured knees, ankles, and wrists to perfect her technique. One day she even had him come to one of her physical therapy classes so she could demonstrate her knowledge of how to palpate an injured shoulder. He joked with her later that she had just wanted to show off her handsome, shirtless ROTC boyfriend to all the girls in her class. Now Ashley was considering pursuing a job as a physician’s assistant once her Afghanistan deployment was behind her. She had confided this to Anne while helping one of their tentmates; there was something about this environment that felt inspiring to her. There in her bunk, taping her teammates’ torn-up feet at a makeshift first aid station, Ashley realized she was starting to become genuinely attached to the women in her tent. Like Rigby, she felt they were facing a trial that almost no one else on earth ever could or would understand. Even their own families.
Ashley, Leda, and Anne had become a trio that first weekend at the Landmark Inn, and Ashley wanted to introduce her new friends to Jason. She knew that if he met these remarkable women he would better understand why giving her his blessing to go forward with the selection process was so important to her. When one of the girls suggested a group dinner on the “down” night before selection started, Ashley surprised herself by her own bold question:
“Is it okay if I invite my husband?”
“Oh, of course, I’d love to meet him,” Leda replied. And it was true: ever since she met Ashley, Leda had been wondering what Jason was like. Military couples, in which both wife and husband served in uniform, were still exceptionally rare. Happy ones rarer still.
Jason was as curious as Leda. He wanted to learn more about the CST program and meet the soldiers his wife would be joining—and competing against—in the selection process.
That night, at a steak house not far from the Landmark, Leda recognized Jason from Ashley’s photos.
“Hi there,” she said, flashing a radiant, confident smile. “I’m Leda.”
He stammered out a greeting in response, scanning the room for Ashley, and was about to tell her as politely as he could that he was a happily married man, when she continued.
“I’ve heard so much about you, I’m in selection with Ashley,” she said. “She just went to the restroom, by the way. I have to tell you, your wife is amazing.”
Jason relaxed. “Oh, great to meet you,” he said, extending his hand. “And yes, she most definitely is.”
Ashley arrived and gave her husband a big hug and kiss.
“Jason,” Leda said as they sat down to eat. “You seriously are the coolest guy in the world to come out here to dinner with all these women.”
“I consider myself lucky,” he replied, and glanced at his wife, who was smiling back at him. She was genuinely thrilled to see him in the company of her new friends. She had heard stories at the Landmark of marriages that had fallen apart under the strain of deployments, and she felt luckier than ever to have him. They spent the hour away from the Landmark talking about war: Leda shared stories about the work she had done in Iraq, downplaying her own role throughout, and Jason mentioned he had just returned from Afghanistan. He made his way through his rib eye and mashed potatoes and was happy to see how comfortable Ashley looked around them and how ready she seemed for the assessment tests ahead.
Driving back to the hotel after meeting Jason and watching him with his wife, Leda felt even more impressed by—and fond of—Ashley. As they chatted about her upcoming wedding in Ohio, and the three-tiered white-icing, chocolate cake that her mom would be making, Leda couldn’t resist sharing her thoughts.
“You and Jason really are remarkable. I so admire the way you respect and love one another. You really have something special, Ashley.”
The bond between the two women only deepened in the days ahead as they fought their way through one bleary afternoon of ruck marching after another. On the final day of the assessment, guessing that the cadre were shuttered away somewhere in a classroom at the Special Warfare Center and School headquarters deciding their fates, the two shared a quiet moment in a remote part of the training camp.
Leda, always interested in leadership styles and what motivates people, especially someone as silently determined as Ashley, now felt comfortable asking her young friend directly some questions about herself.
“So, do you like your work there at the college?” she asked about Ashley’s work back home as an athletic trainer.
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “I love being around the athletes and helping them deal with all their injuries. I don’t think I want to do it forever, but for now and for a first job it’s a great experience.” She paused, weighing whether or not she felt comfortable enough to share more, then continued.
“I know they’d understand if I had to take a leave to do this deployment,” she continued. “But there is one thing about CST that worries me . . .”
They were once again at the front of the pack, engaged in a land navigation exercise in which they had to find their way from a drop-off point in unfamiliar territory to a final destination on the map. False turns and wrong paths dotted the landscape; following the map expertly was crucial to reaching the right location in the limited amount of time allotted. This kind of exercise measures what the military calls “orienteering”: the ability to do spatial analysis under stressful conditions. For the CSTs the exercise was part of the final test of the Assessment and Selection program, but for Ashley, who had done hundreds of these exercises in ROTC, the test presented little challenge.
“I worry I’m a little bit too shy for this,” Ashley admitted as they walked toward a squiggle on the map they had received for the exercise. “I mean, I know I can do it, but maybe those guys will think I’m not aggressive or outspoken enough to do the job?”
“Well,” Leda asked, “how is it working with all those type A male athletes?” She had watched Ashley over the past four days and was certain she would be an asset to the team. Physically she was a beast, but she had excelled in the puzzles and obstacle courses, too. Her thoughtful nature and tendency to analyze a problem before speaking made her stand out on her team.
“Do you ever find it intimidating working with those guys?”
“Oh, no, the guys are great, they come to me to take care of their injuries, and it doesn’t matter that I’m the only female they’re working with. To them I’m just the trainer. That’s it. They never have any issues coming to see me.”
Leda switched into coaching mode.
“Ashley, you have exactly what it takes for this mission. The CST role is a special mix of technical, problem-solving, and emotional intelligence skills. It’s not something that just anyone can do, but it’s also something at which more than one type of person can excel. You don’t have to be outgoing to be good at it. I know the special ops community from other work I’ve done and you are exactly the kind of ‘quiet professional’ they’re looking for. Your physical skills are obvious, anyone can see that, but you have a quiet confidence that they will respect and that they require out there in the field. That’s all you need. Believe in that, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Ashley looked back at her and, true to form, said nothing. Leda had a decade of experience in the military, served in the much more senior rank of major, and had far greater experience with the special operations community than any of her teammates. This was a woman who knew what she was talking about. That fact gave Ashley some comfort, even if it didn’t silence all of her doubts.
Now she made another promise, not unlike the vow she had made to Jason late that night in the kitchen of their ranch house, to go at CST selection hard and never quit. “Okay,” she said. “I won’t; I promise. Now let’s get this done and find out whether we made it!”