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

I

The Call to Serve

5

Making the Cut

* * *

The next morning, aching but hopeful, the women boarded a bus for the JFK Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg to learn their fate. They may have been limping, sore, and exhausted, but a nervous adrenaline buzz kept them all at attention.

The soldiers filed into the Bank Hall auditorium, named after Army special operations pioneer Colonel Aaron Bank, known as the “father of the Green Berets.” It was an appropriate setting for the young female trailblazers, all of whom knew the legend of Colonel Bank, a former OSS officer who helped train and equip the French Resistance in World War II and afterward led Operation Iron Cross, a daring mission to train German opposition members to capture high-ranking Nazis, including Adolf Hitler. (That mission was aborted before it launched.) Bank had always thought the base an ideal location for a special warfare school, writing in his memoirs that “everything we required was available at Fort Bragg,” and had battled the Pentagon to get the center opened in 1952. This innovator of unconventional warfare had died several years earlier at the age of 101.

The theater’s subdued blue-green hues belied the special warfare combat experiences that were usually shared from its stage. With nothing to do but wait, Ashley settled her nerves by trying to figure out the order in which the CST hopefuls would be called into a nearby classroom to learn how they had done in the Assessment and Selection. She knew she had finished all the physical tests at the head of the class, and had reason to be optimistic. But despite Leda’s assurances to the contrary, she still worried that her less forceful personality would somehow count against her.

Strangely, no one who went into the room came back out; they just disappeared. “They must be leaving from doors we can’t see,” Ashley guessed, “so no one can ask them how it went.” In fact, she reflected, the whole assessment cycle had been a journey through the unknown, with instructors simply commanding them about their tasks and scratching notes on their pads. There was no feedback at any time, and there had been no yelling, screaming, or intimidation tactics. It was nothing like what she had expected. It was just a cold, sterile assessment of whether she had what it took to join this mission. Or not, she worried. The minutes ticked by.

“Lieutenant White!” she suddenly heard from across the room. At long last it was her turn. Heart pounding, she struggled to keep her face expressionless and entered the large classroom where her “lane walker,” the instructor who had observed her throughout the last day, sat with a stack of papers on a desk in front of him, one of which had her name on it. From the corner of her eye Ashley spotted fellow soldiers she had met during the week sitting at desks sprinkled throughout the room, but the space was so big it was impossible to hear what was being said. In any case, Ashley’s eyes stayed glued to those of the instructor who sat across from her.

The cadre began with a positive observation about her performance—“outstanding strength and physical stamina in marches and runs; strong PT score”—before launching into a catalog of her weaknesses: “Need to exert more vocal leadership; be more forceful when leading group.” The perfectionist in Ashley heard every fault he mentioned, loud and clear, and missed the achievements.

“You rated top ten percent of all the candidates, Lieutenant White,” he finished. “Congratulations.”

And that was it. Two arduous months of winning Jason over, preparing her packet, readying herself physically and mentally, then working her ass off in the field, and it had ended in an instant. Fighting through a heady cocktail of excitement and fatigue she thanked the cadre, and proceeded toward the side door he had pointed her to. She quickly glanced back and watched as several candidates headed toward another exit. Ashley’s path led to the main entrance of Bank Hall, where she stepped out the front door into the brisk March sunshine. She was holding a folder embossed with the image of Bronze Bruce, a twenty-two-foot statue of a Special Forces soldier that was the first memorial in the United States to the Vietnam War. The real statue towered over the Army Special Operations Command’s Memorial Plaza and its wall listing the names of special operations soldiers killed in action. At the top of the folder was printed:

“2nd Lt. White Ashley I.” for her middle name, Irene. Inside sat a certificate.

United States Army

John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School

To All Who Shall See These Presents Greeting

Be it known that 2nd Lt. Ashley I. White

Completed

Cultural Support Team Assessment & Selection Phase 1

Ashley was in. Holding the papers made it all seem real.

She finally let out a big, magnetic smile, the kind that reaches from cheek to cheek and dares others not to return it. It was the first thing Jason had noticed about her at that ROTC pizza party all those years ago during her freshman year at Kent State.

As soon as she pushed through the front door she heard the cheers exploding. All the women who had been selected now stood milling about in an ever-larger cluster on the grass. Lane, the Guard soldier and Iraq veteran from Nevada, was there, though they didn’t know one another yet. It was no surprise that Leda and Anne were there as well. Each time the door opened and a new teammate who had survived the grueling week emerged, the growing crowd shouted out its congratulations.

Leda rushed over to embrace Ashley.

“I knew you were in,” she congratulated her tentmate. “See? I told you you have what it takes.” Ashley only smiled. She hoped that someday she would get the opportunity to let Leda know how much her encouragement had meant to her.

The fact that the young lieutenant from the National Guard had finished so successfully spoke for itself. Of course, being Ashley and a White, she still wished she had come in first in everything, but given the caliber of the competition she would take it. And now she would focus on making herself stronger, faster, and fitter before the more formal CST training started the following month.

But there was just one problem. The training course was scheduled to begin around the same time as her wedding, and she and Jason had already postponed their church ceremony once. She had no intention of doing so again. Besides, she had her dream strapless white wedding dress picked out, and at that very moment a seamstress back in Ohio was busy tailoring the beaded gown.

I’ll figure it out, she promised herself. For now, she would enjoy the day. She couldn’t wait to call Jason and tell him her good news. She had indeed done him—and herself—proud.

The same set of nerve-racking evaluations played out two months later at the same Bank Hall theater on Fort Bragg. This time for the active-duty soldiers.

This group—including Kate, Tristan, Rigby, and Amber—had completed their Assessment and Selection in a separate program from the Guard and Reserves. Once all members of the CST team had been selected they would come together to train as one class, but for scheduling purposes the active-duty and Guard and Reserves troops tried out for the program separately.

Earlier that morning, the fifty or so active-duty CST aspirants had taken over an old barracks building they found on Fort Bragg, and spent an hour doing battle with the caked-on grime, mud, and sweat they had accumulated from a week in the field. When Kate heard one of the instructors shout from the doorway of the classroom, “Lieutenant Raimann!,” she still felt the gleam that came from donning a fresh uniform after six days of rucking. Working to remain calm and expressionless, she took her seat across the desk from the cadre and waited.

“So,” the young NCO said, and began to walk through her scores in each of the categories in which she had been tested. “You don’t read well enough and you certainly don’t write well enough. Officers are supposed to publish, you know, and you don’t have the writing skills for that.”

Kate was stung by his evaluation. She secretly harbored dreams of becoming a writer after she finished her service in the Army, and wondered who he was to question her ability. But she sat silently and betrayed no emotion, hands folded in her lap, waiting for him to continue.

“You are just average physically,” he went on. “There are a lot of girls out here that are stronger than you are and a lot are fitter. You are definitely middle of the pack. At best.”

He stared at her, then pushed the JFK Special Warfare Center folder toward her on the desk.

“Congratulations,” he said, “you’re accepted.”

No longer able to suppress the pent-up emotion of the past few months, Kate let out a big sigh of relief and happiness. She scooped up the folder and ran out the door before the instructor could change his mind. On her way, she felt a pang of sadness as she looked over her shoulder at the women who were leaving through the other exit. They had tried as hard as she had but hadn’t made it. Most of them she would never see again.

Outside, on the same patch of grass where Leda and Anne and Ashley had stood not long before, Kate paced about waiting for her tentmates to emerge. She had been one of the first in her group to hear the good news.

Back in Bank Hall Tristan stood waiting her turn, trying to look cool and stoic. In truth, she was churning inside; she felt the stakes had only grown higher for her since the CST selection began.

I know in my bones this is what I’m supposed to do, she was thinking. And these are the people I’m supposed to be working with. The only other time she remembered feeling this certain about the rightness of her path was when she first visited West Point. But Tristan had grown accustomed to disappointment in her career, and from the moment she first spotted the CST poster back in Oklahoma, she hadn’t let herself believe that the mission was even a possibility. Now that she had seen who and what the program had to offer, she couldn’t hold back her enthusiasm. She had finally found her people; she wanted this opportunity so badly she feared she would crash if they turned her away. I am so close, she said to herself. They can’t say no.

Now, sitting at the instructor’s desk in the giant classroom, she was about to find out.

The cadre never looked up from his papers as he ticked through the different events. “You didn’t take charge on the obstacle course,” he began, clearing his throat to make certain she was listening. Tristan vividly remembered that test: the soldiers had to dig their way underneath a silver barbed-wire fence using a tool, and ensure that everyone else on the team made it through the makeshift tunnel. “People needed leadership and you just froze.” She had been team leader at that point and when one of her fellow trainees got stuck in the mud beneath the coiled barbed wire she hadn’t moved fast enough to develop an alternate plan.

“And you did well on the ruck march,” he continued, “but at the end, when you were doing so great, leading at the front of the pack, so many soldiers were dragging behind you. You should have motivated your team more.” That final, deadly ruck march in which they carried around forty pounds of gear all day included a portion where the women marched not as a team but at their own pace. Tristan had broken into a run every time she was on her own, blasting past nearly everyone while they slogged along in her wake. By the end of the march of twenty or so miles the cadre ordered the women to finish as a team. Some women limped and others were struggling to put one foot in front of the other. Tristan felt uncomfortable yelling at them to push through their agony and fatigue when they clearly were motivated and trying their best. She didn’t want to make them feel any worse than she knew they already did; she felt it would sound like bragging.

But she remained silent, not daring to protest the cadre’s account of her leadership skills.

She waited calmly for him to deliver the verdict.

“Okay, well, that’s it,” he said. “Congratulations, you’re in.”

Seconds later Tristan was running down the hall and pushing the front door open. For the first time since leaving college she felt she was finally on the right path.

For the duration of Assessment and Selection the soldiers had had to shed every digital or electronic device—watches, phones, personal computers—that linked them to the world outside, a challenge that for many was equal to the physical tests of the selection process. Now they had their gadgets back and everyone was busily phoning moms, dads, husbands, boyfriends, and friends to let them know they had made it.

Kate, Rigby, Kristen, and a half dozen others were already gathered on the lawn, and to cries of “TRIS-TAN!” they tackled their new colleague and fell into an impromptu group hug. Seven of their tent’s ten candidates counted among the twenty-five or so soldiers who made the cut. It had been a fine showing.

The mind is its own place, Tristan thought, remembering Rigby’s port-a-potty inspiration. Don’t quit indeed.

Within a half hour the cadre led the active-duty group of twenty-five CST selectees onto a chartered bus bound for Fort Benning, Georgia. They were headed to what was officially called the CONUS Replacement Center, which everyone knew as CRC. The week promised a few days of medical and dental screening, weapons familiarization and qualification, and the issuance of uniforms and other equipment. No heavy lifting, just a lot of signing out gear and more paperwork. But they were on their way, headed into an experience that few, if any, women had ever had in the American military.

Kate found a seat toward the middle of the bus, basking in the jubilant ease that comes from having bested a life test whose outcome was uncertain. Amber, the interrogator and Bosnia veteran, was just across the aisle, and was savoring one of the most important moments of her life. She guessed that many of the other newly named CSTs were feeling the same sense of triumph and exhilaration, knowing they were on the verge of getting the best shot they would ever have to serve in war with Rangers and Special Forces, even if they still couldn’t officially be either. Not far from her was Kimberly Blake, the fit soldier she had met briefly in the Landmark’s elevator. Kimberly, an MP who had deployed to Afghanistan in 2005 and volunteered then to go out with Marines to search Afghan women on a three-day mission, had arrived at Camp Mackall certain she would be selected. Then she had a reality check: these girls ran two miles in thirteen minutes, marched without tiring, and, just like Kimberly, were accustomed to being number one. She felt compelled to step up her game, and by the time she reached Bank Hall that afternoon she genuinely didn’t know whether she would be chosen. Now she leaned into the headrest and tried to ignore all the noise on the bus so she could finally, after a week of high stress and sleep deprivation, get some much-needed rest.

As the charter bus, plush by military standards, began the seven-hour trip to Georgia, a movie began to roll on little flip-down screens that ran the length of the bus.

“Seriously?” Kate called out to Cassie Spaulding, a fellow MP she had met in the breakfast room at the Landmark Inn. She shook her head and began to laugh. “Black Hawk Down is what they play for us? I love it.”

Every woman on the bus had already seen the film at least once, but in this setting it felt more powerful than ever. Based on a book about the ill-fated mission to capture a Somali warlord in Mogadishu, the movie followed teams from Delta Force and SEALs leading the charge through the Somali capital while Rangers, who had been assigned to pull security for the mission, bravely fought their way through, block by block, after finding themselves pinned down on the city’s streets. The operation may have been a disaster, but the fight was valiant.

These were the guys they’d soon be going to war to support. The men with whom they’d be going out on mission. This was the caliber of soldiers and SEALs they’d be going into battle with each day. Or night.

Kate settled comfortably into her seat to watch Eric Bana one more time. For now her view of Rangers at war remained on a movie screen. Soon enough it would be real life.

Cassie, Kate’s fellow MP, was sitting just two rows away. She had come to North Carolina from an Army base in the middle of nowhere, deep in Alaska, about as far as one could go and still be in the United States.

A year earlier Cassie had returned home from Iraq, where her unit was charged with running security checkpoints and doing searches. She had joined the Army eager to find her own brothers- and sisters-in-arms, but for Cassie it had been the loneliest year of her life. Being female was a special burden in war. “Perception was reality,” went the adage, and she found that all socializing between men and women was discouraged by commanders to avoid even the hint of a compromising situation. She couldn’t even talk to a fellow officer about the food they were eating at the dining facility without arousing the suspicion of her commanding officer. He paid attention to every conversation she had with soldiers from other units, almost all of whom were, of course, men, and asked her afterward about the topics of their discussions. So every night Cassie sat by herself, cross-legged on the floor, for hours, filling up paperback books of crossword puzzles that her father sent in care packages.

It was an unnatural and solitary habitat for a creature as social as she, but in a way Cassie always had been an outsider. She was a child of privilege, a comfortable American girl born to an apolitical and decidedly nonmilitary Canadian mother and a bullishly entrepreneurial American father, a Reagan Republican who sold sports cars and gave her a Chevy Silverado on her sixteenth birthday. (He offered a Ford Mustang, but she assured him she preferred the pickup.) She had grown up in Canada, Mexico, and the United States as her parents chased the American dream across North America. She excelled in competitive tennis as a teenager, taking to the court whenever she wasn’t in the woods behind her house playing Manhunt long past nightfall with a bunch of neighborhood boys. At first she had been deeply afraid of waiting for hours, alone in the dark, creepy woods, trying to avoid capture by the others, but she was certain the boys would look down on her and label her “a girl” if she admitted to any fear. So she trained herself to show no weakness, ever. She would stay hidden, come what may. No way would she allow the boys to think they were tougher than she was.

Later, in high school in Florida, Cassie felt jealous of her boyfriend, a star quarterback who was showered with fanfare and glory on the field each week. Being a girl sucks, she thought. Everything fun and daring and noble sat beyond her grasp, and at the age of nineteen, she found out that that included her dream of becoming an infantry soldier. Nor could she go to Ranger School. It made her crazy that her gender, a simple accident of biology, put her dream job out of reach. Why wasn’t I just born a boy, she often thought to herself, so I can do what I really want to do? Seeing guys in her ROTC class who didn’t even want to join the infantry get assigned to the branch only heightened her sense of the unfairness of it all. It felt like a slap in the face that the Army would choose men who wanted to become medics over her, who had been chosen as ROTC battalion commander and hungered only to fight as a foot soldier.

Eventually, after graduating from the University of Central Florida, the sorority sister and women’s studies major joined the Army’s Military Police Corps thinking it would be as close as she would get to actual combat. When she heard about the CST program three years later, she knew immediately she would do anything needed to win a spot on the new team. She called everyone she thought could help her, filled out the application the same day she received it, and then wrote an extra, unsolicited essay explaining all the reasons why she had exactly the right background for this new assignment. She had MP training, combat experience in Iraq, and had studied the role of women in Afghanistan. No one would work harder in this job, she promised.

All through the selection process Cassie felt certain she would make it. The first morning at the Landmark when a fellow candidate asked if she was nervous, Cassie tersely responded, “No, I am not going to let myself be nervous and neither should you.” The expression in her tablemate’s eyes suggested that her answer had only made the soldier more anxious. Too bad, Cassie thought. This is the only place anyone should want to be right now.

Confidence had never been her issue; if anything, a surplus of it was usually her downfall, and she knew it. But she didn’t care. Nor did she apologize for knowing what she wanted, or for possessing ambition equal to an entire class of Harvard MBAs. It was in her DNA: from girlhood, her father had taught her to pursue what she wanted. His determined, stubborn-as-hell daughter was clearly his child, the one whose travel to Europe he had funded; the one he had taught to read the Wall Street Journal every day so she would know what was happening in the world; the one he watched Fox News with every night after dinner before discussing the day’s events.

Now, all these years later, she sat with her new teammates on a chartered bus headed to CRC, Black Hawk Down playing in the background. Cassie pulled out her phone and texted the person she considered her best friend in the entire world.

“Dad,” she wrote, “I got selected. This is the proudest accomplishment of my life so far.”

The reply came a minute later.

“I knew you were going to make it,” he texted. “I had no doubt.”

A couple of hours into the trip the bus stopped at a gas station along Interstate 95 South.

The women poured into the convenience store to pick up Subway sandwiches and enjoy the luxury of indoor plumbing. The sight of two dozen trim young women in uniform turned every head in the small store.

First Lieutenant Sarah Walden grabbed a Gatorade and a protein bar and stepped into the long, slow-moving checkout line behind her fellow soldiers. She had recently awakened from a catnap in which the sound of helicopter rotors in Black Hawk Down had blended into a fuzzy battlefield dream. Now she heard a man from across the convenience store call out:

“Hey, you guys Army nurses?”

Sarah laughed. She predicted this wasn’t the last time they’d get that question.

Sarah had joined ROTC and then the Army because she wanted to serve an organization whose values mirrored the ones her parents had etched in her soul from childhood: service to others, self-discipline, self-reliance, and a desire to be part of something greater than yourself. Every year, they taught Sarah and her brother to get by using only their own instincts and nature’s wealth by spending half the summer completely off the grid in a cabin in upstate New York. Not only was it disconnected from TV, telephones, and the Internet, it also lacked central plumbing and water. They grew their own vegetables in the tough Adirondack soil and hiked for hours each day.

Sarah was a look-alike for a young Megan Follows, who starred in the film Anne of Green Gables. As a girl Sarah had loved, read, and memorized the books by Lucy Maud Montgomery on which the movie was based. Inspired by the feisty, independent Anne Shirley, Sarah originally wanted to be a nun, not only because of her religious faith but because she wanted to reform the church from the inside. One day she announced to her mother that she was planning to become the Catholic Church’s first female priest. When she was a little older, Sarah dreamed of becoming a soldier and a doctor. By the time she reached her teens, she realized she couldn’t manage all three—nun, soldier, and doctor—so she settled on the last two, and signed up for ROTC to help pave the way and pay for her medical studies. Her father, who spent four years in the Navy, used to amble around the house calling her “Colonel Doctor Walden.”

To no one’s surprise, Sarah excelled in ROTC. Pushing herself to the limit both physically and mentally came naturally, and was thrilling besides. As a sophomore she decided she didn’t want to spend the summer in the Army’s airborne school, which provided the traditional path for cadets. Instead she wanted to attend the more demanding air assault course. The colonel who led her ROTC program at first declined her request. He saw her as a promising leader and wanted her to succeed—and pass—whatever Army training course she signed up for that summer. Airborne school, he said, offered the best—and least risky—path forward. But the major serving beneath him saw she was serious and believed she had the grit to complete what she set out to undertake.

“If you really want to go,” the major said when she made her appeal to him, “I’ll do what I can to support you, but on one condition: you can’t fail. Promise me that, and I’ll talk to the colonel.”

A few days later he pulled Sarah aside after a morning of PT.

“You’re going to air assault school, Walden,” he said. “Don’t fuck up.”

Once her wish had been granted, Sarah experienced a new sensation: the very real fear of failure. Immediately she began weeks of intensive research and preparation at an obstacle course on the nearby grounds of West Point. On Zero Day, the first of the ten-day course, she spotted only six other women among the hundred-plus soldiers reporting for classes. By the last day, despite going hyponatremic on a ruck march after drinking so much water that she flushed out all her electrolytes, Sarah became the only female to complete the course. She couldn’t help but feel a twinge of satisfaction when the male soldier she overheard insisting to his buddies that women shouldn’t even be allowed in the Army was evacuated during the final ruck march. Sarah returned to her ROTC posting with her head held high. Preparation had been its own reward, as her parents had always taught her; she had made it through.

Eventually, Sarah realized that Army doctors had little frontline exposure to the wars America was fighting, and increasingly that’s where she wanted to be. She abandoned her med school dreams and, like Kate and Cassie, went to the division she believed would get her closest to the action: the military police. When she soon learned that her new unit, based in Europe, wouldn’t deploy she felt utterly useless. This, she thought, is not why I joined the Army. Unlike some of her commanders and fellow soldiers, she didn’t want to stay out of the two wars America was fighting. She signed up because she wanted in.

Now, finally, she had an assignment that might actually draw on some of her well-honed survival skills. With the CSTs, she had found her path to war, as her friends predicted. It may not have sounded appealing to the uninitiated, but Sarah was thrilled that Afghanistan would be her ticket out of Europe.

Three hours later the bus pulled into Fort Benning, “Home of the Infantry” and headquarters of the 75th Ranger Regiment. The 182,000-acre installation was home to nearly thirty thousand active-duty military, and the women were scheduled to be there for a week.

As the bus approached the main gate of the building where they were scheduled to stay, they found it unattended and locked tight. Clearly no one had anticipated the arrival of the CSTs.

Pacing around the building’s fence, the weary soldiers realized that someone was going to have to do something if they were going to get any sleep that night. And they were desperate for rest.

“Looks like we’re gonna have to storm the gates,” someone said.

“I’ll go under the fence!” Tristan shouted, and began shimmying her small frame under the wire with Kate coaching her through. Once in, the two opened the gate and ushered their teammates inside.

First night and already we’re breaking the china, Kate thought, smiling to herself. I can only imagine the look on the faces of the folks in charge when they see who busted into their compound tonight.