Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield (2016)
The Call to Serve
* * *
At the end of May the soldiers were back in Bank Hall, ready for the first day of Phase 2 training for missions that would start in less than three months. The room was humming.
“Okay, listen up,” the cadre called out. He was standing in uniform at the front of the spacious classroom where sixty or so newly minted CST members, all-Army alpha females from around the globe, had taken their seats. Many recognized each other from Assessment and Selection and had exchanged hugs and high-fives. Soldiers who didn’t know each other nodded and shook hands in introduction.
Sitting next to the still-open classroom door was Lane, the Guard soldier from Nevada; she could hear the voices of male soldiers passing by on their way to other classrooms down the hall. Having glimpsed the large gathering of female soldiers inside, a few paused to peek into the room for a better look.
“What’s the deal with the bun brigade?” Lane overheard one soldier ask another.
They don’t know the half of it, she thought.
Now the women were quietly sitting at attention, facing an American flag and a gigantic whiteboard. This opening morning at the Special Warfare Center and School marked the first time the entire class had gathered as one. It was also the first time that the best candidates from the active-duty Army, Guard, and Reserves had assembled as an all-female, special operations team to train for war.
But there was one piece of noncombat business on the agenda before the class would begin.
“Before we get under way,” the instructor announced, “I want to congratulate Lieutenant White on her marriage this past weekend.” The soldiers applauded and raucously cheered as Ashley turned red with embarrassment. Only a few days earlier she had stood before more than one hundred of her dearest friends and family in bright red high heels and her beaded white dress, and promised to love Captain Jason Stumpf “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death did they part.” A rollicking party followed the ceremony and lasted well into the early morning hours. Now here she was, “honeymooning” among a bunch of soldiers headed to war. She had dreamed of a Jamaican getaway with her husband, but she and Jason had already postponed the trip once for his deployment to Afghanistan and now a second time for hers. As soon as she returned from war they were headed to the Caribbean, no more delays allowed.
The instructor then got down to business, explaining that this room in Bank Hall would be the CSTs’ home for the next six weeks. Days would begin at 6:30 a.m. in the gym and end at 5 p.m. The first course would focus on “human dynamics,” which included subjects like “cross-cultural communications,” Afghan culture and language, the role of women in Afghanistan’s history, and rural versus urban life. On deck: training in negotiation and mediation, tactical questioning and searching, and mental strategies to help manage combat stress. There would be psychological evaluations, peer evaluations, and a culminating exercise to finish the session. At the end of his introduction the cadre reminded the CSTs, almost as an afterthought, that making it to this point did not mean they were in the program. At any time soldiers could be asked to leave if instructors decided they didn’t measure up.
It’s like the first day of school all over again, Lane thought to herself. But after the last two months of preparation, she was ready for anything. Bring it, she said to herself, opening her notebook.
The instructor then launched into a description of “ARSOF,” the labyrinthine and mysterious world of elite combat troops formally known as Army Special Operations Forces. The women were on the cusp of becoming on-the-ground enablers of some of the boldest, most sophisticated teams in the United States military. At the end of the course, the teacher went on to explain, they would be asked to choose between Special Forces—the Green Berets and their Village Stability Operations—and Ranger Regiment—the direct action raiders. Ultimately the course instructors and the special operations teams would make the final call about their assignments, but part of the CST training process was understanding the difference between the special ops forces and the CSTs’ role in supporting them.
“VSOs,” the cadre said, his voice carrying across the rows of neatly arranged gray desks, “are village-stability operations. They are the centerpiece of our counterinsurgency strategy.” Counterinsurgency (COIN) was the hallmark of General McChrystal’s tenure leading U.S. forces in Afghanistan and it continued to be part of America’s strategy after he left in 2010. While counterinsurgency’s feasibility had been questioned both publicly and in military circles by the summer of 2011, when the CSTs were preparing for their first missions, much of COIN strategy remained in place alongside counterterrorism, or CT, strategy, which called for finding the insurgents where they lived. That, of course, was the place where the CSTs would be headed: into the villages and compounds.
The teacher went on to explain how the VSO missions were designed to promote stability in strategically critical rural areas—often remote and usually hostile—that insurgents had come to dominate. These operations focused on “the center of gravity”: the local population. The Green Berets leading VSO missions lived among Afghans and specialized in understanding the political and security terrain from the ground level in order to strengthen the work of local community leaders. To do this they partnered with village elders to get them the resources needed to deliver cash-for-work projects, agricultural training sessions, and medical services. And they equipped and trained men to form local police teams to protect the village from insurgent attacks. As security, local governance, and stability improved, the counterinsurgency theory went, citizens in a community would be more connected to one another and to their government, and therefore less likely to support the insurgency.
The Green Berets have long been known as “soldier-diplomats,” since much of the work they do requires language skills and a cultural understanding of the war zone in which they fight. But they are also intensively trained in direct action and combat skills, earning them nicknames like “snake eaters” and “bearded bastards.” Most CSTs would end up with these village-stability teams, where their work would consist of meeting and talking with local women in ways that men couldn’t because of the cultural traditions that separate the genders. The female soldiers would help Special Forces to better understand local power and politics dynamics and community needs as they sought to win “hearts and minds.”
But a small number of women would go to the other side of Army special operations and join the 75th Ranger Regiment in its direct action role. Rangers focus exclusively on the “clear” part of the “clear, hold, build” tenets of counterinsurgency—a shorthand first popularized in congressional testimony by then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. They are not responsible for wooing and winning over local leaders; their job is to clear contested areas of men who support the insurgency and threaten a civilian population. The CSTs working with the Rangers would be responsible for building crucial relationships with women on the scene that would reveal the information needed to help capture insurgents. This work would be done inside the homes of Afghan women, and would take place in the midst of night raids aimed at capturing the weapons makers, fighters, organizers, funders, and insurgency leaders with whom the women lived as mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and grandmothers. The idea behind the missions was to weaken the insurgency and give the military’s “hold and build” work—the less “kinetic” aspects of warfare—a chance to succeed by creating the space to win over local populations through strengthening local services and reducing security threats. The men of Ranger Regiment had been deployed continuously since 9/11 and went out every night on these operations, as did other special operators, and over the years such raids had grown increasingly unpopular with both the Afghan government and its people. Even those who favored such raids as a critical tool to root out the most intransigent and dangerous insurgents worried they had the potential to create more terrorists than they eradicated. A major part of the CST role, then, was to be culturally sensitive at this tenuous and highly unpredictable moment, and be assertive and quick-thinking enough to find the information needed in the midst of this most dynamic and unpredictable kind of battle.
Every student was expected to keep a journal and to bring it to class every day to make notes about her responses to course activities, readings, and discussions. The journal would be graded at the end. Trainers provided a recommended reading list of popular titles such as Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn; Kabul in Winter by Ann Jones; Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson; and Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling novel A Thousand Splendid Suns.
Early in the course, the CSTs received training in Pashto, one of Afghanistan’s two native languages (Dari being the other) and the one they would hear most often on their missions. They would of course be relying on interpreters to communicate with Afghan women, but being able to offer up some basic words would be a quick and powerful show of goodwill and respect. So they learned how to say “Salam Alaykum,” the traditional greeting of peace, as well as the Pashto equivalents of “my name is”—zamaa num; “please”—mehrabani; “how are you”—tsenga yast; “thank you”—manana; and “woman”—shedza. An Afghan-American lecturer offered the women a primer on the code of Pashtunwali and a catalog of unacceptable behaviors:
• Do not eat in public during Ramadan.
• Don’t rush or hurry an Afghan.
• Do not laugh loudly in public.
• Don’t wag or point your finger.
As the course went on, one of the students began a collection of favorite quotes in her notebook. One characterized the brand-new CST program itself: “It’s like building an airplane in flight.”
The training program for the female enablers didn’t come anywhere close to the formal preparation of Special Forces or Ranger Regiment men. To become a specialist in special operations and unconventional warfare requires training that is both extreme and extensive: for Green Berets, anywhere from 18 to 36 months and for the Regiment’s elite strike force members, just under a year. After that lengthy preparation and selection process, only around one in four candidates make it through. But the reality was America was fighting a long, costly, and unpopular war in Afghanistan and leaders like Admiral McRaven wanted to find whatever edge, whatever useful tool they could to improve the prospects of that fight. Commanders were impatient for the skills the female soldiers could provide, and they wanted the women out doing their jobs now.
All the CSTs were aware that their training protocol was a work in progress, and they chalked it up to the program’s newness. Aside from the language training and basic cultural education, much of the coursework struck one of the CSTs as “a whole lot of bookwork for people who were headed to war.” Claire Russo, who had played a role in shaping the program from its start, expressed in a memo her own concerns about how the training program favored “culture classes” over ones that taught “hard skills such as tactical questioning, engagement, and basic tactical movements.” Russo knew that culture varies significantly “from village to village, valley to valley and province to province” and she wanted the soldiers to have broad general knowledge. But she wanted them to be trained to defend their lives and protect their teammates, too. “It is critical that the students leave the CST class with the skills sets they need to execute the mission and survive while doing so,” she had written.
But it wasn’t only the Afghan community that the women needed to prepare for; they also had to win the acceptance of the American men they would be serving with. From the beginning, the instructors made clear that the CSTs would be wading into their own, female version of friendly fire when they deployed in August. Many of the male soldiers they supported would want nothing to do with them, the CSTs were warned. The trainers drilled the message home: “They are going to hate you, and you are going to have to be prepared for that.” It wasn’t just that they would have to “sell” their capabilities, as every enabler did, to a corps of battle-tested veterans, some now on their tenth or eleventh deployment in nearly as many years. As a constantly increasing share of responsibility for the fight in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other terrorism hotspots around the globe landed on their shoulders, Special Operations Forces now had within their reach nearly every flavor of weaponry and intel support possible. The dramatic capture one month earlier of Osama bin Laden, carried out by a team of Navy SEALS, had only added to the allure of special operators in the American imagination and the impression that special ops forces could accomplish any mission the conventional military and leaders in Washington tossed their way, no matter how wild the odds. CSTs were only the newest group among many “enablers” that served in a support role for these fighters; there were explosive ordnance disposal specialists, information support operations, weather experts, and communications specialists, to name only a few.
But the CSTs had one big difference: their gender, which rendered them both highly suspect and highly visible. One of the goals of the training course was to prepare the women for the internal hearts-and-minds campaign they would have to wage once they arrived in Afghanistan. The instructors devised a series of role-playing scenarios that would place the women in situations like the ones they could encounter in theater.
In one exercise, they were required to brief a Special Forces leader on the strengths and contributions the CST team brought to his mission. The idea was to get the women comfortable explaining their jobs and help them to develop a strategy for assimilating into their new teams.
“Who wants to volunteer for this one?” the instructor asked.
Amber’s hand shot up.
She walked to the front of the room and held out her hand to the Special Forces soldier playing a reluctant team leader there to test her mettle. He had graying hair and light eyes and looked a few years older than Amber.
“Go ahead,” he said, in his most uninviting tone. Amber took a seat at the small table in the front of the class.
“Given the current political climate in Afghanistan and the desire to respect the Afghan culture, the CST capability can be a real help,” she began. “Right now you aren’t able to access fifty percent of the population and so you can’t get a well-rounded picture when it comes to what’s happening in the community. You’re also not getting some information you might want on the intel side.”
The soldier sat stone-faced. He looked bored.
She inhaled, internally reloaded, and went on. “I know both intel and local knowledge are critical to the Special Forces mission, and we can really help to make a difference there because we can talk to women and children while being respectful of Afghan culture. We can help you learn more about what’s happening on the ground, as well as the challenges local families are facing, and the kinds of services they need most. I also bring language experience from training at Monterey in Farsi, which is close to Dari, so I can act as an interpreter with Dari-speaking populations without taking any of your interpreter resources.”
She waited for a response, but the soldier was unmoved. He let a few uncomfortable moments pass, then asked:
“Why should we give you resources that we need for ourselves? You aren’t bringing anything to the table that we can’t do without you, so why should we support you in this mission?”
Amber knew he was there to test her; that was the entire point of the exercise. She had promised herself she would stay calm no matter the provocation. But nothing she said was connecting, and her role-playing partner gave the impression that he had absolutely no interest in what she had to say, since he knew the world of Special Forces way, way better than she. His attitude was infuriating, and Amber could feel herself growing hotter.
She tried again.
“We are here to support the important work you are doing, and we want to further the mission,” she said. “We think that talking to women and helping you have a window on what they see and do and know will be useful.”
Then, finally, he said: “I’m not sure why you’re here at all. We don’t need this. What I do need is for every one of the precious spots I have on my team to go to people who are mission-critical. This sounds like a lot of work for very little benefit. And besides, we are going to end up having to take care of you. You think you can hang with us? You aren’t even going to be able to keep up out there. We’re going to start marching and you’re going to fall out of formation and then we are going to be the ones who will have to put aside our mission to take care of you.”
Amber felt the anger rising from the pit of her stomach. Keep your cool, she cautioned herself. Do not lose it, you know that is just what they expect you to do.
“How about your fitness level?” he asked, almost taunting her.
“I just ran a marathon six months ago,” she retorted. “I can run a mile in under six minutes. I do CrossFit every day, sometimes twice a day. Fitness is a cornerstone of serving in special operations, and I take that very, very seriously.” She heard her voice rising and fought to rein it in.
“Listen, women are just built differently than men. It’s a simple fact. You’re just going to be a liability out there,” he concluded.
That was it. Amber heard the word liability and it was like a switch flipped in her mind and unleashed a volcano of frustration she could no longer contain. Ever since she started in the Army more than a decade earlier men had thrown that word around in connection to female soldiers, regardless of how competent and fit the women actually were. Like many of her female colleagues, she had come to loathe these assumptions. But for Amber, it went beyond simple resentment.
As a nineteen-year-old private first class working as an intel analyst in Bosnia, she tried on numerous occasions to persuade the special ops guys to take her with them on missions to capture men indicted for war crimes. “I’ll bring along an interpreter,” she would say, “and we can talk to the women and help you find your guys.” In essence, Amber had tried then to improvise her own version of a Cultural Support Team years before they were officially created. The soldiers, mature and intelligent men who were well into their thirties, received her entreaties patiently, but explained that she “would just be a liability” to their work. And Amber knew what they meant. It was nothing personal; the truth was that she simply wasn’t strong enough to be out there. It was a wake-up call for her, and those words—“you’ll just be a liability”—became her motivator. Ever since that tour she had devoted herself to becoming stronger, faster, and tougher than most men her size and age. She knew she had to be better than they were to be taken seriously, and she had spent the past ten years hardening her body and her mind so she would be ready for whatever challenge she could find that would take her out into the fight.
To have done all that and still be told she was a liability in this brand-new program was too much. Her frustration boiled over.
“You don’t know me,” she answered, quietly at first but her voice was rising. “You don’t know what I am physically capable of.”
For a fraction of a second she considered stopping there and shutting up before she really got herself into trouble, but Amber hurtled on. “I guarantee you that I can outscore you on a PT test.”
Now she was leaning forward in her chair, getting in his face. “I guarantee that unless you run an eleven-minute two-mile, I can run faster than you. And I can guarantee that unless you can do one hundred push-ups in two minutes, I can do more push-ups than you.”
The soldier stared back. The CST was doing exactly what he had expected.
“And: I bet I can do more sit-ups than you,” Amber added.
Kate, watching from a few rows back, froze in her seat. She had the impression of watching a car smashing into a brick wall right before her very eyes, but in slow motion. Part of her felt that Amber should just pipe down, but another part was thankful and relieved that someone, finally, had decided to stop taking all that shit. She had grown tired of apologizing for the fact that she was a fit, battle-hungry patriot who wanted to serve her country, gender be damned. And right now, standing in front of the whole class, Amber was speaking for all of them. It may not have been an elegant performance, but it sure as hell was satisfying.
All the usual side conversations had stopped. The room was silent. For a half second Kate wondered if the Green Beret would accept the challenge and beat Amber into the ground with his fist.
“No, no, no, there is no way you can do that many push-ups. You girls don’t even have to do that many in the girl version of the PT test,” he said. “Come on. Be real.”
“Oh yes, I can,” Amber volleyed. “We can leave right now for a PT test. Let’s do it.”
She stood up and pushed her chair away from the small table, its legs scraping against the tile floor. She knew she was doing just what she shouldn’t, but she couldn’t stop. If someone is taunting you, telling you that you can’t do something, and you know that you can, how can you just sit there and spew words, when you could let your actions prove you correct?
She stared at him, then pointed to the floor.
“Let’s go, right now. Let’s do push-ups here.” Amber called out to the class, “Somebody get me a stopwatch, we are going to do push-ups.”
The Green Beret stared back in disbelief.
“That is totally ridiculous, I am not doing push-ups right here in the middle of the class. You are way out of line, soldier.”
“All right,” Amber spat back. “But let’s just be clear that that was you saying no.”
The Green Beret offered nothing further beyond a searing look of disgust, and finally the instructors intervened.
“Well, okay,” one of the female cadre announced in a softer tone than had been heard for the past ten minutes. “Why don’t you go ahead and sit down.”
The moment stretched on in all its awkward stillness as Amber made her way back to her seat.
“Do I have another volunteer?” the teacher asked.
As Amber sat quietly, sulking in anger and embarrassment, Lane passed her a note.
“Way to go,” it said. “That was for all of us.”
The sentiment wasn’t universally shared, of course. Sarah, the MP who had served in Europe and abandoned her dreams of becoming an Army doctor so she could get closer to battle, understood Amber’s frustrations but felt she should have been more tactful. Humility and tact, not tough-guy tactics, would win the day; going in aggressive with these guys would only alienate them further.
Even if some may have disagreed with Amber’s tactics, they all knew what it was like to drown in frustration when other people place limits on you. In fact, the desire to bust through those limits was the reason most of them showed up for Assessment and Selection in the first place.
Later, during a water break on the firing range, where the women had been practicing on their Beretta M9s, a few of Amber’s teammates and the trainers searched out a spot of shade from the North Carolina summer sun. Just then an older woman whom they had met earlier in the course approached the cluster of sweaty CSTs.
“I just want you girls to know how proud of you we are,” the woman said. “In my opinion you deserve a Green Beret and you are going to be the first girls to get one.”
Amber was too mortified to even look at her trainers. “This is why they don’t want women here. These guys spend years getting trained to become Green Berets, they test themselves physically, mentally, and every place in between, and someone thinks that a couple weeks of training is any kind of equivalent—that we deserve anything close to the accolades that these guys get? We are no better than fresh-off-the-boat privates right now. No way in hell we are even close to what they do.”
And that was the rub. Amber wanted to see special operations open to women and she believed they all should have a shot at going to Ranger School but only if there were no shortcuts, no dumbing down of any of the requirements, the same standards for everyone. And everyone would have the chance to meet them.
The month of accelerated training wore on, and by early July, four weeks into the class, it was getting close to decision time. The choice was essentially between the patient, persistent, creative work of building relationships—the Special Forces village-stability side—versus the aggressive, fast-paced, physically intense, and potentially far more dangerous task of being there when doors burst open—the Ranger Regiment side.
By this time, most everyone instinctively knew which “side of the house” she wanted. Most leaned toward Special Forces, but not all.
The more aggressive, outspoken personalities like Cassie felt they belonged with Ranger Regiment. She knew she would be inspired, not cowed, by these soldiers and was confident she would be able to hold her own with them in the field. Ever since the now-infamous role-playing exchange everyone assumed—correctly—that Amber wanted to go in that direction as well. Lane, too, was intrigued by the direct action side.
They all knew the Rangers tended to be a lot younger than the Green Berets and, consequently, sometimes less mature. The Rangers also had a strong identity; the roughly three thousand men of the 75th Ranger Regiment all wore a tan beret. The women would have to show they could fit in among these guys who lived for war. Fitness also was key. The Rangers marched toward their targets with anywhere from fifty to seventy pounds of gear on their backs usually in the dead of night, for miles on end and often on truly treacherous terrain. A serious misstep or the failure to keep up could quite literally cost a life—their own or, even worse in their own minds, a fellow soldier’s. The only women the Rangers were willing to consider taking out with them were soldiers who tested off the charts in fitness levels and showed that they could keep pace and stay in formation. They also needed women who were aggressive enough to want to go on night raids, but likable enough to connect with Afghan women and children during some of the most difficult moments of their lives. And they had to be mature enough to understand that while they were there to help, their mission was not to run an election or open a women’s center. Their job was to be the softer side of the hardest side of war.
Toward the end of the course, representatives from both mission sets came to brief the CSTs. The Ranger Regiment representative played a slick video shot in night-vision-goggle green that illustrated the direct action raids that were their specialty. “We are looking for the most outstanding soldiers,” the sergeant major announced, “and we want you guys to come and work with us. We need the best people we can get.” He was a stocky guy, brimming with energy. Standing at the front of the class he began to outline the traits they were seeking. “We’re really excited to have you join this mission,” he said, “because you can go places we can’t and talk to people we can’t. You are going to contribute a huge amount, and we need you to get the job done. And rest assured, if you belong with us, we will find you.”
Sitting at a desk a few rows in front of the Ranger leader, Tristan couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Oh my God, we are being recruited, she thought to herself. The burly Ranger was making Amber’s argument that they actually did bring something to the mission, with a high-tech, multimedia assist to show them the intensity—and the adrenaline rush—of the fight they would be joining.
Tristan knew she belonged with the ass-kicking Rangers. Months earlier she had turned down a job training women at her base in Fort Sill because she saw no reason why she would be any better at it than a man. She was not a female soldier; she was a soldier who happened to be female, and all she wanted to do was go to work in a job—and in a place—that mattered to the mission. And that was not training women; it was with the Rangers tracking down insurgents in the hills of Afghanistan.
Her fellow West Pointer Kate’s heart pounded throughout the recruiting pitch because she knew deep inside that that badass video was all her. Kate loved tactics, she loved fighting, and she wanted to wear her kit and get terrorists. She had even dreamed that evening in night-vision green about using her small frame to the Rangers’ advantage by tunneling onto a target to get a bad guy.
Kimberly, the MP, had only one thought after watching that video.
I want to do this now. She, along with a handful of the others, was hooked.
Finally the day arrived when they learned their assignment, and there were few surprises. Among those who made the cut for the Rangers: Leda Reston, Tristan Marsden, Sarah Walden, Amber Treadmont, Kate Raimann, Lane Mason, Anne Jeremy, Kimberly Blake, and Ashley White.
When Ashley heard her name followed by the words “Ranger Regiment” she first felt surprised, then a strong sense of satisfaction, then trepidation. She had wanted this challenge, had even confided to her teammate Kristen that she hoped she would get the assignment, though she still had her concerns about her ability to fit in. Within minutes of the announcement the new team—the first-ever all-Army group of women to officially be joining Ranger Regiment on missions and in combat every night as enablers—made their way to a picnic table outside Bank Hall to discuss the details of their pre-mission training with Leda, their new officer in charge. From the original group of sixty, they were now just twenty. “The alphas of the alphas,” someone joked.
There was one more challenge that Ashley faced after the past two months of Assessment and Selection and training, and she dreaded it. She had to share the news with Jason.
By the time Ashley arrived home, Jason was already in the living room waiting for her. He had received her text about Ranger Regiment, but when she walked through the door with a fellow CST and announced that a group of them assigned to Regiment would be heading over to Mash House for dinner, he knew that the longer discussion would have to wait. Her elation made it easy for him to hold his questions—for now. She was so happy and excited; he was left torn between feeling extreme pride in his ass-kicking wife and intense worry about what she was getting herself into.
At dinner that night Jason was again the only man, this time seated at a long table filled with more than a dozen buff female soldiers. Sitting at one end of the table next to Ashley, he found himself watching her intently. Something was different, and despite his anxieties about the reasons behind the dinner, he was feeling a deep sense of pride. Here she was, his typically reserved and quiet wife, with a group of women she hadn’t even known two months earlier, and she was in the thick of the conversation, interjecting during other women’s stories and cracking jokes with the other girls. He was surprised by how comfortable she was with her new teammates. And how popular. He heard stories from many of them about Ashley’s performance over the past few months: how she had tried to help the other girls to learn to fast-rope in the gym, how her PT scores had impressed the trainers, who had rarely seen a woman score so high on the men’s scale. And it wasn’t just her physical prowess that inspired them; it was also her generosity. Girls told stories about her cookies and sandwiches, her loans of shoes and socks that Ashley brought for them without their ever having to ask. He realized that this CST thing was turning out to be a kind of sisterhood. It was something he never imagined women could have in the military, let alone a kinship his own wife would be part of.
Finally the couple found themselves alone, heading home in Jason’s Chevy pickup, and the topic they had shoved to the sidelines came roaring back.
“So how are you feeling about it all?” Ashley asked.
Jason hesitated, chose his words carefully, and calibrated his tone in an effort to disguise his real feelings.
“I don’t know, Ash, those guys are heavy hitters. I love those Rangers, and I truly admire what they do. You know I wanted to go to Ranger School. But it is guns-up for them. They are not hired to go give out hugs and be ‘culturally sensitive.’ Those guys are animals once they’re in the field. That is what they’re trained to do.”
“I know,” Ashley replied, “but these guys have a plan for us; they really want us there and they think we can make a difference.”
The more she spoke, the more certain he was that she didn’t fully understand what she was getting into. Jason felt his anxiety rising. By now they were home and had climbed out of the truck, but they got no farther than the entryway to the living room before the conversation turned hot and angry.
“Ash, these guys go looking for fights,” Jason said. “That is what they do for a living. Do you understand? That’s their job. Their body count is high—when I was in Afghanistan I saw their flag go to half-staff all the time because their guys were getting killed. You don’t need to be there for that.”
He was now pacing around the room. “What happened to the humanitarian stuff? When did you decide this direct action stuff was what you wanted to do? It just doesn’t feel right.”
Now it was her turn to give in to the anger.
“You are the one who always told me I can do anything,” she said. “Is that only if it was a job you approved of? Why would you, of all people, want to hold me back now?
“I had just finished school when you deployed. I never told you not to go to Afghanistan even though I sat, by myself here, in this house, for a year and I never complained to you. Now when I want to do my duty and get my deployment done you say, it’s too dangerous?
“You’re just being selfish, Jason,” she said. She wasn’t quite shouting, but her voice had grown louder—and more filled with hurt. “And you know it.”
Jason fought the urge to throw his fist into the living room wall. He felt even worse when he saw Ashley’s tears start to fall.
She ran past her collection of Minnie Mouses and into the bedroom, then slammed the door behind her.
There, alone on the couch, he tried to calm himself. He watched the clock as the hours ticked by and the night passed. Never before, during all the years of their courtship or in their short and very happy marriage, had they slept in separate rooms.
As soon as the sun began to rise he called his father back home in Pittsburgh. He didn’t give him all the details, but explained that Ashley wanted to deploy on some kind of special mission that made him exceedingly nervous. Jason’s dad, who ran the family’s grocery business, had always been his role model. His father was going through a difficult time, too, having started divorce proceedings from Jason’s mother. This hadn’t surprised Jason—their marriage had been a challenge for some time—but it did sadden him, and lately he had been thinking a great deal about lasting love and how to keep it.
“Jason, this is something you really don’t want to do,” Ralph Stumpf finally replied. “You don’t want to hold your spouse back. Trust me on this. If you do that, if you hold someone back, they will eventually end up carrying a grudge. Let Ashley be what and who she is, and support her, the way she has supported you, even in those times when she was afraid that something would happen to you when you were off in Afghanistan.
“Look,” he continued, “I’ve never experienced war, you know a lot more about it than I do, but in fifty years, do you want Ashley to look back at your kids and your grandkids and feel like she missed out on one of the most important opportunities she could have had because you didn’t want her to go? Do you really want to take the risk that she might feel this sense of regret, wondering what things would have been like if she had had that experience? Everyone says ‘no regrets,’ but everyone has them, and if she gives this up for you, she will always look back on her life and there will always be something missing. And this program is always going to be the ‘if only.’”
“Listen, Dad,” Jason said, knowing he couldn’t dispute the soundness of his father’s argument and the deep personal experience it came from. But he was not yet ready to give in. “Here is the ‘if.’ If she doesn’t do this program, she is still here. We start a family. We move forward with our lives.”
“Come on, Jason,” his dad answered. “You guys love each other so much—it’s obvious. You all will have decades together and the children and the grandchildren will come. You’ll have a happy wife and a happy life, as the saying goes. You’ll see; it all will come in time.”
Jason hung up the phone, put on his running clothes, and jogged out the front door and down the road. Even then he knew, in his heart, that she had to go, whether or not he wanted her to and even if he was right about it.
When he returned, she was still in the bedroom with the door closed. “Ash,” he said, walking into the room, “look, I’m sorry, I know I was being selfish. I won’t make you choose, it’s just that . . .”
She interrupted him.
“Listen,” she said, sitting up in the bed and looking like she hadn’t slept, either. “I know you know a lot more about all of this than I do. I know you shot artillery for these guys and you know them and you know what they do. And if you want me to stop the program I will go in on Monday and tell them I’m out. That’s it. I’ll never bring it up again. I promise. I love you and respect you that much.”
“No.” Jason shook his head. “I thought about it all night and talked it through with my dad this morning. It’s not about what I think. You want to work with those guys, that is who you are. You earned this chance. And I know if it were me going to work with Ranger Regiment you’d back me. I don’t like it, you know that, but you have my unconditional support.”
Ashley offered him her sideways smile.
“Just promise me you’ll be careful, and you won’t try to be a hero. That you won’t take any more risks than you have to.”
“I promise,” she said. “I promise.”
He prayed she would be able to keep that vow.