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

I

The Call to Serve

7

Diamonds Among Diamonds

* * *

Okay, soldiers, quit screwing around,” Sergeant Scottie Marks bellowed. The twenty CSTs who had made the cut for Ranger Regiment were milling around classroom tables at a training facility sometimes used by the special operations command.

“Take your seats and hurry up!”

He flipped a switch and a screen rolled down from the ceiling. The room went quiet and on came a grainy video. Figures were moving across a dark field shrouded in the green haze of night-vision goggles. A group of Rangers were in the middle of a mission to capture an insurgent in an Afghan village. “This is what you will be doing,” he told the women. “Night after night. And this is what the next eight days are about: preparing you for those missions.”

The CSTs sat riveted as Marks talked about training their minds for the demands of the war they were about to join. All the while, he chewed on a hunk of tobacco lodged inside his left cheek. “Combat is the highest-stakes game on the face of the planet because in the end you either have winners or you have dead people,” he said. “I don’t want to die, and I know you don’t, either. I want to be the killingest winner in the whole world. And you should, too.”

It was the opening speech of Rangers’ pre-mission training week—PMT for short—and no one moved an inch in her seat. It was so quiet, Lane thought her classmates might be able to hear the sound of her own breathing. She wondered if Tristan or Ashley was as frightened as she was. She stole a look a few seats over at Amber and was only mildly surprised that her gung-ho teammate looked happier and more fully engaged than she had in weeks.

Marks, a sandy-brown-haired veteran of more than twelve Ranger deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, continued.

“You are CSTs and you have a very particular job to do on the battlefield. You have to deescalate whatever situation you are drawn into, and engage with the women and children.” He was now moving through the room, Oprah-style, using his own considerable physical presence to drive home the urgency of his words and shake them out of their comfort zones.

“But we are not at war to pass out blankets and hugs. I need you to find out where the bad guys are, as quick as you can. It’s my job to prepare you to sit within eighteen inches of a possible enemy every single night and do your job and stay alive. That means you need to be ready to pick up your gun and use it properly. You have to be prepared to pull the trigger and kill someone without hesitation. And you have to be ready to pick up a fellow soldier who has been shot or blown up while you are still taking fire and get him out of there.”

He was speaking at a pace that sounded like a tape recorder playing at one and a half times its normal speed.

“War is chaos. That means you might be alone in a room with twenty women, one of whom is actually a heavily armed man in disguise. Nine times out of ten you will have other soldiers around you, pulling security. But there is a one percent chance you are going to be in that room by yourself. And you must be ready to react if that male belligerent tries to overpower you. You better be able, in that instant, to pull out your gun and shoot someone in the face without thinking about it.

“At the end of the day, our world lives and dies by a gun,” he said. “That is the bottom line. Your job is not to be a Ranger and you are not a part of the Ranger assault team. You are not there to be a gunfighter. But we are going to put you in situations where you will have to flip that switch from ‘CST’ to killer in a heartbeat. No matter how nice and quiet and even safe the moment feels,” he continued, “you are always in the middle of a fight. Any minute the world is going to turn to shit, and you have got to keep that in the forefront of your brain. You must maintain a security mindset at all times, day and night. That is also a part of the job.”

As he paced and talked, Marks fixed his gaze on the eyes of his students. He was surprised, even inspired, by what he saw. He had given some variation of this speech on “combat mindset” hundreds of times as a Ranger trainer, but never before had he seen every single one of his students scoot to the edge of their chairs and stare at him so intensely, as if every muscle in their bodies was participating in the listening. He could feel the intensity of their attention; they gave the impression of being desert wanderers who had finally found water. These chicks give a shit, he marveled, as he scanned their eager faces. Now Scottie felt the burden of his task, as he realized he had just a little more than a week—a fraction of the time he normally had with his Ranger trainees—to get this group 100 percent ready for the community they were about to join.

“You will be going out at night with guys who have spent a good portion of their lives in war,” he reminded them. “They know they are the best, and they know how important they are. If Rangers have been deployed to a combat theater, things are bad. If Rangers are in your living room, that means things are really fucking bad. And in case you hadn’t noticed, we are not known for being the most subtle people in the world. We tend to tell you exactly what the fuck we are thinking about and we don’t give a shit who you are, we are going to speak our mind. We also are not used to failure. We are used to working hard enough to be the very best at what we do. Period.

“My job is to prepare you to succeed. To have the mental armor that is required to do the job your country has asked you to do with the resilience you will need to get through the next eight months. You have got to find that switch that lets you know that you are at war. And then you’re gonna have to flip it back the other way when your time on the battlefield is over.”

Marks softened his tone slightly for the last part of his speech.

“You guys—each of you here in this room—are important to us. You are not some anonymous soldier. Look at the caliber of the CST sitting next to you, and then look around this room”—he gestured to the other Ranger trainers who were lined up against the wall. “You have got the best in Regiment standing in front of you. You were selected to go with Ranger Regiment because you are the best of the best. And all of us are excited to get you ready to go to war.”

After weeks of being prepared for rejection and resentment from their fellow soldiers, not a woman in the room failed to notice that the tide was shifting. Holy shit, Lane thought, these guys are actually on our side.

Scottie Marks had seen plenty of combat before he left the battlefield and assumed the responsibility of helping train future Rangers for war.

As a young Army private first class he parachuted into Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. He was among the last to leave the country seven years later, in the wake of Operation New Dawn, as a decorated sergeant first class. His baptism by fire had been the endlessly lethal, block-by-block fight for Fallujah in 2003 and 2004. Marks had seen every phase of the war and every shift in battlefield strategy during his nine deployments to Iraq, from the very chaotic start to the extremely controlled end. Working under General McChrystal for many of his years in Iraq, he and his buddies experienced firsthand how the occasional raids had become, under the new counterterror mandate, their normal nightly routine.

Soldiering was in Scottie’s DNA; he decided to become a Marine at the age of six. He grew up in the yawning prairies of Katy, Texas, riding bikes and playing with guns. Wherever he went, trouble found him, and Scottie relished its irresistible charms. As a teenager, he would drink beer before school. Later he switched to Gentleman Jack, the favored drink of his grandpa, a self-described hard-ass who let it be known to Scottie that real men only drink whiskey. At night, young Scottie would camp out in his room watching Night Court and dipping Copenhagen snuff. He came from tough stock: his great-grandma was a chain-smoking old Cajun who, when her cigarette ash got too long, simply tapped the butt, let the ash fall, and then rubbed it into the carpet with her slippered foot.

His mother had Scottie when she was barely out of her teens. His father left when Scottie was a toddler. His mom hated guns and refused to let them in her house, a fact that only strengthened the boy’s love for the forbidden weapons. One afternoon when he was twelve Scottie “borrowed” his dad’s old pistol and took it out to the bayou behind his house. It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with firearms. A year later, he and a buddy stole their friend’s brother’s gun and went down to a culvert to do some shooting. It was great fun, but what the boys didn’t realize was that the cool, hissing sound coming from the weapon was actually the sound of a round coming back at them. Scottie got hit in his arm with a fragment of either a rock or a bullet—he never found out for sure—and started bleeding something fierce. Fear of his mother’s wrath outweighed the pain he felt, so, instead of confessing his mischief and getting her help, he made his friend stick a spoon over an open flame and seal up his wound with the metal as it melted. His mother was never the wiser.

Scottie’s role models were all Marines and war heroes. His grandfather, a veteran of the brutal campaign of Guadalcanal, led his fellow Marines both in World War II and Korea. He finished his career as a command sergeant major at Camp Lejeune. Scottie’s uncle ran reconnaissance missions in Vietnam—a forerunner to the more elaborate raids that Special Operations Forces now undertake on a regular basis. For Scottie it was never a question that he would follow in their footsteps and join the Marine Corps.

But then a movie put him on a different course. In 1993 Scottie went to see the action film Sniper, in which a highly skilled master gunnery sergeant played by Tom Berenger saves the day with a perfect shot from his M4 sniper rifle. A new dream came into focus. When he was nearly old enough to enlist, he shared his plans with a close family friend, an Army soldier who was a member of Ranger Regiment. “They don’t have any of that in the Marines,” the older man told Scottie. “You want to be a sniper recon guy? That’s not going to happen with the Jarheads. What you want to do is to become a Ranger.” Then he pointed Scottie to the book To Fight with Intrepidity, which chronicles the complete history of the U.S. Army Rangers, beginning in 1622, when Rangers patrolled American settlements and offered early warnings on incoming raids, to World War II and the heroic exploits of Merrill’s Marauders and Darby’s Rangers, modeled after British commandos. Scottie was hooked.

He signed up for the Army on February 21, 2001. Seven months later, on September 11, he was at Ranger training when he and the rest of the world learned that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In rapid succession, the United States launched not one but two wars, first in Afghanistan and sixteen months later in Iraq, and on both fronts it was the Rangers who led the way. The battlefield had dramatically changed since the first Gulf War a decade earlier, and the demands on special operations doubled, then tripled, and then continued to climb exponentially. Scottie headed to Afghanistan in 2002 and soon found himself living in a war cycle: several months in battle, a few months at home for more training, then back to war. He was indeed serving “at the tip of the spear,” as he had always dreamed.

By 2006 General McChrystal’s shift to time-sensitive targeting of high-value insurgents—what McChrystal called “F3EA,” or “find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze”—had changed everything for Ranger Regiment, which now focused almost exclusively on executing these raids. As a team leader Scottie Marks learned to move swiftly, without much advance preparation, in the fight to target and capture. During his early deployments his unit had had plenty of time to refine operations; they were able to devote a lot of men and a lot of planning to a single raid. All that changed when Iraq’s insurgency exploded into a deadly efficient killing machine.

By the time McChrystal and his men redesigned the joint special operations team, team leaders like Marks no longer had the luxury of two or three days to assemble an operation and hit a target. Now they had fifteen minutes to create a plan. Each night the platoon sergeant asked Scottie’s team to design that evening’s operations—sometimes it was one mission, other times it was a whole series of them—and it was his job to deliver. As the years went on, Scottie Marks came to feel far more at home on his narrow cot at General McChrystal’s special operations headquarters in Balad, Iraq, than he did in his king-size bed at his house near Fort Benning. He missed the war when he was away; it was his one and true home.

But one night in 2010, Marks and his team were engaged in a firefight with insurgents as they made their way to a building they needed to secure for another special operations team. As Scottie barreled out of the vehicle, ducking to avoid bullets that were hissing by him, he blew out his right knee and was forced to limp, with the help of a teammate, to the position at the rear of the building he had planned to guard. He made it through the night’s mission, which was a success—his team located and captured the men who shot at them—but shortly thereafter Marks was evacuated to Kuwait, where he underwent surgery to realign his knee. The surgery too was a success, but Scottie’s days of fast-roping out of helicopters, busting down doors, and jumping out of airplanes were officially over. His new assignment was to remain at Fort Benning and use the considerable knowledge and expertise he had learned on the ground to train the next generation of Rangers. While some of his fellow trainers complained about the assignment, Scottie found it hugely rewarding. His body may have had enough of combat after nearly forty-eight months in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, but his mind and his heart would never give up. Now he could be a gatekeeper for the Regiment, picking the new guys and training them to be superior soldiers. It was the next best thing to being a team leader in battle.

Scottie discovered that he had a knack for uncovering talent, and found that he loved wringing the best out of the hungry young men he taught. And he never lost his passion to be the best sharpshooter in the Army; when he wasn’t teaching, he kept training himself to be as good a shot as Berenger in Sniper. He entered and won a slew of shooting competitions for active-duty special operations guys. Eventually Scottie got his dream teaching assignment: running the newly revamped marksmanship training program for Ranger Assessment and Selection. In preparation for his work, he and another Ranger traveled the country to find and learn from the best marksmanship teachers in America, and then they returned to Fort Benning to use that knowledge to develop new training tools and lessons that would meet the demands of the ever-changing battlefield. Scottie had thoroughly enjoyed the process of learning about the art of shooting and the pedagogy behind it. Soon he was nearly as proud that he could teach an eighteen-year-old Army private to be a highly skilled Ranger as he was of his own time at war.

And so, when it came time to train female soldiers to become Ranger enablers, it was no surprise that one of the first names to surface at Ranger Regiment’s headquarters was Scottie Marks. What his bosses didn’t know was that Marks had actually seen the need for a program like the CSTs when he was facing down al-Qaeda in Iraq. In his first few years as a Ranger, he and his fellow soldiers had little daily contact with women in the military. But once in Iraq, Marks often found himself thinking that his job would be a lot easier if he could call on female soldiers who could talk to and search women and gather actionable intelligence. In 2003 his unit lost three guys to a pregnant suicide bomber, and by 2006 as a weapons squad leader he had to do a lot of the questioning of Iraqi women whom his team encountered on raids. He knew the frightened Iraqi women were all the more terrified by his presence in their homes, and he kept thinking how much better for everyone it would be if women were doing the questioning instead.

Weeks before the first group of CSTs were ready for training, Marks was instructing Ranger trainees as head of marksmanship for RASP, the highly respected Ranger Assessment and Selection Program. And then one morning his commander informed him he would be spending the next couple of weeks organizing some new program for female soldiers who were headed to Afghanistan with a team of Rangers they would be enabling. When Scottie asked what he was supposed to prepare them for, the response was as broad as it was practical: “They need to be able to do what anybody else can.”

He didn’t, of course, get to Fort Bragg without some hazing from his buddies. “You’re gonna have to train girls?” they asked him. “Seriously, dude? That sucks.” But Marks wasn’t thinking about the gender issue; he had worked with a whole slew of “enablers” in the course of his ten years and dozen-plus Ranger deployments—EOD guys, who hunted for and disabled explosives, and tactical psychological operations types—and he figured these girls couldn’t be that much different. They had made it this far; how bad could they be?

Now, a couple of months later, Scottie was at Bragg preparing this first all-Army team of female enablers in a course that he and a few teammates had designed. It was to be a week of surprises for the veteran trainer and his colleagues. The first sign that things were different was the killer focus the women brought to the classroom for Scottie’s opening “combat mindset” talk. These women didn’t play around; they didn’t fidget or elbow each other. They just looked damned happy to be there and 100 percent ready to go.

But then came the PT test. Scottie had seen their scores going in and knew they were strong; in fact, that was a huge factor influencing their selection to the Ranger side of the program. He set the distance for the first running test at two miles, and within moments of completing her run one of the CSTs was in his face. “Sergeant, this course isn’t two miles,” she threw at him. “I know what my two-mile run time is. It is not twelve twenty-five, it is twelve thirty.”

“You want to put your kit back on and do it again?” he retorted. He sounded irritated, but in fact he was filled with respect for the soldier. These girls are intense, he thought. They reminded him of the men they were about to join. Scottie went and measured the distance of his course and in fact the soldier had been right: it was off by a whopping ten feet. She never put her kit back on, but she had proven her point just fine. The CSTs wanted no easy outs or cut corners—even if it was a matter of a few seconds.

By the end of the third day of training Scottie Marks was a CST believer. “These girls are the best I have ever seen in my life,” he told one of his colleagues. “They are going to be our moneymakers—they’ll prove this program. They’re smart and fast and can do things that no other women can do.” He thought about the outrageous myths troops routinely repeated about African-American soldiers before President Truman’s 1948 executive order ending segregation in the armed services, including that they were cowards and lousy fighters. Fifty years of war had proven to the American public the heroic mettle of these soldiers, and Scottie Marks found himself guessing that someday, the same thing would be said about these pioneering women.

After the running test, the CSTs faced a brutal CrossFit workout in full gear—forty-plus pounds of weight—and Scottie watched as they attacked the chin-up bar. Then the trainers decided to test the women’s limits a bit more, and moved the group to a twenty-five-foot rope that was dangling from a rafter in the gym. “Now,” Scottie announced, “this is a warm-up for fast-roping that will come later. Saddle up and get in line.”

“I don’t think a lot of you will be able to do this,” one of the trainers commented. “But let’s give it a try.” He demonstrated the technique, calling attention as he climbed to the coordinated movement of his arms and legs and the way they worked in concert. Then he nimbly descended the thick, braided rope, using the same technique but now in reverse. It looked simple enough.

Now it was the CSTs’ turn.

The first girl, a fit soldier who had always prided herself on her strength, started up the rope but fell quickly back to the floor after making it less than a third of the way up. She shook her head as she landed. “Shit,” she muttered, then stepped away as the next girl grabbed the rope and began climbing. She made it to the halfway point, but ran out of strength, too, and dropped to the ground. The third soldier, long and lean, but with less upper-body strength, started her climb strong but then stopped as her arms refused to carry her further and her inner thigh muscles buckled. Weighed down with so much gear, she dangled on the rope for a moment or two, then finally peeled off. And then it was Ashley White’s turn.

Marks expected little from the one he dubbed the “megatron quiet blonde,” or as one teacher whispered, “sweet enough to be a Disneyland greeter.” The cherubic young Ohioan with the American-as-apple-pie cheeks stepped up to the rope without saying a word and slowly, and with great focus, began climbing. Up, up, up she went. She reached the top of the rope, touched the ceiling, then scampered back down. Most astounding: she did it all using only her arms. She reached the bottom and then repeated the climb up, touch, and descent. Then, for good measure, she did it a third time. Returning to the floor beneath the rope she wiped the sweat from her hands onto the pant legs of her uniform and nonchalantly returned to her place in line.

Holy fuck, Scottie thought to himself. His Ranger buddies were looking on with a mix of awe at Ashley’s talents and amusement at Scottie’s reaction.

Ashley saw the startled reactions from her instructors and teammates, and suddenly felt self-conscious. “I couldn’t figure out how to use my legs,” Ashley explained, referring to her improvisational style. “Easier just to use my arms.” She shook her legs out as she spoke to relieve the muscle cramping, and looked down at her white ASICS tennis shoes.

“Well, well, well, White, shocking us all,” Marks commented, then faced the CSTs who hadn’t yet attempted the climb. “But listen up, everyone: you should use your legs, otherwise you’re going to get tired out there when you’re fast-roping. Don’t try White’s technique at home! Who’s up next? Okay, let’s go.”

For a moment the others just stood there, speechless, then Tristan stepped toward the rope and the exercise continued. Amber, Ashley’s PMT roommate, came up and patted her on the back. “Man, Ash, I didn’t know you could do that,” she said. “If I could climb like that I’d be telling everybody!”

The one person who wasn’t surprised by Ashley’s display of strength was Leda, who had been quietly monitoring Ashley’s progress since March. All along she knew that this was a young soldier with special talent that had yet to be fully tapped. She was glad to see that the other CSTs were impressed by Ashley’s prowess and observed that Ashley’s confidence was surging. Finally, it seemed, Ashley was realizing that she did indeed deserve her spot in this nest of high achievers.

Leda herself fared less well in the fast-rope two days later, when the trainers led the women onto a testing ground that more closely resembled real-world conditions. Wearing body armor, she stepped onto the sixty-foot-high platform—roughly equivalent to the top floor of a several-story building—and prepared to descend. But for an instant adrenaline got the best of the veteran soldier and instead of grabbing the rope and sliding steadily downward as she had in previous trainings, she jumped off and barely caught the rope in her hands as she flew down its length, smacking hard onto the ground below. Marks raced over, saw bones in her leg jutting out at a decidedly unnatural angle, and thought to himself, Broken, for sure. But years of war had made the urgent situation his natural habitat, and he never shed his combat mindset.

“Looks like you’re fine, Leda,” he said reassuringly, as the medic who had been standing by ran toward them.

Leda, looking pale, tried to assess the situation.

“Don’t look at your leg, Reston,” Scottie commanded in a gentle but forceful tone. “Tell me what you had for lunch.”

“Chicken,” she immediately answered in a calm voice, but through clenched teeth. “I’m really sorry about this, Sergeant. I’ll be fine.” She, too, had been to war and knew how crucial it was to steady her nerves and keep her composure, no matter how dire the situation.

The medics carried Leda off and Scottie turned back to the rope. “Okay, next one up!” he shouted to Lane, who was standing on the platform awaiting her turn. Without hesitating she grabbed the rope and stepped off, but halfway down she peeled off the rope. This time Marks was ready; he saw her hands begin to slide, and swooped in to catch her just before she hit the ground. What the hell is going on here? he thought to himself. Next came Tristan, who made it almost the whole way, but ten feet from the bottom she too fell off the rope. She suffered a minor concussion but was back on her feet within a few minutes.

Finally they finished with the fast-roping, which had been as stressful for Scottie as it had been for the soldiers. Over dinner in the dining hall that night, he confessed his anxiety to a group of CSTs, including Tristan, Sarah, and Kate. “I’ve done over twelve combat deployments, and I have never been more scared than when I tried to teach you guys to fast-rope. My balls were in my throat the whole time!”

Sarah whispered to Kate, “Now they’re going to say, ‘See, girls can’t do this.’ I just hope they realize that all we need is more training, at least more than a day. This is just the first time some of us ever got to try it. So what if a few people got hurt? I know guys get hurt doing this all the time. No one ever says that means all men can’t fast-rope.”

In fact, it was only a few months earlier, on the bus to Fort Benning when they watched Black Hawk Down, that the CSTs had been reminded how deadly fast-roping can be. A Ranger goes to fast-rope out of a helicopter that is facing rocket-propelled grenade fire, slips, and falls to the ground below, leaving him bleeding in the middle of streets full of hostile fire. The accident was the first in a string of calamities that plagued American forces on a tragic day that ended with eighteen soldiers killed in action.

The next day began with a few hours of “dry fire”—shooting guns without ammunition—and learning the “three F’s,” for fit, form, and function, a sequence that ensured their weapons worked properly and as expected. The women would train on the M4 assault rifle and the M9 pistol, the guns that Rangers take on mission. The rifle was their primary weapon and the pistol the backup in case things went south while they were in a small or enclosed space such as a living room and they found themselves suddenly under attack.

Then they hit the firing range, a desolate spot in a broad field filled with patches of dirt. The women took their places underneath a bright blue North Carolina sky, stood before their targets of brown and tan paper silhouettes, took aim, and started firing.

Scottie began by demonstrating the correct stance and the proper foot placement for firing the M4. Then he went down the line correcting his students. He told Lane to place her feet wider apart and to keep her left hand wrapped tight around the hand guard just beneath the barrel while quickly reloading the magazine with her right. “Try it again,” he said, then moved down the row of CSTs to check on the others and demonstrate proper technique. When he had worked with them all, he returned to the top of the line and was surprised by what he saw: Lane was going through the motions just as he had told her to. “Wait a minute, Mason,” he blurted out, “what’s going on here? You’re doing it right! What’s up with that?!”

“This is easier, Sergeant,” she matter-of-factly replied, as taken aback by his question as he was by her adherence to his instruction.

Whoah, Marks thought to himself. This is a new one. They actually listen and then they do it right.

For years Scottie had taught would-be Rangers on the firing range and watched as they did exactly what he told them not to. He long ago had come to the conclusion that all these young soldiers learned to shoot watching Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, and therefore had no idea how to correctly fire a weapon. America’s young men, he decided, were convinced they knew three things by heart and from birth: how to shoot their gun, drive their vehicle, and make sweet love to their woman. Scottie only needed to teach them one of those lifesaving skills, but it took him twice as much time as it should, and squandered much of his precious patience to boot. Now he found himself on the firing range with soldiers who required exactly one adjustment, followed by a lot of practice, before they started improving their skills and became decent marksmen. That was it. There was no ego to contend with, no pushback about how, “well, my dad taught me this so it must be right.”

Unbelievable, he thought to himself.

The CSTs paired up and, crouched on the ground with their notebooks out as if they were interviewing the women they would meet, they prepared for a scenario in which the woman turns out to be a man in a burqa and they have to draw their weapon and shoot. Over and over he had them repeat their moves, starting from a seated position, moving to their haunches, and then drawing to defend themselves from the ground.

Fighting their instincts was Marks’s first challenge.

“Drop the pen,” he yelled at one CST as he pretended to overtake her. “You have a pistol, draw it, aim, and fire!”

Some, like Cassie, Kate, Kimberly, and Sarah, were comfortable with the Beretta M9 pistol because they had trained on it for years as MPs. But Marks quickly saw that he would need to spend more time with several others who had logged a lot fewer hours handling a gun.

Ashley, whom by now Marks thought “the sweetest girl in the world,” was still struggling with the close-quarters technique. She may have been stone quiet and incredibly nice, but Scottie saw in her eyes the flint of a real soldier and he wanted to draw out that “killer” in her. Ashley was wrestling with the pistol, but he thought it was the newness of close-retention shooting that was throwing her off; she seemed plenty comfortable firing a weapon. He just needed to help her attack the source of her concern and do enough drills to make her feel confident in her own abilities. He worked to build the muscles in her hand, instructing her to hold the gun with just her thumb and middle finger, then keep pulling the trigger. After forty-five minutes of that, over and over, Ashley asked if she could please take a quick moment to stretch her cramping forearm. Marks gave her a moment to stretch, then had her back at it. “You gotta build your forearm muscles, White,” he said. “All right; thank you, Sergeant,” Ashley answered through clenched teeth.

But still there was something missing. Then, in a flash, Scottie remembered a special technique he learned from Mike Seeklander, a friend and expert shooter who had written a number of handgun training books and specialized in close-quarters shooting.

“Okay, gals,” he said, “watch me closely.” Using Ashley as a model, he looked her dead in the eyes. “First, you gotta draw your weapon fast. White, you gotta be ready to kill me. Get mad, goddammit. Mad enough to punch me in the face and want me dead. Because if you don’t get me I am going to get you. Like this . . .” And with that he lunged toward Ashley.

“If someone is grabbing your gun you have to push their face away, wrap your arm around the back of your head, trace your body back down and around, and go underneath the gun to punch out and shoot in the pelvic area,” he said, addressing the entire assembly of buns and ponytails. “That way you avoid putting your hand in front of the barrel so if you’re pulling the trigger very quickly you don’t end up shooting yourself in the palm.”

Then he repeated the action, this time with real gusto. “All you need to do is sweep your gun underneath like this.” He now arced his gun back to brush his imaginary long, lustrous hair, then pulled his hands down the sides of his body where they met at his waist before he rapidly lifted them back up and aimed at his assailant. “Now you say, ‘I am beautiful and I love to shoot.’ Think of Charlie’s Angels and then pull the trigger!”

That did the trick. After they finished laughing, Ashley and the others repeated the sweep, professing their strength and taking down their assailant.

“Come on, White,” Marks taunted. “Get aggressive, push back. I am right here in your face!” he yelled at her. “Get serious. Shove me away and draw your weapon.”

“Roger that, Sergeant,” she said, now bellowing back. “I am beautiful and I love to shoot.”

“Angrier, White, can you handle it?”

Her cheeks and forehead began to redden and it was clear she had had enough of his goading. The next time he lunged at her the real anger showed. Her eyebrows narrowed and her mouth tightened as she shoved him back, hard enough to throw him off balance, and drew her pistol in four counts.

“That’s it, White!” he yelled. “Excellent! That’s what I am looking for. I knew you had it in you!”

One of Scottie’s biggest concerns was how hard the CSTs were on themselves. Whether it was out on the range or in the role-playing scenarios doing searching and questioning, his trainees grew racked by frustration if they didn’t improve quickly enough. It took him almost the full week to trace the source of the frustration, which at first he attributed to old-fashioned perfectionism. When he realized what was going on, toward the week’s end, he assembled the entire group for a pep talk.

“All right, I am watching you all beat yourself up out there and I finally got it figured out,” he said. “You guys have never been around a bunch of badass motherfuckers before who were as good as you are. Every single one of you is used to being the best female in the unit, hands down and no questions asked. And now all of a sudden you aren’t.”

A few of the CSTs nodded their heads without thinking.

“Listen,” he said, “every soldier we pick is a diamond. She is an athlete. She is awesome. That’s why you are here. This is just the first time any of you in all of your Army careers has ever found yourself in a pile of diamonds. You are pissed off, you feel lousy about the fact that the girl next to you is doing better at something than you are. But you’re now a diamond among diamonds. And you’ve gotta stop being frustrated with yourselves. You are going to fail at things. That is going to happen when you are around people this good. Someone’s better than you at something and you don’t like it? Figure out why and do it better next time.

“Now get back to work.”

Later on, walking back to his barracks and reflecting on his talk, Marks smiled to himself. Maybe, he thought, these girls aren’t so different from the men I fought with after all.

At night, when they were done, the women replayed the events of the day and discussed the work that was still to come. Before passing out from exhaustion, some of them critiqued each other—not their actions, but their attitudes, and particularly their lack of faith in their own abilities. One evening Cassie told Tristan she had to be bolder at the firing range.

“Tristan, you have just got to own it when you are out there,” she said in a tone bordering on disgust. “Man up. Stop acting like such a wuss.”

Kate, who roomed just across the hall from Ashley and Amber, often overheard Amber joking with Ashley and encouraging her to be more aggressive, clearly trying to draw out her inner alpha. Kate wondered how it had come to be that all of them equated the idea of toughness with the male version of the trait when Ashley was clearly plenty decisive when it came time to act. Here was someone who was athletic to the extreme and good at what she did. But they were so used to seeing competence accompanied by shows of masculinity and aggression that they worried whether their teammate would succeed in the theater of war. We’ve all bought into it, Kate thought. Ashley seems so comfortable in her own skin. And we are all razzing her for it.

Most of the time, though, the women reminded each other of their achievements: the run times, speed at drawing a weapon, push-up count, rope-climbing skills. At the end of one particularly difficult day, Kate summed it up: “Everybody has something that the other girl doesn’t. This is what makes us a team.”

As the week wore on the women grew closer to each other and to their instructors. They marched in full kit at night, shot guns, and suffered through burning workouts every morning. Marks’s other frustration, the one he never articulated publicly, was that he and his fellow instructors had so little time to prepare the women. So they stuffed a month’s worth of learning into less than two weeks: the role-playing, shooting, searching, questioning, getting the mind ready for war. While they did get a few hours of night-vision device training, he had to squeeze most of it in during the day.

Marks and the other trainers recognized that these girls wanted to be part of special operations with every part of their brains and bodies. They were now his team, Marks thought, just as all those aspiring Rangers he graduated to the next phase of selection were his guys. He felt as surprised as anyone by the very real sadness he and the other Rangers started to feel when the week wound down to its final day.

And now it was time for his closing talk.

“All right, you guys, I want you to remember to go out there and be great. Be amazing, because you are. Don’t forget any of the stuff we learned this week. Don’t do stupid shit and always remember in the military perception is reality. So don’t mess with your Ranger buddy. Hang out with your CST teammate at mealtimes and every other time of day. Stay away from trouble. And for godsakes, stay in the gym. That is going to be the very first way that the guys you serve with measure you. So work out really hard every single day and show those guys you mean some serious fucking business, just like you showed all of us. I’m proud of what you did here this week. Now go and do it even better out there with your Ranger battalion. Show them you belong there. Do the work, and they will respect you and make you part of the team. Pay your rent and they’ll bring you out on mission every night. I know you’ll make a difference out there.”

Then he walked to the whiteboard and started writing.

“This is my phone number,” he said. “If anything goes wrong in Afghanistan, if anyone is mean to you, I will skullfuck them. And I mean it. Just call me.

“Now go out there and get it done,” he said. “Be great.”

Now this is what I always dreamed of when I dreamed of joining the Army, Kate thought. She wasn’t the only one who felt it had been the best week of her military career thus far.

A few days later, as the CSTs were enjoying two weeks of leave before their deployment, tragic news seized the headlines. On August 6, 2011, a rocket-propelled grenade blasted through an Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter in the eastern part of Afghanistan. Thirty-eight Americans and Afghans died, including twenty-two Navy SEALs from SEAL Team Six. The SEALs, according to Pentagon reports, had gone in as part of a team backing up Rangers on a mission to capture insurgents gathered at a compound in Wardak Province’s Tangi valley. It was America’s single worst day of casualties in ten years at war in Afghanistan, and the worst day in history for the Navy’s special warfare unit.

Lane was home in Nevada visiting her brother and a group of his friends when she saw the television news headline. No one else seemed to notice. In the midst of preparing for war in Afghanistan herself, she couldn’t believe how little attention any of them paid to all those war dead.

“You all need to tune in,” she said to her brother and the others in the room, pointing to the TV, even though the newscast had moved on to another story. “These are the guys I’m going to be out there with. This country is still at war, despite the fact that no one even remembers it.”

Back in North Carolina, Jason and Ashley were finishing up breakfast when the news broke. Jason’s first instinct was to turn up the volume, but then he quickly switched the channel. His wife was home for just two more weeks and he wanted to focus on their time together. He had given up a spot at the five-month Maneuver Captains Career Course, once called the Infantry Officer Advanced Course, to be home with her until she left. Artillery, Jason’s unit, had to fight hard to get those slots for its guys, and Jason had lobbied to secure a space in the July course. But when he found out Ashley would be leaving in August, he decided he had to turn it down. His wife was heading to Afghanistan with special operations and there was no way he would leave her during those last weeks before she deployed. The decision to stay was easy; harder was telling his executive officer and the other commanders who had backed him that his wife was the reason he wasn’t taking the vaunted spot.

His superiors were unhappy and said so. “Don’t burn a bridge,” they said. “Don’t you realize this decision isn’t good for your career as an officer?”

Eventually he turned to his battalion commander, a man he knew from his time in Afghanistan and a leader who had a career—and a marriage—he respected.

“Hey, Stumpf, let me put it to you like this,” his commander answered when Jason told him about the situation. “If anyone judges you for the decision you’re about to make, fuck ’em.”

Jason had never heard his commander utter a swear word in all the time he had served under him, even in the middle of the war in Afghanistan.

“Okay, sir, then I will go ahead and reverse my decision and take the September artillery course at Fort Sill,” Jason said, referring to the course that would be useful but more traditional—and consequently less helpful to his career trajectory. “It will give me an extra month with my wife.”

“I imagine I would do the same thing,” his commander replied. “Your wife is going to Afghanistan. You two are newlyweds. Enjoy the last month before she goes over there.”

Ashley was furious when Jason told her what he had done.

“I know why you did it, but you didn’t have to,” she insisted. “I would have come to see you on weekends.”

“Ash, be real,” he answered. “You would’ve been way too busy, and I would be full-on with a career course. It wouldn’t have worked. You know that.

“And besides,” he said, “I didn’t make the decision for you. I made it for us.”

Another difficult decision had to do with Ashley’s parents, Bob and Debbie. She had told them little about the CST teams because she couldn’t bear to have them worry. Jason initially tried to change her mind, urging her to at least tell them something about the program since she had always been so close to them, but he knew when it was time to back off, so he promised he wouldn’t say anything to them.

She did take her beloved brother Josh into her confidence. When the White kids were small, Josh would take his little sisters down to the pond near their Ohio home. Now the trio headed to Florida for a nighttime fishing expedition on a giant party boat. Ashley and Brittany both caught their first saltwater fish during that excursion, and the siblings were reveling in the day’s successful catch.

During the twenty-mile trip back to Pompano Beach, Josh and Ashley sat alone at the front of the boat, watching as the prow cut its pathway through the ocean.

“It’s going to be a bit sketchy where I’m going to be,” she began. “Jason just got back, you know, and he’s telling me the Guard units are kind of ragtag over there, and I wouldn’t be making much of a difference with them if I went to Kuwait. So I signed on for a special mission, a new one, which the Guard encouraged me to volunteer for. I’ll be with the Rangers, not kicking down doors or anything, but as an enabler. I’ll be going into more dangerous areas, getting much closer to real combat, but I’ll be with the best of the best. And I’m going with an amazing group of girls who all made it through this pretty tough selection and training process. It’s an incredible team.”

He wasn’t saying a word, so she paused, then asked: “What do you think?”

Josh knew she was telling him and only him because she knew he would understand and wouldn’t try to stop her. Ever since he was a kid he had wanted to join the military, and as a high school senior had even been accepted to West Point. But when the acceptance letter arrived his then girlfriend, now wife, had been brutally honest with Josh: he could join the Army if he wanted, but she didn’t want the life of a military wife with babies on her hips and a husband off at war. “I can’t do it,” Kate said. “I’m just not cut out for that kind of life.” So Josh found another way to serve: as a state trooper, where he confronted the danger of the unknown every single night but at home in the U.S.A.

Josh knew how important his approval and blessing were to Ashley. He didn’t have the heart to try to dissuade her, and he knew it was impossible anyway. He risked his life every night in his own job. Who was he to say she should stay home, safe and sound, when duty was calling her?

“Do it, Ash,” he said. “You’re so good at what you do. I can’t tell you I won’t worry about you every day, that I won’t feel scared every second of your deployment. But I support you, and I understand why this is so important.”

Now it was his turn to go silent. “Actually,” he continued, “I’m envious of you. I wish I would have had the opportunity you have before you now. You’re going to be great, and you’re going to do such important things.”

And yes, he promised not to share the details with their parents.

A few weeks later Josh, Kate, their little daughter Evelyn, Bob, Brittany, and Debbie White said goodbye to Ashley in Fayetteville just before her deployment.

Two days afterward, it was Jason’s turn to see his wife off to war. They drove in his pickup to the Landmark, where the CSTs would meet to head to Pope Air Force Base, just outside Fayetteville. He tried to make small talk on the way and so did she. She reminded him she had left a list on the refrigerator of things around the house she wanted him to do while she was away.

Jason pulled up to the front door of the Landmark, the same place where Ashley’s first adventures in Assessment and Selection had begun five months earlier. He pulled her rucksack and duffle out of the truck bed and set them down by the door.

“Okay, this is it,” she said, as she stood before the motel’s entrance.

“You sure you don’t want me to help you carry your bags in?” he asked.

“No, no, no,” she insisted. “You go ahead now.” He watched her make the effort to stay strong and keep from crying in front of him and the other girls. This was not a group that welcomed tears. And he knew Ashley wanted to remain composed for him as much as for herself.

He hugged her and kissed her goodbye.

“I’ll talk to you from Germany,” she said. “I think it’s okay to let you know when we’re leaving for Afghanistan.”

“Babe, I don’t think you’re going to jeopardize operational security by telling me when you’re wheels-up—I don’t think they’re tracking that!” he said. “Pump your brakes and be calm; you are going to be fine.”

“Okay, well, I’ll text you and I’ll start emailing you when we can,” she said.

The silence was uncomfortable.

“What are you going to do the rest of the day?”

Jason smiled. Who cares? he thought. You are about to go to war.

“Oh, you know, usual stuff: put some gas in the truck, cut the grass, do the laundry . . .” His voice trailed off as he realized that he would now have to do all of those things without her.

“Maybe I’ll get a pizza. I don’t know.”

The last time things were this awkward it was Jason who was about to get on a plane and go to war. I have no idea what people do when the shoe is on the other foot, he was thinking.

So he hugged and kissed her one more time.

“Don’t be a hero,” he said. “You have nothing to prove. You went and did something I have never done: be part of special operations and work with Ranger Regiment. You don’t have to prove anything to me. Just promise me you are coming home.”

“Okay,” she replied. “I’ll be okay.” Jason got in the truck and slowly drove away.

In his rearview mirror he saw Ashley reach for her bags, then disappear through the sliding glass doors of the motel. He pulled into a nearby gas station and called his dad.

“Every time I see a C-17 for the next few hours I’m going to be looking up and wondering if it’s Ashley. It’s terrible being on this side of deploying—I never thought about what she was going through when she dropped me off,” he said. “I feel like some stay-at-home dad. I’m the one who is supposed to be leaving.”

As soon as he got home he sat down in the bright yellow kitchen where two nights before she had cooked salmon and potatoes for supper. He pulled out a calendar to start tracking the months until she returned home safely to him.

“It’s the end of August by the time they finish getting fully in-processed,” he calculated. “By the time they reach their base and really get into their jobs it will be September. The battalions will switch out in September–October so that will eat up a couple of weeks as the new guys settle in. Then we’re looking at the winter months, when the operations tempo gets a lot slower.”

He was making little scratch marks on the calendar as he thought out loud.

“If we can just make it to the winter and the first hard frost and snowfall when all the fighting quiets down, we will be fine.

“We just have to make it to November.”