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

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





Arrival, Afghanistan

* * *

Cassie sat bumping around in her seat as the lumbering C-17 flew east to Germany’s Ramstein Air Base. Each of the CSTs had received a letter just before graduation, and Cassie now thought about its contents as she rode to war with her nearly twenty comrades-in-arms. It was a personal letter printed on gray and white stationery and was from Captain Tara Matthews, who had been program manager for the CSTs’ classroom training that summer. For nearly three years Matthews had served in special operations as a team leader in civil affairs. Matthews had come home to Fort Bragg after deploying to Afghanistan and had run the summer training program.

Matthews had been effective and efficient, but the CSTs hadn’t sensed that she possessed any deeply held views on their pathbreaking program or had considered its place in women’s long march toward combat. Then, at the very end of the course, she surprised her students by sharing this letter, just as they were on the verge of starting their own tours in Afghanistan. Matthews was older than many of the CSTs, but only by a few years. But as they read her words, they heard the voice of someone who had seen a great deal and now wanted to share what she knew with a group of women with whom she obviously felt a strong connection.

Cassie had read and reread the letter she found inside the folder holding her graduation certificate, and although the note was addressed to the entire group, she felt that Matthews was speaking directly to her in the most personal way.

“The ultimate effects of this program on the coming generations are yet to be seen,” she had written.

“Thank you for rising to the challenge of being female warriors in today’s Army. I don’t know if you recognize that your presence here has been foretold by the generations of women that preceded us in military service to the nation, and that you walk a path in advance of a more efficient and tested generation that will strive to follow you, and carry us into the future.

“The mission has not yet run its course. Don’t limit your actions in pursuit of success. Take a measured course and a wide berth within your lines of operation. Show us all what you are capable of.”

That’s exactly what I intend to do, Cassie silently vowed.

“Know too that the eyes of the Army and, increasingly, the Nation, are on you. This is an opportunity for failure as much as it is one to succeed. Do not block out the voices of opposition, study them and defeat their words and prejudices through brilliant action.”

Cassie had felt strongly from the beginning—perhaps more than most of the other women—that the CSTs were, whether they liked it or not, a group of trailblazers who had better not mess things up for those who would come after them. And she was awed by the women who had come before them, especially one female soldier who had gone out with the Rangers on missions long before the CST program was in place. The subtext of Captain Matthews’s letter was clear: if one of them screwed up out there it wouldn’t be just her mistake; it would belong to “all women.” In her heart, Cassie saw herself as just another soldier who was taking part in the ancient struggle to live up to her potential as a warrior. She didn’t see herself as a female soldier, just a soldier. But Cassie’s own path had shown her that there was still a long way to go before military women would have the same opportunities as men, from serving in infantry to attending Ranger School to trying out to become a full-fledged member of Special Operations Forces.

Like many of the women in Captain Matthews’s course, Cassie had conditioned herself to swallow her disappointments and channel that energy into making herself better and stronger. But nothing had lessened the frustration she felt over her own suffocated potential. Until she joined the CSTs. The summer just past had been the best of her life: she, Tristan, Kate, Kristen, and Isabel—an intel officer stationed in Korea who was her roommate at selection and now her closest friend—and some of the other unmarried girls had spent nearly every night together, going to dinner and the occasional bar on weekends, then eating and working out together during the week. She was a long, long way from those lonely nights of doing crossword puzzles on the floor back in Iraq.

Cassie and her teammates had come to understand each other in ways no one else could, or probably ever would. They had forged a bond based on friendship and respect, cemented by the fact that they had never before known people like themselves. Women found them weird for wanting to go to war. Men found them threatening. For a long time Cassie thought this was a reality she alone had experienced, but then she got to know her new teammates.

And now this “band of sisters” she had come to love was about to split up and scatter to outposts across the country in teams of two and three. They wouldn’t see each other for months, and perhaps not at all during the full, eight-month deployment. Cassie was eager to get to her base and start going out on missions, but she didn’t want to think about saying goodbye to her teammates. Together they were making history, and while most of them remained focused on their personal goals rather than the larger backdrop against which their own trajectories would play out, Cassie found herself one of the few who were keenly aware of the moment. Perhaps it was the women’s studies major in her, or possibly it was the ROTC Cadet. Or maybe it was the rucksack at her feet that was filled with books like Sebastian Junger’s War, Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor, and Pete Blaber’s The Mission, the Men, and Me, which follow platoons of soldiers or special operations units into some of the toughest battles America’s troops have faced. Whatever it was, Cassie couldn’t help but feel that this deployment was something that somebody, someday would want to know about.

Cassie had pulled the unfortunate duty of chalk commander, meaning she was basically the airplane’s chaperone. It was her job to make sure all the names on the manifest were on the plane, and would be on tomorrow’s flight to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. She led the gang of women in boarding the C-17, and was therefore among the first to feel the curious stares from the male soldiers who were hunting for space on the webbed seats along the plane’s sides. A huge cargo pallet carrying supplies to the troops in Afghanistan filled the plane’s midsection.

“What’s going on?” one of them asked as Cassie settled into her own spot at the front, near the stairs that led to the cockpit. “You guys nurses? This is the flight to Ramstein, right?”

“Not exactly, and yes, it is,” Cassie replied, offering up a half smile that indicated the conversation was over. The CSTs were by now used to being sized up as nurses or members of a softball team, and at the moment they were more concerned with getting some shut-eye than explaining themselves. As soon as the plane was airborne, most of them spread their sleeping mats and poncho liners on the freezing cold metal floor and were soon fast asleep.

Nine hours later, as the plane descended, they landed in Ramstein, not far from the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, America’s largest hospital outside the United States. Many of the most severely injured troops from Iraq and Afghanistan stopped here for emergency treatment and care before going home.

The CSTs slept that night at the Rhine Ordnance Barracks, a military way station not far from Ramstein. Or, rather, they tried to. After lights-out, a chorus of male voices shattered the evening quiet. Cassie, Sarah, Amber, and Kate, whose bunks were clustered together, rolled their eyes in the dark.

“My girl dances dirty, but she just fucking lays there in bed,” one guy called to another in a voice that carried easily into the women’s quarters.

“Oh, I’m a bad girl,” came the reply, voiced in a high-pitched squeak designed to sound like one of these “girls.”

“You’re too hard,” the second one continued, gleefully drawing out the last word.

“Just open your mouth already,” the other one replied, dropping his voice a few octaves.

For Amber, this was the last straw after a long day. She needed rest and these clowns were standing between her and much-needed sleep.

“Hey, you, Casanovas, how about shutting the fuck up and going to bed!” she yelled in her loudest officer voice. “Some people are trying to sleep here.”

Not another word was heard until the CSTs woke the following dawn.

They boarded a transport plane for the six-and-a-half-hour flight from Ramstein and the world they knew to Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan, and the war that waited just outside its heavily fortified gates. Ambien ruled the flight, along with headphones, as the women stretched out in the cargo area to grab the last bit of rest while they could. When the CSTs were awake they cracked jokes and swapped sarcasm about their fictional softball scores and the fact that their role was actually the “Coffee” Support Team for Ranger Regiment. Or that some would think the letters stood for the “Casual Sex Team.” The laughter kept at bay the reality that it was combat to which they were headed, no more training or warm-up. As one of the CSTs later wrote to a friend, “I couldn’t quite ever imagine what deploying would really feel like, but I thought I would be way more nervous than this. I guess I just feel ready to get started and trust my training and my own good judgment to do the right thing. It will be a steep learning curve, and I don’t doubt that I will be yelled at a few times, but I know that’s just part of the learning process.”

At long last they made it to Afghanistan.

It’s so strange, Sarah said to herself, once the plane was on the tarmac. She found the routineness of it all disconcerting. It doesn’t feel like war at all—no one was shooting at our plane when we landed, no bullets ricocheted off the C-17 as we offloaded our stuff. It felt almost normal.

The Soviets built Bagram Airfield in the 1980s, during their war in Afghanistan. Located just sixty-five miles north of the capital city, Kabul, it was their main air base, but after the Russians retreated in defeat it fell into disrepair. The Americans began using the abandoned facility just after they entered the country in 2001, after the attacks of 9/11. At that time the facility was gutted, decimated by its problematic geography: stuck between Kabul, which the Taliban controlled, and the northern province of Panjshir, the last swathe of the country it didn’t. Years of brutal fighting between the Russians and the Afghans—and later the Taliban and the Northern Alliance—had destroyed much of the lush vineyards that once surrounded the ancient city of Bagram.

Over the decade that followed 9/11, hundreds of millions of U.S. and allied dollars poured into the airfield, leading to a construction boom so intense that a Turkish firm built a cement factory on base to keep up with the rapid expansion of hangars, towers, runways, barracks, offices, and support buildings. By the time the CSTs arrived in late August 2011, Bagram had metamorphosed into a city unto itself, replete with a traffic-clogged, tree-lined main thoroughfare known as “Disney Drive.” The now-massive, nearly six-thousand-acre base had become a military and contractor city, home to a hive of different types of sleeping quarters, from huts and tents to formal dormitories and five large workout gyms, nine dining facilities, two Green Bean coffee shops, two Pizza Huts, two Subways, and a Popeye’s Chicken. The base also offered a top-tier trauma center for treating the most injured troops, and a detention facility to house suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters.

Bagram also attends to the emotional needs of the troops by providing two United Service Organizations centers. These were congressionally chartered and designed during World War II to lift the spirits of service members heading into battle and the families who awaited their return. President Franklin D. Roosevelt conceived of the USO in 1941 just as war began to look imminent; three months later Hollywood actor Bob Hope assembled a group of celebrities and together they put on an unforgettable show for airmen based at California’s March Field. Then the war started and so did the massive mobilization of men from across the United States. In 1943, Hope and a few others entertained troops fighting in Europe and North Africa, and so began a tradition of USO tours that has never stopped. Over the years some of the biggest names of their era, from Lena Horne and John Wayne to Lou Rawls, Sheryl Crow, Toby Keith, Ben Stiller, and Stephen Colbert, have taken part in USO tours to support the troops. One of Bagram’s USO centers is named for former Arizona Cardinals football star Pat Tillman, who gave up a promising NFL career to join the Rangers after the attacks of 9/11 and was tragically killed three years later by friendly fire in eastern Afghanistan.

Sarah looked with dismay at the wretched excess of a fortified city soaked in first-world conveniences, smack in the middle of one of the world’s poorest and most conflict-ridden countries. She had been raised by her family to live simply, without unnecessary creature comforts, and what she saw was demoralizing. She felt disgusted by it.

People here on base are living like pigs, she thought. No wonder they say Afghans resent us. Who wouldn’t?

For the CSTs, like thousands of other troops, Bagram was the final taste of America on the way to war. The soldiers heading to Ranger Regiment would stop there only a couple of days, just long enough to pick up gear, receive briefings, and process paperwork. They’d get their final assignments and—most important of all—learn which CST they would be paired with.

They would also be introduced to the Joint Operations Center, or JOC, a wartime nerve center where they received an overall intelligence brief on the kinds of missions that lay ahead and the various threats they would be facing. Most of the bases where they’d be serving would have them. At the start of America’s decade of war, bureaucratic barriers prevented vital information from reaching troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. This information blockage was part of what McChrystal had tackled as JSOC commander. No central system existed to collect, collate, and coordinate the intel that was daily being uncovered in the increasing number of special operations raids on insurgent networks. This meant valuable information remained in offices, buried under stacks of reports, stuffed away in desk drawers, or, worse, consigned to the trash. Often it never reached the people on the ground who might best understand it and be in a position to use the many details it held—down to the smallest nuggets of data that could save lives. The JOCs were born to improve the flow of information by building local structures and systems in which intel could be gathered, shared, and acted upon in real time across special operations units and top-secret government agencies. These high-tech stations could be found in various regions of Afghanistan, sitting in the middle of towns and villages that regularly lost electricity—if they had it at all—and often had no running water. By the time the CSTs arrived, the JOCs played a central and vital role in the wartime landscape.

Sarah had never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan before, and she marveled at the humming electronics hub that had eyes all over the country. She counted thirty TV monitors and well over one hundred computers. At each station sat delegates from a slew of government agencies, each with its own acronym. In shifts that ran all day and all night they pored over every iota of intelligence that came through, and interpreted and then distributed it. Sarah worked to learn the place’s language: There was the TOC, or Tactical Operations Center; CFSOCC, Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command; BUBs and CUBs, Battle Update Brief and Commander Update Brief, respectively.

Kate, in the meantime, was astonished that senior commanders in charge of the special operations battlefield had taken precious time away from organizing and leading the fight to greet the CSTs when they reached Bagram. It appeared that the women’s arrival in Afghanistan was new and unusual enough to justify this special, high-level welcome. She didn’t imagine that many of the other enablers got the same kind of attention, and she took some comfort from the support the program received from these men, most of whom had spent the past decade in battle, either here or in Iraq. If it turns out that everyone else hates us, at least the guys at the top see the value of having us here, she thought.

Leda, still recovering from her pre-mission training injury and operating from her computer back in Virginia, had written up her suggestions for the CST pairings and submitted them to the sergeant major overseeing the program from JSOC’s headquarters at Fort Bragg. She wanted to pair the least experienced soldiers with the most experienced ones, so the veterans could coach the newbies through the tactical and cultural challenges they would face. The role of officer in charge temporarily fell to Anne Jeremy, and now, with everyone gathered together in Bagram, she shared team assignments with the few who hadn’t already received them.

“Ashley and Lane,” Anne said, “you’ll be going down south. I’ll join in a few days, as soon as I finish the paperwork I have to do here.”

She was headed to Kandahar. Ashley was dejected when she heard the news, and while she said very little, she was unable to hide from her colleagues the anxiety she felt. It was written all over her face.

Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, was the Taliban’s home turf, site of Mullah Mohammad Omar’s 1996 political coming-out as the movement’s leader. As the Taliban fought its way northward and took control of most of the country, including the capital city, Kabul, Mullah Omar remained in Kandahar and led his new government from his compound in the south.

It was from Kandahar Airfield (KAF), where Lane and Ashley would be stationed, that the Taliban staged their last stand against the Americans in November 2001, before they were routed and forced to retreat into the valleys and villages along the border with Pakistan. The insurgents spent several years regrouping after the first phase of the war ended and gradually reemerged to fight with formidable power once more. Now, ten years on, they had demonstrated to their enemies, the world’s most sophisticated and powerful militaries, that they did not need to control the physical bases to control the actual narrative. The Taliban knew they simply had to outlast and outblast their opponents, and assassinate the civilians they suspected of working with the Afghan government and the foreigners who helped to support it. The Taliban’s escalating ability to kill and injure Afghan civilians and launch spectacular attacks on U.S. and NATO troops was part of the reason that President Obama had announced the surge in December 2009. By the time the direct action CSTs arrived at Bagram in the summer of 2011, the battlefield they would join with the Rangers had become vastly more dangerous and unpredictable. Kandahar had become one of the most notorious hotbeds of the insurgency, home to a nearly endless number of IED attacks that claimed the lives and limbs of American service members.

But there was another, more personal reason for Ashley’s anxiety. She would be going to war with Lane, a fellow Guard member, not Amber, her summer training course and PMT partner with whom she had expected to work. CST assignments were, as it turned out, changing constantly based on the needs of the special operations teams, and Anne warned the girls they were likely to change again in the future. The one comfort Ashley had clung to—that she would serve with her close companion—was now gone. She told Lane as much as they waited at the airfield for the plane to take them down south.

Lane, for her part, felt guilty about disappointing Ashley, though of course she had had nothing to do with the decision. She had not gone out of her way to be warm and fuzzy to anyone that summer. No one would ever call her mean-spirited, but she shared Amber’s no-bullshit demeanor; in fact, she was even more blunt and uncompromising when she encountered something she disagreed with. Part of it came from the way she was raised, with a lot of responsibility, little parental supervision, and only her brother and her track and field coach to lean on. But another part of Lane’s toughness and uncompromising attitude stemmed from her rape experience. She had remained true to the vow she made after “coming out” to her fellow Guard members about the incident: she would never allow herself to be victimized or taken advantage of again. She didn’t care who it was; she never was going to “tone it down” or stay “nice” and quiet in the face of something she believed was wrong no matter how insignificant. But Lane also felt protective of Ashley, not only because she was such a good person, but because she represented a kind of wholesomeness that Lane had never known. Ashley came from a supportive, loving family, and had a marriage that inspired every CST who met her and Jason. Lane wanted to see all of that goodness remain unsullied through the ugliness of war—as much, she admitted to herself, for her own sake as for Ashley’s. So, however her new teammate might feel about working with her, Lane bucked herself up and embraced the role of the NCO determined to protect her officer, a second lieutenant with the angelic smile and kind heart. She knew Ashley felt unsettled about Kandahar and about her, and she promised to watch her partner’s backside when things went haywire, as she was sure they would.

In fact, things were going haywire everywhere. That month, August 2011, when the CSTs were joining their new teams, was shaping up to be among the deadliest for U.S. forces since the war began. Along with the Americans who perished in the Chinook helicopter crash, more than fifteen soldiers had been killed in action in the southern provinces of Kandahar, where Ashley and Lane would be, and nearby Helmand. A number of other Americans had given their lives in eastern Afghanistan, where several CSTs would be posted. The women had arrived in Afghanistan at a particularly deadly period in the long war. The handover of security responsibilities from NATO to Afghan forces was just getting under way, and President Obama had announced plans to bring the war to its close, beginning with a major drawdown of troops by the end of that year. Bin Laden was dead, and most Americans rarely thought about the fact that their country was at war. “We take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding,” the president had said a few months earlier. “Even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance. These long wars will come to a responsible end.”

But for the newly minted CSTs the war was just about to begin. And if that month’s casualty count was any indicator, a bloody fight awaited them.

Kate, who had been so offended by the critical response to her writing at the end of CST selection, wrote a poem to mark the beginning of her deployment.

We are living in a cloud of dust

Like a fog that settled in when we weren’t looking and won’t move on

The further out the thicker it appears, and the only way you know you are in it is the grit in your eyes and the film coating your mouth.

I feel like I am on a moon or stuck in a book with lots of meaningful buildings and scenery, but all the people walking around are just characters that hold no sway in the plot,

Like a dreamscape that is a staging area between two worlds.

All of my history lies behind me, but perhaps my defining moments lay ahead.

Perhaps, indeed.

By the next evening the paperwork was finished and it was at last time to go to war.

During the flight to Kandahar, the routineness of it all impressed Lane, just as it had Sarah a few days earlier. After ten years in Afghanistan the air system ran smoothly; the CSTs hopped on the hour-long flight between the two rapidly growing military outposts just as easily as travelers on the other side of the world boarded a Delta Shuttle to travel between Washington, D.C., and New York. To make things even stranger, there were civilians on board their flight from Bagram. When the plane touched down, Ashley and Lane hugged the other CSTs on the flight headed to their own bases, then stepped out onto the tarmac.

And the assault on their senses began.

“Wow,” Ashley said, trying to keep her composure. “It really does smell.”

The first hot wave to hit them reeked of diesel fuel; it stormed their nasal passages and stung their eyeballs, then insinuated itself in their lungs. The second wave was purely human.

“Man, Jason told me about this but I didn’t believe it could be this bad,” Ashley said, covering her mouth and hurrying to the transport vehicle that was waiting on the airstrip. “Think of the smell of diesel, the smell of things burning, and the smell of shit, all swimming together,” Jason had said, then he explained how decades of war had ravaged the country’s infrastructure, including its sewage systems. The temporary facilities the military set up—basically collapsible port-a-potties—required a great deal of maintenance, which usually ended up half done at best. But even Jason couldn’t have known just how prescient his words would turn out to be.

“Oh, I can’t wait to tell him this,” Ashley said, as she and Lane arrived at the camp where they would be living with the Rangers. It sat just downwind from the “poo pond,” a place where multiple septic systems from across Kandahar Airfield dumped the product of 1,800 portable toilets—enough to serve thirty thousand military personnel and civilians—into a huge, mud-colored, semi-treated sewage stew of feces that was roughly the size of Lake Michigan. The stench of the poo pond was aggravated by the dry, summertime Kandahari heat.

A rugged-looking young Ranger wearing the Regiment’s workout uniform of black shorts and a tan T-shirt had picked them up in his truck at the airstrip and now deposited them at their barracks.

“Hey, welcome,” he said, with a casual air. “Glad you’re here!”

Oh, God, this actually is happening, Lane thought to herself, amazed by how informal and welcoming he was. She felt like she was in a movie, one she hoped she would enjoy remembering one day when she was a lot older. Right now she just had to survive—and make sure she and Ashley proved themselves quickly.

A sergeant major was there to greet them as they hopped out of the jeep, and he was all business. “Welcome,” he said, and pointed to their barracks. “Here’s where you’ll settle in. You guys need to get your kit ready and be all set to go tomorrow. I want you on the bird out on mission tomorrow night. Let me know if that is a problem.” The way he said it, he made clear he would hold the women to the same standards as everyone else; no special treatment. He was deadly serious about the business his Rangers did every night, and he wanted to make sure they were, too.

Both women knew that Rangers typically get thirty-six hours from their arrival in-country to their first mission, and since the first sessions back at the Landmark Inn every CST had lobbied for the same high standards to be applied to them. Ashley and Lane had discussed this on the plane from Bagram. They didn’t want to be eased in; better to get the first mission behind them as soon as possible. “We’ll be ready to go, Sergeant Major,” Lane answered without hesitating.

They made their way inside the reinforced building—at least they didn’t have to sleep in tents, Lane thought—that would be their home for the next eight months, and to their new quarters: each had a twelve-by-twelve room she would share with a roommate or two. Subtracting the space occupied by bunk beds, dressers, and a wall locker, there was little room left for moving around. Down the hall was the bathroom: four toilets, four sinks, and three showers. Only a narrow hallway separated Ashley’s room from Lane’s. If they yelled loudly enough they could speak to one another without leaving their beds.

The first female soldier they met was Meredith Rose, a medic and Iraq veteran who, it turned out, had learned the CST mission on the job. She had simply been asked by a commander one day if she thought she could “run around and catch terrorists” with the special operations guys. Meredith knew the only answer to give was “yes” and a few days later she moved to Kandahar and began going out with the Rangers to search and question women. She had been there ever since.

Meredith lost no time in organizing a tour of the barracks for the new arrivals. “We get to clean those ourselves, so keep your flip-flops handy,” Meredith said, pointing to the showers. “There are a couple of other girls living here—you’ll meet them. We all live on this hall.”

As she stepped into her room once more Ashley saw another young woman—a brunette, petite, like she was, sitting on one of the beds. Ashley put her hand out and introduced herself.

“Great to meet you,” the young woman answered. “Tracey Mack. I’m in field artillery.”

She pointed Ashley toward the other bunk across from her.

“It’s not much, but it works,” she said of their little room.

“You guys hungry?” she asked. “You haven’t eaten yet, have you? Let me take you down to the Boardwalk.”

“The what?” Ashley asked.

“You’ll see,” Tracey answered.

The field artillery officer had faced her own challenge of fitting in six months earlier when she arrived in Kandahar as an untested, twenty-four-year-old second lieutenant serving as the resident expert on the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, known as HIMARS.

The daughter of an Army veteran father who had worked as an MP, a dog handler, and an investigator during his thirteen-year military career, Tracey had entered ROTC during her freshman year of college. After graduation she was devastated to receive her assignment to the Army’s field artillery branch. Like Tristan, she loved the idea of being out in the fight, but all those jobs closest to the front were still closed to women. Instead of leading people in battle, she’d be managing paper clips, Excel spreadsheets, and Xerox machines back at headquarters. Fate turned, however, to offer her an opportunity: an assignment at Fort Bragg under a particularly open-minded colonel.

“Hey, we’re excited to see you on our books,” he emailed. “Our unit needs a leader and your battery is going to deploy next year.” Tracey leapt at the chance to be a platoon leader. Even six months earlier only a handful of women in the entire military would have had that chance. And now she was one of them, here in Afghanistan.

When she first arrived at Kandahar in the spring of 2011, the petite and perky Lieutenant Mack knew she made an easy target for the rough-and-tumble Rangers who had lived according to combat’s clock for an entire decade. She imagined they saw her as some smiling little girl who was hard to take seriously. She, in turn, felt intimidated by their years of battlefield experience and the intense camaraderie that was born of all that time in the fight together. Any one of these men would have died for another, she thought, whether they liked him personally or not. They had seen the entrails of friends and the brains of enemies and survived fighting that had changed them as people. She considered trying to make herself more “masculine” and harder-edged for the sake of fitting in by being less upbeat, less friendly, and a lot less jocular than she truly was, but in the end she figured that being fake would be even worse than being ostracized.

So Tracey launched a mission to prove herself. She would stand alone to the side each night in the JOC and learn the rhythms of the missions as she watched them play out, in real time, on the screens before her. She saw that the Rangers were straight-shooting: their guys’ lives were on the line out there and all they cared about was what each soldier brought to the table and how well he—or she, in the case of their enablers—could do their job. One night the planes that usually provided air support to the Rangers were prevented from flying because of lousy weather and she offered up her artillery system. After three months of pitching her capability Tracey finally got to demonstrate it, as the GPS-guided artillery struck the target dead-on. Once the men who had seen her around the JOC for all those months saw that she could deliver under the extreme pressure of combat—and could take being ribbed from time to time—they accepted her.

Now here she was, introducing the new gals to KAF. She felt hardened by her last six months at war—she had seen too many flags flying at half-staff as special operations guys got killed by IEDs or enemy gunfire. She marveled at how fresh-faced Lane and Ashley looked to her now.

“The Boardwalk is where we eat when we need a break from the DFAC,” Tracey told Ashley, using military shorthand for the on-base dining facilities. The Boardwalk was KAF’s global shopping and eating promenade. Want a hot dog? Try Nathan’s Famous. Latte? Grab one at the Canadian coffee shop Tim Hortons. Burgers and much more could be found at the Kandahar branch of T.G.I. Fridays, complete with its cheery red and white awning.

But no amount of American consumer merriment or salmon baguettes or chocolate croissants or waves of barbed wire and Hesco bastions could keep out the threats that lay in wait just beyond the fortified base. They lived in the heart of Taliban territory surrounded by an increasingly bold insurgency committed to its fight.

“Pizza or gyros?” Tracey asked Lane and her new roommate Ashley. Nothing else was open at the moment—it was 10 p.m. Nearby hung a banner featuring an attractive blond woman with glossy red lips holding her sandwich and looking enticingly into the camera with the words “GYROS (YEEROS) for HEROES” in big, dark letters above the locator, “KANDAHAR RESORT.”

“The gyros are pretty good, actually,” Tracey said.

“What’s a gyro exactly?” Ashley asked sheepishly. Tracey showed her the brown beef wrapped around the silver spit on which the lamb circled around and around. The long line of service members queuing for the seven-dollar pita sandwich spoke to its popularity. “All right, let’s try it.”

First meal in Kandahar and already it’s an adventure, Lane thought to herself as they walked back to their new rooms to finish unpacking their gear and head to bed.

She looked down at her black Timex.

Tomorrow at this time we’ll just be getting ready to go out on mission … Lane thought. And she remembered the words Captain Matthews had left for them.

Take a measured course and a wide berth within your lines of operation. Show us all what you are capable of.

Lane promised herself she would do no less.