Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield (2016)
Operation “Fit In”
* * *
Hey, Ash, check it out!” Lane yelled. She was pushing a large box toward Ashley’s room with her boot. The girls had been eagerly awaiting this package from Fort Bragg. The carton displayed a large letter P encircled by a C, the logo of Crye Precision, a New York City–based company founded by two Cooper Union graduates in 2000 to “revolutionize the soldier” by creating a new line of camouflage uniforms and body armor for the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Forces. The Cryes were designed to work in every environment where America’s soldiers deployed, from desert to forest to swamp to city, and in every type of climate, elevation, and light condition. Members of Ranger Regiment wear the Cryes every night on mission, and the CSTs had lobbied Leda relentlessly for the same uniforms. She, in turn, had pushed relentlessly on her team’s behalf. The CSTs thought they looked ridiculous out there wearing their regular Army “MultiCams.” As if they didn’t stand out enough.
“It’s like Christmas,” Lane joked as she pulled the green and brown uniforms from the box and started handing them out to her teammates.
The soldiers laughed, but their reverence for the Cryes was real. They were undeniably proud to have the chance to wear the uniform worn by the Army’s hardest fighters. And with their built-in kneepads, the Cryes would be a big help when the CSTs took a knee after running out of the helicopter. The Crye top was another prized item with its elbow pads and lightweight, breathable material that minimizes sweat under body armor. It also has a high, zip collar that keeps gear like rifle straps from brushing and irritating a soldier’s neck. The Rangers who popped their collars reminded Lane of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, and for weeks she would think about Tony Manero on the dance floor every time she boarded the bird alongside her platoon.
“Uh, Lane, look at this,” Ashley said, parading up and down the tiny space between their bunk beds. She was drowning in camouflage that was at least two sizes too big: the waist was a solid eight inches wider than her hips and the waistband nearly reached her armpits when she pulled the pants up. The shirt was so tight it felt like the top of a wetsuit. Thank goodness no one will ever see it, she thought, since she would always be wearing another top and full body armor over it.
She looked like a little kid borrowing her parents’ camouflage, and Lane was nearly doubled over with laughter.
Lane had the opposite issue as Ashley: her pants were tight in spots where they should have been loose and loose where they needed to be tight. The area around the groin, which featured a nylon-cotton blend zip fly with a handy Velcro closure for quick action, was somewhat puffed out because something the manufacturers had intended to cover was missing.
“I don’t think they planned on girls wearing these,” Lane deadpanned.
Ashley asked around to see if any of the Rangers had suggestions for remedying her wardrobe challenge. She got lucky and scored a handsome pair of green suspenders that did the trick; from that moment on they became her signature.
Of course, their sartorial problem was hardly a first for women in the military. In World War II, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps had been supplied with uniforms made by manufacturers that only produced clothes for men. Women’s garment makers charged higher prices for every item and the Army wasn’t about to pay more to outfit the ladies. One woman in the 1950s noted that the women’s uniforms looked like they “were intended for a race of giants.” Mildred McAfee, the first director of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in the U.S. Navy, complained they “looked like a comic opera costume.” Nothing, it seemed, would fit a woman’s form: jackets had heavy shoulder pads and were tightly fit in the chest area; skirts were too narrow for a woman’s wider hips. Shoes and neckties were deemed unfeminine. The basic design may not have been “all that bad,” one servicewoman said, but “the end product could not have been worse from any standpoint.”
Things didn’t improve much come Vietnam, where women’s uniforms crumpled in the heat and disintegrated after the repeated washings required by the tropical humidity. Most women ended up wearing men’s fatigues and boots, even though their official uniform in theater was a two-piece outfit complete with skirt and pumps. When the Women’s Army Corps director demanded that women wear the traditional outfits, a Corps major protested that “WACs are in Vietnam to do a job and not to improve the morale of male troops.” Finally a commander stepped in to de-escalate the fashion war and allowed that the WACs could keep on wearing the tropical fatigues “if desired.” Most did.
Things in the twenty-first century had most definitely improved since the days of mandatory pumps and skirts, though strange-fitting uniforms abounded. Now, in 2011, at least the CSTs could wear the same clothing as the men they went into combat with, even if they required some adjustment to make them work.
The next hurdle for the CSTs concerned office space. The women had been given a room on the second floor of the Tactical Operations Center, or TOC, far from the Rangers’ team rooms on the bottom level, which meant they had to run up and down the stairs all day to learn about missions, intel, and anything else that was happening. Anne told one of the Ranger platoon sergeants that she wanted to move her teammates downstairs.
“Honestly, I don’t know if you guys can handle us—we’re kind of a crazy bunch down here,” the Ranger said, half joking. In any case, he added, there was no free office space near the team rooms.
“Oh, that’s okay,” Anne replied, undeterred. “We’ll just take over the broom closet.”
And so the CSTs spent an entire day cleaning out an old housekeeping closet that happened to be next door to the briefing room, and transformed it into the semi-official headquarters of the Cultural Support Team. It was big enough to hold a few desks and computer stations, and they settled right in. Ashley surrounded her computer with photos featuring her baby niece, Evelyn, her beautiful twin sister, Brittany, and snapshots of her and Jason. She also made it her business to keep everyone well fed, just as she had back at Bank Hall. Jason was sending regular care packages stuffed with all the sweets she loved, especially gummy bears and M&Ms, which Ashley stored in big jars positioned around the office/closet for visitors to enjoy. Ashley’s mom also sent goodies, including her rich, homemade chocolate chip cookies, which somehow managed to arrive in Afghanistan still gooey.
One day Anne was telling Ashley about how great the food was on the base where she served during her first Afghanistan tour, and Ashley had an idea. “If you get us a breadmaker . . .” she said. In no time the machine had arrived and Ashley’s mother was sending special bread mixes and all kinds of ingredients from Ohio. Ashley broke the machine in with a batch of raisin bread, and the entire hallway soon smelled of freshly baked bread. Rangers stopped in to try the treats and joked that the CSTs were just trying to torture them with the smell of home. Back in Ohio, Mrs. White would laugh over the phone with Ashley during their weekly Sunday phone calls at the fact that her daughter was baking even while she was at war. Some things never changed.
In reality everything had changed as day became night and night became day. Each “morning” the CSTs woke up at 1 or 2 p.m. Usually they headed right to the gym for a CrossFit workout, rope climbs, and toe-to-bar leg lifts. They completed dozens of lunges, then a series of Olympic lifts and pull-ups. Then they practiced rope climbing. Ashley had raised her own thirty pull-up standard and found herself getting stronger each week. Then, when time and briefings allowed, came a long run around the base, sometimes in full kit and sometimes wearing just the Ranger workout gear of black T-shirt and shorts. After that it was time for “breakfast,” which came when most of their friends and family back home would be eating dinner. Before they commandeered a pickup truck they could use for the quick ride to one of the dining halls, the CSTs requisitioned boxes of Special K with Strawberries and packets of oatmeal they could eat in their rooms or at their desks while working on the computer. They would spend the “day” figuring out what the actual night would hold, attending intel briefings and pre-mission briefs, and getting their minds and notecards ready for the evening’s mission. By 10 p.m. they were prepping. If all went well and even close to what they had expected, they would be back on base in the early predawn hours. Then they had “dinner,” usually known as breakfast, and headed off to their post-mission brief. By the time that finished it was time to wind down, usually with an episode of Glee or How I Met Your Mother on someone’s computer in the office. Ashley often turned to the movie Bridesmaids for her post-mission mental recess. Then the CSTs would make the short walk back to their rooms, change for the gym, do their workouts, and finally grab a few hours of rest. The next day they’d start the whole routine all over again.
The soldiers quickly learned that no night was the same as the one that came before. This was the reality of life in special operations. That was the reason the men trained all year, and it was one of the reasons the Rangers had been so apprehensive about having the CST women attached to them. Beyond the issue of gender, their far shorter and entirely different training cycle made them seem a dangerous liability. “You don’t rise to the occasion when things go wrong,” Sergeant Marks had told the women in pre-mission training. “You fall to your lowest level of training.” The urgency, the fear, and the sensory assault of war destroy the response instincts of most people in the heat of the moment. This truth made constant training not just important, but essential to survival and success in combat.
And yet, the handful of weeks of training in search and tactical questioning were now paying off for the CSTs at war. Each week the women shared stories on their internal email of what they found in Afghan households, the different scenarios they had faced on mission and how they had handled them. In the eastern part of Afghanistan, a week or so in, one CST discovered an AK-47 buried in the ground just beneath a woman she was searching. Kimberly and her partner, on their first night out with a decidedly skeptical team of SEALs, had found the intel items the team sought wrapped up snugly in a baby’s wet diaper. Out one night with her Ranger platoon, Cassie was called up to the front of formation to help calm a young girl whose father was known to be part of a group planning attacks on Afghans and Americans. The U.S. and Afghan forces hadn’t yet cleared the house, but the Rangers didn’t want to enter the compound while this girl was screaming at ear-piercing levels certain to wake the entire village. Cassie knelt with the girl and explained that she too was very close to her father, and she understood the girl’s desire to protect her dad. But, Cassie told the girl, her father was doing some things that were killing her countrymen and U.S. soldiers. The girl told Cassie to go to hell and spat obscenities at her in a fury of angry Pashto, but while the two women interacted, the Rangers were able to clear the house without incident.
Slowly the CSTs were waging and often winning the battle to belong: letting their work speak for itself, acknowledging that they weren’t Rangers but wanted to make a difference out there, going to the shooting range, hitting the gym, and marching their asses off each night without falling out. It was a fight every CST knew would be won slowly—and could be lost in an instant.