reviewed by Jerri Bell (Navy)
In her 2014 New York Times op-ed “The Things She Carried,” author Cara Hoffman noted that “stories about female veterans are nearly absent from our culture. It’s not that their stories are poorly told. It’s that their stories are simply not told in our literature, film and popular culture.” Gayle Tzemach Lemmon has taken an important step toward filling the void with her newest book, Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.
In 2011 a small, select group of women from the Army and National Guard deployed to Afghanistan in direct support of special operations. Working in pairs, or solo with assistance from a female interpreter, the women of Combat Support Team Two (CST-2) accompanied teams of elite warriors – Army Rangers – on night raids in the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan, where they assisted in the search for insurgents and their weapons. The women of CST-2 were not officially engaged in ground combat. Legally a 1994 “combat exclusion” law prohibited them from serving in a direct ground combat role. But their instructors had told them: “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.”
In Ashley’s War, Lemmon documents the story of CST-2’s selection, training, and deployment. The backbone of the narrative is the story of Second Lieutenant Ashley White, a medic in the North Carolina National Guard. Twenty-four years old, intensely athletic, and recently married, Lieutenant White dreamed of becoming a physician’s assistant. She wanted to work as a civilian in the Special Operations community after her deployment with CST-2, and she planned to start a family with her husband Jason Stumpf, an artillery officer. Lemmon alternates between an in-depth recounting of Lieutenant White’s story and profiles of some of her equally athletic and impressive teammates. She also summarizes, with the acumen of an experienced and talented journalist, the genesis of the Combat Support Teams.
Readers of Ashley’s War will be drawn into the story from the opening pages, in which Lieutenant White prepares her gear and her mindset for an upcoming night operation. They will admire the tenacity and determination of the women of CST-2 during their selection and training. They will come to feel that they know Lieutenant White’s teammates – I could easily imagine poring over maps and imagery with them in the Tactical Operations Center, or splitting a bottle of wine with any of them after duty hours (though they could keep their CrossFit workouts and fast-roping – the least athletic woman in CST-2 would have blown by me like Road Runner overtaking Wile E. Coyote). Readers will root for each woman to make the team; they will enjoy the vignettes of badassery, and cheer with every mission success. They will hold their breath when a mission goes from sugar to shit in an instant. They will feel the sore muscles, the blisters, the joy, and the heartbreak.
Female veterans will recognize the women’s camaraderie. They will say, as author Kayla Williams said to me earlier this year when she recommended the book, that Lemmon “got that part just right;” they will remember some of their own comrades and adventures with a sigh of nostalgia. Young women just entering the armed forces will find worthy role models in Lieutenant White and her teammates. Anyone who reads the book – male or female, military or civilian – will turn the last page with feelings of awe and respect for the women of CST-2. Many will shed tears during the final chapters. I certainly did.
Lemmon skillfully weaves in references to issues that have plagued military women for at least the last hundred years. One is that when the armed forces decide to recruit women or to open a new occupational specialty to them, training can be rushed or inadequate. “Commanders were impatient for the skills the female soldiers could provide,” Lemmon says, “and they wanted the women out doing their jobs now.”
The women of CST-2 deployed to Afghanistan after only one week of selection and six weeks of training, while the Rangers they served with had the benefit of a 12-36 month selection and training pipeline. In addition, despite participating in a number of scripted exercises in garrison, they trained separately from the Rangers with whom they would deploy. First Lieutenant Amber Treadmont sums up the result: “This is why they don’t want women here. These guys spend years getting trained…they test themselves physically, mentally, and every place in between, and someone thinks that a couple weeks training is any equivalent – that we deserve anything close to the accolades that these guys get? We are no better than fresh-off-the-boat privates right now.” Integration and team-building took place on the ground, in country. Their success despite suboptimal training is a credit to both CST-2 and the men of the Ranger teams.
Other reviewers have observed that the number of interesting women profiled in Ashley’s War made keeping track of them all difficult. I found that Lemmon’s descriptions brought each woman to life as a unique individual; they are so engaging that readers will wish they could spend more time with all of them. However, Lemmon could have further clarified the distinctions among the women by identifying each by her rank and surname instead of by first name, in accordance with military custom. Repeated use of the soldiers’ first names invites readers to feel closer to the women of CST-2, but the intimate tone comes at a cost to both readers and the book’s subjects.
Readers of military nonfiction – and veterans, who “read” one another’s service histories and characters in a quick scan of the rank insignia, badges, and ribbons on the uniform – can be repeatedly jarred out of the narrative by Lemmon’s constant use of the women’s first names (and by reference to Sergeant Scott Marks as “Scottie”).
Authors of military nonfiction customarily refer to soldiers and officers by rank and surname or simply by surname in descriptive passages, and limit the use of first names to dialogue where appropriate. This accurately reflects the reality of military life. Military women, like their male counterparts, refer to one another by rank and surname in the workplace. They are only on a first-name basis with women of equal or close rank, and then only in private or after hours. This basic military courtesy conveys respect for the wearer’s responsibility and leadership – respect that was actively denied to many women serving in the U.S. armed forces for half a century after the first women were sworn into the Navy and Marine Corps in World War I, through caveats and restrictions on the military rank that women could hold. The overall tone of Ashley’s War demonstrates Lemmon’s respect for and admiration of the women of CST-2. But the informality of her use of their first names throughout the book detracts from the message that the women of CST-2 were military professionals who had earned their rank and our respect: the only serious weakness in an otherwise strong story of strong women at war.
As Lemmon says, “None of these women was looking ‘to make some kind of statement’….All they wanted was a shot at going to war on a mission they believed in with America’s best fighters.” Nevertheless, the women of the Army’s Combat Support Teams set both a precedent and an example for military women of the future to follow. They competed hard for the opportunity to serve alongside the Rangers, faced unique challenges in adapting to the combat environment, and provided valuable support to the Ranger teams in Afghanistan. They willingly accepted the same risks as the Rangers on their night raids; two eventually paid the ultimate price for their service.
Ashley’s War is a well-told story and a powerful contribution to the literature about America’s military women. It is a must-read for those interested in special operations, American military action in Afghanistan, women in the armed forces, and special operations.
Buy Ashley’s War here
Story about Ashley’s War on ABC News
About the reviewer:
Jerri Bell (center, pictured on board the HMS Sheffield in 1994) is the Managing Editor for O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of the Veterans Writing Project. She retired from the Navy in 2008; her assignments included antisubmarine warfare in the Azores Islands, sea duty on USS Mount Whitney and HMS Sheffield, and attaché duty at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia. She has published both short fiction and nonfiction, and her work has won prizes in the West Virginia Writers annual competition and from Words After War. She and author/editor Tracy Crow (http://www.amazon.com/Red-White-True-Veterans-Families/dp/1612347010) have a book of military-themed nonfiction forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books in 2017.