Serving With Purpose: These Soldiers Made History for Women in the Military
They were told they’d be “part of history” five years ago, yet the world had virtually no idea they existed until New York Times best-selling author and journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon brought their story of courage, valor, and sisterhood to the spotlight in a new biographical novel.
In Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield, Lemmon tells the story of a group of women chosen to join their male comrades on special operations missions in Afghanistan. In 2010, the U.S. military created their unit, called the Cultural Support Teams, as a pilot program—the first of its kind—to test how women soldiers could access places and people that male soldiers could not.
As Lemmon explained in a recent TED Talk, “If you want to understand what’s happening in a community and in a home, you talk to women, whether you’re talking about Southern Afghanistan or Southern California. But in this case, men could not talk to women because in a conservative and traditional society like Afghanistan, that would cause grave offense. So you needed women soldiers out there.”
The formation of the all-female troop marked the first time women soldiers could join male soldiers throughout the Army, the National Guard, and the Reserves on special ops missions. Though women were banned from combat at the time of the team’s creation—a 1994 Pentagon ruling restricted women from artillery, armor, infantry, and other combat roles—the Cultural Support Teams could help combat teams on special assignments, thus becoming involved in combat themselves.
The restrictions of the ruling are expected to be lifted in January 2016, which would open all U.S. military jobs to women, unless services seek exceptions to the ban’s review.
“It’s important that women are working and being deployed in all kinds of roles in the military right now,” Lemmon told TakePart. “I think it’s the capability of women to connect with other women that makes the difference on these missions, and that was the case with the Cultural Support Teams.”
Many of the male rangers said that without the help of the female soldiers, they would never have found some of the things they were looking for. For instance, Lemmon said a female soldier found a piece of intel wrapped in a baby’s wet diaper. Another discovered a line of explosives that was set up between the house they were standing in and the place they were going to visit later that night.
One soldier stood out and became the focus of Lemmon’s novel: 1st Lt. Ashley White. At five foot three, she was known to her teammates as “the best of us,” someone who would bake bread before hitting the gym and would apologize for climbing a 15-foot rope using only her arms.
White was also the first in her unit to be killed—on a combat mission, along with two male rangers, on Oct. 22, 2011.
Stories like White’s and those of her teammates are examples of the importance of female soldiers, and people like Lemmon are giving a voice to a demographic that’s largely underrepresented in the media.
“Gayle is sharing a story that is missing from today’s narrative on veterans,” Kate Hoit, director of communications for the veteran-focused campaign “Got Your 6,” told TakePart. “We tend to hear about the men who have served—their heroism and triumphs—despite the undeniable sacrifices women in the military have made for years. Not only is she putting a face to women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but she’s showing a new generation of women what is possible.”
Two weeks ago, the Army announced that it was officially opening more than 19,700 field artillery jobs to enlisted women.
Though Lemmon says the program in Afghanistan is winding down as more troops are being pulled out, she says some of the women on the Cultural Support Teams are still deployed there. In October, President Obama announced that 5,500 troops would remain in Afghanistan to continue fighting America’s longest-standing war, but it’s unclear whether the Cultural Support Teams will be among them.