Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Council on Foreign Relations
Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
CFR Senior Fellow Gayle Tzemach Lemmon joins CFR Senior Vice President and Director of Studies James M. Lindsay to introduce her new book, Ashley's War The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield. Lemmon begins by describing the political context in which she wrote the book: the United States was well into its campaign in Afghanistan and U.S. commanders were exploring new means to manage varied operational challenges on battlefield. One such initiative, Lemmon notes, was to incorporate women into cultural support teams on sensitive special forces missions in Afghanistan. Over the course of the conversation, Lemmon discusses her experience writing and researching the story, the U.S. military's integration of women in combat roles, and the role of women in military settings more generally.
The CFR Fellows’ Book Launch series highlights new books by CFR fellows. It includes a discussion with the author, cocktail reception, and book signing.
LINDSAY: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations.
On behalf of Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, I want to thank all of you for coming here tonight. I am Jim Lindsay, director of studies here at CFR. I also want to welcome all of you who are joining us via the Internet as we live-stream tonight's event. You are in for a real treat. And the reason is that tonight's guest of honor, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, is a real talent. It is my great honor—actually it's my great pleasure to get to introduce Gayle tonight.
As many of you know, Gayle is senior fellow for Women in Foreign Policy here at CFR. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller, "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana." If you have not read "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," you should. It is an inspiring story of a young woman living under the repressive Taliban rule in Afghanistan who uses her entrepreneurial skills to support a community. It's a—an inspirational story and it's beautifully written.
But we're not here tonight to talk about "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," we're actually here to talk about Gayle's newest book, which I will now pick up and hold right-side up, which is "Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield."
I'm going to ask all of you to join me in welcoming Gayle to CFR.
Now Gayle and I did this event a week ago in New York, so Gayle knows what I'm going to say next, which is wow. It's a wonderful book. It is an inspirational book. It is a story of determination and achievement. But it's also a story of loss and grief. It's an inspiring read. And I'm not the only one who thinks that.
Looking at some of the reviews that have already come out, "Ashley's War" is described as fast - a fast-paced narrative, an inside view and extraordinary. And it also, I will note, as I was in the store today, in the most recent issue of People Magazine. There is a four-page spread about "Ashley's War" and the women who are chronicled in Gayle's book.
So I simply want to say you are the first senior fellow I've ever sat down to have a book profiled in CFR, so let's—let's give an enthusiastic cheer for that.
I'll give you a handshake for that, even a fist-bump, OK?
LEMMON: (Inaudible). Thank you.
LINDSAY: OK. Let's talk about the book. And let me begin with the subtitle, which is "The Untold Story of Women on a Special Operations Battlefield."
Now, your story takes place roughly in the 2010-2011 timeframe.
LEMMON: That's right.
LINDSAY: But until January of 2013, women weren't allowed to be in combat roles. Why don't you tell us how this group of women soldiers end up on the Special Ops battlefield?
LEMMON: Well, I think the—first of all, I'm so glad to see you all here tonight. Welcome and thank you for being part of this story.
The reality had long surpassed whatever regulation was governing women on the frontlines. There are some women in this room who will tell you that from first-person narrative. And the thing that is so—that drew me to this story is it is an inspiring story. It's a hero story. It's a story of courage and valor and commitment and finding your strength. And it happens to have female soldiers in it.
And there was a security gap that Admiral Olson, who was then head of Special Operations Command in 2010, really spotted and which was that you could not access everyone on operations—the Special Operations we were conducting—if you didn't have women soldiers. Because in a conservative, traditional country like Afghanistan, only women can talk to other women, which meant that you could never finish searching or finish questioning and or finishing talk to—finish talking to people who you were interacting with if you didn't have women out there.
So it was not a social program but a security gap that led women to be recruited, while the combat ban was very much still in place, for a group of some of the most battle-tested, hardened soldiers in Special Operations, Rangers, SEALs, other teams to go out on these missions alongside them.
And so the call went out. Female soldiers, become part of history. Join Special Operations on the battlefield. And this book really chronicles the people who immediately raised their hands and sort of leapt to their computers to start filling out the form to apply.
LINDSAY: But it was more than filling out a form.
LEMMON: That's right.
LINDSAY: It wasn't simply sign me up and I get to go.
LEMMON: That's right.
LINDSAY: Talk a little bit about what you describe as the Hundred Hours of Hell.
LEMMON: Yes. That was what the officer who created it called it, a Hundred Hours of Hell. It was held at Camp Mackall, which is out on Fort Bragg and where Special Forces and other assessment and selection takes place. And more than 200 women were in the initial round. About 110 or so get selected to come to Fort Bragg and about 55 or 60 get chosen for this special mission that was kind of building a plane in mid-flight to try to get...
These women were selected after this week of mental and physical tests, including climbing a 30-foot wall, figuring out how to shimmy under another barrier, mental puzzles, putting, you know, forty-five to fifty pounds on their back and walking for unknown distances, which could either be two miles or was actually, in this case, closer to ten or eleven or twelve.
And those were the tests that they were facing on little sleep and a lot of stress and, you know, people yelling at them, people screaming at them, people testing them all the time, because the assessment was designed to create people who could fit in, be alongside of—not let down the best of the best in terms of being alongside U.S. Special Operations Forces on the battlefield.
LINDSAY: So the ones who made—I think you described as the finest...
LINDSAY: ... the fittest and fiercest.
LEMMON: That's right.
LEMMON: That's right.
LINDSAY: One of the people who made it through the Hundred Hours week is the sort of focal point of your story.
LINDSAY: First Lieutenant Ashley White. Tell us a little bit about Ashley.
LEMMON: So Ashley was the heart of this really all-star team of soldiers who came together to answer this call to serve and who actually could not raise their hands fast enough to be there.
There was a West Point track star, another West-Pointer who had played high school football all four years, a Bronze Star Medal of Valor winner, another who was an intel officer who had served in Bosnia and who had then served—worked with the FBI, busting drug gangs in Pennsylvania. And at the heart of this group of incredible people who had never met other people like them was Ashley White, who was this very powerful mix of quiet, shy to some people, reserved to others, fierce, incredibly fit and also intensely—and incredibly, I think, fierce in her desire to serve and equally feminine.
She was somebody who loved to make dinner for her husband and loved to put 40 pounds of weight on her back and go march for 10 miles at Rubena Arsenal (ph).
Somebody who could then, you know, had a bread-maker in her office in Kandahar and would also go to the gym and climb ropes, using only her arms to go up and back and do 25 or 30 pull-ups from a dead hang, because she was a gymnast as a kid.
LINDSAY: Could you just say that—that last statistic again? Just—I'm still sticking on how many—how many pull-ups from a dead hang?
LEMMON: So 25 to 30. That was before she deployed.
LEMMON: So when she deployed, she did more.
LINDSAY: That's a lot of pull-ups from a dead hang.
LEMMON: That's right. And you know, I think the thing that—that people remember about her so much was she never talked to you about what she could do and, in fact, would be mortified that we were sitting here having this conversation. But she let her actions speak for themselves. And I think she showed the power of character in action. And she never had to tell you how good she was and, in fact, never would.
But she was the one who—they would work out three times a day during training and—at Fort Bragg. And they would work out during lunch. They would all come back sweaty and it was Ashley who would have fruit chews and granola that she would pass around to everybody else.
If you were at Fort Bragg and forgot your boots—because she and her husband, who was her Kent State ROTC sweetheart, who really pushed her to be everything that she could. So if, you know, he would call her up and say, "Ashley, I forgot my boots," and she would have another pair of (ph) alternates (ph) to you.
That was who she was, right, a very quiet, very professional, intensely kind. Her Ranger trainer called her the Megatron Quiet Blonde who could be a Disneyland greeter.
LINDSAY: OK. So Ashley and about 50 others make it through a Hundred - a Hundred Weeks of Hell (sic). They're chosen. They get sent to Afghanistan, where they are part of the innocuously named cultural support teams.
LINDSAY: Which is hardly likely to raise anyone's eyebrows.
LINDSAY: If you're a member of the cultural support team, whatever that is.
LINDSAY: But why don't you walk through for us, Gayle, exactly what it meant to be a member of the cultural support team?
LINDSAY: Because some of them went out and supported Green Berets in village stability operations.
LINDSAY: And others went out and supported Army Rangers in so-called—another rather innocuous sounding description, direct action. So walk us through what that meant.
LEMMON: So this security gap manifested itself in many ways. And on one side was the Green Beret, building relationship states, you know, being out in the village mission. So about 40 of the women went to that mission, 35 or 40. And 20 of the most fit, most intense were selected to go alongside Ranger regiments. And can we curse in here—in here?
LINDSAY: No, it's not a safe (inaudible).
LEMMON: OK. OK, so I can't say it. So basically they would say if they were an expletive, that's who we would want. That was the Rangers' version of who they were looking for, right? They were looking for people who could, you know, not—they would not be focused on giving out—they would say we're not giving out hugs and cookies, you need to be able to, in a very fierce moment, be able to get the information that's needed, keep people away from what was happening, right? And in this case, women and children away from whatever else was happening on their mission and make sure that we know what we need to from that community.
LINDSAY: But these weren't missions that were happening in the middle of the day...
LEMMON: That is right.
LINDSAY: ... it was sort of announced that you walked into town. Sort of—just sort of give us—people in the room sort of a sense of how a mission might unfold.
LEMMON: That's right.
So they were going on—the 20 who were selected to—for this side of the—of the mission were going on direct—on action missions, as Jim said, on nighttime raids in Afghanistan. So they were seeing the kind of combat that fewer than 5 percent of the entire United States military sees. And they would, just like everybody else, line up, get on the helicopter, land, sometimes they would have to go...
LINDSAY: In combat gear.
LEMMON: Absolutely, with 50—45 to 50 pounds of gear on their back, body armor, weapons, both your pistol and your rifle, pack, you know, everything else you need.
The first chapter has the whole checklist, so the opening has the checklist of everything they needed. So it was about 45 to 50 pounds and upward.
One gal got asked to carry the speaker too, so—so sometimes it would be more weight than that. And they would go walk anywhere from, you know, 50 feet to, you know, a number of kilometers, sometimes up mountains, sometimes in the snow.
Someone would tell a story about landing in snow that was literally up to her clavicle and—with all that gear and marching alongside the Rangers, going to the home, going to the—to the compound of the person they were looking for.
And then while the Rangers did their thing, they would be with the women and children, keeping them away from that—whatever else was happening and getting information that could either end the operation and, hopefully, save lives to the—you know, that wouldn't have happened if they weren't there.
LINDSAY: So what would they actually do?
LEMMON: So they would go in and they would say, you know, I'm female and they would have to be—when I talk about both—being both fierce and feminine, they would have to take their helmet off. And one gal would wear braids so that people could see very quickly that she was female, because under all of that gear, it's hard to tell who anybody is. Certainly it's not easy to tell who's a female and who's not.
So they would take off their gear. Sometimes they would put on a headscarf, if it didn't already have their head covered, right, if they didn't put back their helmet on. And they would say we're here to keep you away from this. And sometimes women would very quickly say, you know, listen; the guy you're looking for is two houses over. Or they would say—they would start talking to them. They would start figuring out what was going on.
One woman had a suicide vest. Another woman had an AK-47 that she had been asked to hide that she was sitting under. I mean, what they were doing was accessing information and people that would not have been found and accessed if they had not been there.
LINDSAY: OK. At this point, I want to bring everyone else in the room in on the conversation.
So what I'm going to ask you to give a question to ask of Gayle. If you could stand, wait for the microphone, state your affiliation and ask a question, preferably a brief one so we can get in as many as possible. And we'll continue the conversation. We'll start right here in the front.
QUESTION: I'm—I'm Wendy Friedman (ph). I'm from nowhere. What happened to Ashley?
LEMMON: So Ashley White was killed on a nighttime operation, October 22nd, alongside two Rangers, Sergeant First Class Kristoffer Domeij, who was on his 14th deployment, and Private First Class Christopher Horns, who was on his 1st.
And they were on this operation looking for an insurgent and there was a daisy-chain IED, which if you step on it one place, it will explode in multiple others.
And so her death really threw into a far more public spotlight a program that had been built for the shadows. And immediately, people started wondering is this going to shut down the program, because this was October of 2011. The combat ban was in place and the American public had no idea that women were no these nighttime operations. And so there was a lot of fear that people would start doing the math.
You start looking at the release, but the truth was that America had long since stopped paying attention to the daily news coming out of Afghanistan and that while people did notice that there were losses and were sorry for them, no one ever had really put the pieces together. And quite honestly, more than 150 women had already died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So one of the Special Operations commanders comes and says to some of the women, you know, do you want us to stop this mission. And everyone one of them, to a last one said nothing would dishonor her memory more than if we were to end this, because we must continue to work because she was a soldier. We're soldiers and that's why we're here to do a mission that matters.
And I think that such an important point to really hammer home is that this was a totally self-selected group of volunteers who always had wanted to be working with the best of the best on a mission that mattered, with real relevance to the heart of America's very long war in Afghanistan.
And so when that call went out, become part of history, you know, join Special Operations, every single one of them either got it forwarded to them by five people or was handed the pamphlet by people—by friends who said I would never do this, but I know this is right up your alley.
Because that's the kind of people that they were and so none of them wanted to stop doing the mission. And in fact, they've had a huge amount of support and continue to get it from Special Operations Command.
LINDSAY: Go all the way in the back.
QUESTION: Hi. I'm Kate Kohler. I'm a partner at Korn Ferry. And hi, Gayle. Great job. I haven't gotten this far in the book, but so what happens with the—what happens now?
So where are they now, the women on the teams? And can you comment a little bit about sort of the—what you think the implications are to the policies of women in combat ongoing?
LEMMON: So in the epilogue of the book, it talks a little bit about it. Basically, they all go through the end of deployment. Once Ashley is brought home, they all, I think, feel even more conviction. And in fact some of the ...
LINDSAY: They—they weren't allowed to re-up, right? They were...
LEMMON: No, that's right. It was a one-year rotation, so they land at Bagram to go home and, you know, this general says to them, thank you so much. You all did a great job. And they said, you know, all we want to do is keep doing this. All we want to do is re-up. And in fact, they were ready if—some of them did. But they were ready to tank their careers to do this because they loved what they did.
And they loved having the opportunity to work with guys who really did give them a shot because they brought value to the mission. And they helped them do things they couldn't otherwise.
And so all they wanted to do was keep going and it—but there is no blind budget for them. There's no—for those of you who are military, MOS. There's no occupational specialty for this role. So within five days, they're home and they're back in a cubicle, as if it didn't happen. And nobody knows what they've done. Nobody—you know, because all their unit knows is they've been down a person for a year.
And in fact some of the—one of them goes to see an on-base—she said an on-base shrink, you know, on-base counselor. And they said well, you know, I'm sure you didn't see a lot of combat, but, you know, you might still have some PTSD. And she's just like I'm done, you know.
So we were not, as a society, ready to have that conversation, because nobody knew who they were and what they'd done. And in fact, a number of them have gotten out, because as they said, nothing would ever match up to what we did in that year. Some of them have done it more than once, but the program is officially ending, as the war in Afghanistan officially ends.
QUESTION: And policy implications longer-term?
LEMMON: So in that—it's—January 2013, Leon Panetta—Secretary Panetta, General Dempsey, they announced the lifting of the combat ban.
In June 2013, Special Operations, as Major General Sacolick says—cites Ashley and her teammates and says they were tremendous on the battlefield and those younger (AUDIO GAP) of the CST quite frankly may well have laid the foundation for ultimate integration.
They were absolutely cited as people who had helped to lay the groundwork. And in fact, their Ranger trainer, when he first gets told he has to go train girls, is like oh, God. And by the end of his nine days training them says these may well end up being our own Tuskegee Airmen because they are going to be—one day, when people look back, this will be part of what helped to lay the foundation for everything that came.
And so by January 2016, all—either all jobs will open to women or a written explanation will be given as to why they are not, to the Joint Chiefs and Secretary of Defense.
LINDSAY: Yes, sir. If you could wait—if you could wait for the microphone, we'd appreciate it.
QUESTION: David Sedney with the Atlantic Council.
The Marines had a similar program, I'm sure you know, the Female Engagement Teams in Helmand from 2009 to 2012. How would you compare the two experiences, the Marines and the Army?
LEMMON: Yes. And the Female Engagement Teams are—are in the history.
It was really a—a huge privilege to assemble that history and to realize that it hadn't really been, as some asserted, the line from the Lioness program in Iraq, where women had been sort of taken from being mechanics and drivers to search women, when people—when there was a huge risk of suicide bombers, to the later '09, '10 Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan.
The thing that was different about this was the kind of combat it was. But those Marines were definitely, you know, patrolling on foot, in areas that had not—that were very heavy on—from—in terms of being represented by the insurgency, right?
This was different because it was a formal institutionalized program to train and recruit women to go out. Now they may not well have been the assault team, but they were certainly part of and attached to those Ranger and other Special Operations platoons on those kinds of nighttime combat operations.
QUESTION: Yes, ma'am.
QUESTION: Tristan Inez (ph) from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. I was just curious, what led you to find this story and write it?
LEMMON: I was hosting an event at CFR in New York and a Marine—a former Marine, Claire Russo said well you know, it's like the story of First Lieutenant Ashley White, who died on a nighttime operation in Afghanistan, and the first line of her obituary reads North Carolina National Guard.
There was so much in that sentence to unpack that I said so what was a—I mean I knew Afghanistan somewhat well. I had spent a lot of time there for "Dressmaker." I certainly knew about night raids, as did everybody reporting from Afghanistan.
But I did not know that women were out there alongside them and I did not know that there was a program that had formally put them there. And I wondered immediately, who are these people, what were they doing there, and how do we as a country not know that?
And so that series of questions, while the combat ban was still on, so that was 2012, eventually led to the two years and lots of Holiday Inn Express night stays of reporting that led to "Ashley's War."
LINDSAY: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Did the service ever get around to recognizing and rewarding some of these women with appropriate decorations?
LINDSAY: Before you answer, could I ask you to identify...
QUESTION: Peter Zimmerman (ph), retired.
LEMMON: I would say yes, in the sense that they did each—you know, they received Bronze Stars or combat action badges, certainly for their deployment. But there still was a coding issue for some of them, in that no—they were neither fish nor fowl.
It was a one-year program, so it was hard to recognize their contributions when very few people knew what the program actually was. So they would go back to their regular units and all the regular units knew—and they were all—mostly conventional Army units and they would just say well where have you been for a year?
And you know, it was—none of these people, I should say, talked to me at all, because they thought they had done anything remarkable. They only spoke to me because they didn't want their teammate forgotten.
So I think this is—you have had, you know, Special Operations was at Ashley's funeral. General Mullholland spoke and gave a beautiful speech about—he said, make no mistake, these women are warriors and they have made an—set a new mark on what it means to be a female soldier in the United States Army.
Colonel O'Donnell from Ranger regiment speaks at her funeral, before the church in which she had been married and baptized, both - sorry, christened in both. And he says—he reads The Man in the Arena and he says this is written for a man, but it very much fits...
LINDSAY: This is Teddy Roosevelt.
LEMMON: That's Teddy Roosevelt's Man in the Arena, but it very much fits this female fallen soldier and, Ashley, your Ranger brothers will be out there and will not forget you. So there was a lot of that.
They are on the Army Special—Ashley's on the U.S. Army Special Operations Memorial Wall. And in fact, in 2013, she became the first female to have a plaque at the National Infantry Museum's Memorial Walk, even though, obviously today, women still cannot be in the infantry.
And so they have been recognized in those ways, but it's been very hard because, you know, I've had the privilege of being able to unearth so much of this and put these pieces together, I don't know how widely known what they actually did really is.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Silver Stars.
LEMMON: This was—I mean, you know, it is. It's a story of valor and it's a story of courage and it's a story of the power of purpose.
LINDSAY: And sacrifice.
LINDSAY: Yes, ma'am.
QUESTION: Hi. Kathy Roth-Douquet with Blue Star Families.
So as we look forward, is this a harbinger of our future force? And we look at a force that in all parts is probably a quarter or more female.
What do you think the implications are for personnel policy? I mean, it's not just a one-year, but it's careers of people in families, where dual career families are in the military, where female-headed families are in the military. How do you see that affecting?
LEMMON: It's a fascinating question and I would probably ask half the people in this audience, including Janine Davidson, who I'm looking at, who's the CFR fellow for Defense Policy.
There is no question that the force is changing and that General Odierno and many others, the secretary of Defense, there is an awareness of that. But change and evolution is hard and this is a very living thing that we are watching.
And it's rare in history that you get to watch unfold before your very eyes this evolution of what is acceptable and what combat requires because of the changing nature of warfare. And so, you know, for many senior officials, this is—senior commanders, senior officials—this is a human resources and talent management issue.
It's a loss to have those people who did that mission not in your force anymore, right? It's a loss that we couldn't keep them serving the United States, given what they've learned and what they did. And I think that there is a sense of real adaptation and a conversation about evolution going on that will not stop in January 2016, but probably only heat up further come January 2016.
And look, I mean, you know, Jason Stumpf, Ashley's husband, he gets a knock at the door telling him that his wife has been killed in action. He's at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, as an artillery officer at a school. Nobody was prepared for a dual military husband whose wife was killed in action on a Special Operations night raid.
And in fact, people are trying to say well, you know, we're sorry we—you know, it's called Gold Star Wives, right? I mean, you know, they're trying to help, but—but we as a country - you know, the military's a reflection of us. It's not separate or other from us. You know, we as a country haven't really seen that and haven't really grappled with the changing nature of our own society.
LINDSAY: Yes, ma'am.
QUESTION: Kathleen Kuehnast, U.S. Institute of Peace.
Picking up on that theme of the changing nature of society and the changing nature of our threats, certainly even since Afghanistan, the issue of violent extremism is changing how we understand our military, how we understand our civil society.
And how will that threat, as we know it right now, maybe intersect with this growing need for a much more holistic approach to security?
LEMMON: It's an excellent question, I think one we're all, you know, seeing debated and being thrashed about in the Pentagon and many other places. I know General Odierno's think tank is really looking at urban warfare and what does that mean, if it's not—if it's street-to-street and not army-to-army?
I think that makes—intelligence that makes knowledge as important as many other attributes. And so you're—you see the military, certainly the Army, grappling with what that means for the future forces Kathy from Blue Stars Families was talking about.
It's interesting in this case that you see—so the women who did stay in on this mission are either the ones going to Ranger school—so right now, as I was at Fort Benning two weeks ago, Ranger school is opening on a one-time basis to women and there are eight of the 19 who are still in it through this really toughest or sort of the period in which most wash out.
And I think you see an Army that is—at this point, you know, Fort Bennett (sic) is very pleased to see that because of the capability that that means that the skills that they gain and—and I do think you see a look at what is coming from the Army.
But I think it's a very living, breathing thing, this whole conversation about where are we now and what do we need going forward, given the threat of ISIS and others and the evolution of the threat.
LINDSAY: Yes, ma'am.
QUESTION: Hi. My name's Elena Mariano (ph). I'm a 2nd lieutenant in the Army.
With the issue of kind of sexual harassment being so much at the forefront, as—of the discussion in terms of issues to integrating—fully integrating women into combat roles, did any of these women have any—was that a factor at all for them in terms of integrating with their teams?
LEMMON: So two of the women in these pages, from previous deployments (inaudible) were survivors of military sexual assault.
It was funny, when I was first working on this book, I would say oh, I'm working on this story about women on the battlefield. And they'd say oh, is it about rape or PTSD? It's about valor. It's about courage. It's about what they did on the battlefield.
And the—one of the characters, Laine (ph), in this story, she had been assaulted by a soldier in another unit in Iraq and actually, when she saw the ad for this mission, wanted to do it even more, because she wanted to prove to herself she could put herself in the most difficult of environments and not be a victim again.
She gets to her deployment and I think almost every one of these people would say, to a—to the last one, that they were an incredibly professional bunch of soldiers. And the only issue they really had was these were guys who had done 10, 11, 12 deployments, oftentimes. They had never served with women.
So if you have a female show up who's on a different training cycle, has not been selected by you, you can understand the skepticism of being told that one of your very precious seats on your helicopter is going to them.
And to their credit, especially this long into the war, that—the year was 10 years—the war was 10 years old by then, people were looking for a solution. And as one of these Rangers said to me, a job well done stands out. And those girls paid their rent every single night when they went out there.
They found weapons, they found information, they helped find people. And so I think it was much more their teammates were focused on can you perform in the job, can you keep up and not fall out on a five-kilometer infill, right, with all that gear?
Can you bring value? And as long as they did that, sometimes they would give them the seats on the helicopters that could have gone to other enablers and they would throw the other enablers off before they would leave—lose this capability.
QUESTION: Hi. Janine Davidson, CFR. Thanks, Gayle. It's a great book. Congratulations.
One of the other heroes in the story I think is the interpreter. And I was struck from a policy perspective at how little support that person had, whether it was a male or a female. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about her.
LEMMON: Yes. Yes, so I think it's chapter 9, is called The Terp and it's about Ashley and her teammates' interpreter, who is this Orange County gal from, you know, no military background at all other than her parents had been refugees coming out of Afghanistan.
And she decides she's going to go on a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan to translate, and within 36 hours of landing is interpreting for detainees at Bagram, 12 hours on, 12 hours off. And then somebody comes in and says hey, do you want to be part of Team Pink, which is going out on—it was their ribbing name for these all-female Special Operations teams that were going to go out on these night operations.
And at first, everybody's, no way, right? You know, they hadn't been trained, certainly in no physical, but you know, the other people in her group of civilian contractor interpreters was—they were either older and certainly not physically up to that job, or they had kids at home and she didn't want them to be the ones who went on these missions.
And so she feels personally committed to making sure that she's the person who puts her hand up. And, you know, she jokes that one of the first missions she's on, one of the first rotation of CSTs was like, you know, you need to keep up. You need to go faster.
And she's like, girl, I was in Orange County at the mall two years ago. This is not—you know, she had no training for being on that. But, you know, Ashley and her teammates, she said, you know, I'd never seen women who were that mix of intense and incredibly kind and warm.
And she wanted so badly for them to succeed that she extended her contract so that she could stay with them, because it was very hard to find very good translators who could speak Pashto and could speak American English and move very quickly in the heat of an operation.
LINDSAY: And remain calm.
LEMMON: And remain very calm.
LINDSAY: And she was not adequately equipped.
LINDSAY: I mean part of what you tell in—in the story is she had hand-me-downs as she went on these...
LINDSAY: ... night raids.
LEMMON: Yes, yes. In fact the other team—the—Laine (ph) that I was telling you about would say to them, like, your equipment stinks. And you know, it looked like they would joke that it looked like it was from either Korea or Vietnam, the gear that she had, because they had hand-me-down gear.
And she had a monocle at one point, in terms of night vision, not the full two-vision—you know, two lens night optics and it actually ended up being, you know, part of the story, as you'll see later in the book, that gear that she had.
And it was funny, because Ashley and her teammates used to say do you want to come climb ropes with us and go, you know, faster being—and no way. She was like I do my job. I wish you all the success in yours. I'm all for it, but I—that's not—that's not me.
LINDSAY: This is a story, Gayle, of real people under great adversity. And maybe you could sort of tell us a bit about what's happened to the people since this story. How many of the women on the cultural support teams, at least the ones you talk about in the book are still in the Army? Have they left the Army? And maybe a little bit about Bob and Debbie White.
LEMMON: Yeah. So, in the course of the two years of reporting this book, a solid half of the people in these pages have gotten out, more than have gotten out of the Army. It was very hard for some of them to find anything that would ever measure up, because there was this team bond that they shared.
I mean, that love for one another that we've never really gotten to see women have, because they've always been in ones or twos, and here was a team of 20 incredibly intense and incredibly ambitious and incredibly warm people who were there for one another.
And they are still today, each other's divorce therapist and career counselors and baby shower hosts and they call each other up at 3:00 am or they text 5:00 am. They are the only people who will ever understand fully what it was that they'd seen.
And at the end of "Band of Brothers," you know, he talks about that, that that's why he wrote that book, that bond. And I would say, for me, it is absolutely true. You sit in a room with them and you think this is something we've never gotten to see.
So a lot of them got out and are moving on to civilian careers. Some of them who are still in are in Special Operations missions. Some of them are doing work that's related to Ranger school. So they are—the ones who are in are still testing themselves and looking for every opportunity.
Bob and Debbie White are Ashley's parents. And the first weekend I met them I knew that it was not Ashley's death that had made being her parent a full-time job for them, but it was actually her life and who she was.
There was a sign written on a white, ripped-out notebook paper that somebody had left at her grave that said, in all black letters, "You are my motivation." And so I asked Mrs. White what would it mean to you if a little girl said she wanted to be like Ashley? And she said, it would mean everything.
And she told me a story that at Ashley's funeral, a stranger, at the end of two days of Special Operations kind of descending upon this small town, hundreds of people turn out for this funeral and little children saluting in the streets, Vietnam veterans saluting from the side.
And this stranger comes up to her, with her daughter by the hand, and says, "Mrs. White, I brought my daughter here today because I wanted her to know what a hero was and I wanted her to know that heroes could be women too."
And I think the only reason why they spent this much time with me, sharing the story, was in small part because of Ashley, because they did not, like very child—parent of a child who has been lost in this war fears, they did not want her forgotten.
But mostly, as her mother said, if Ashley's death helps us to know the women she served alongside then that will be part of her legacy.
LINDSAY: We have time for one last quick question, if anybody wants to ask a question. Before I take any questions, I have to remind everybody that this meeting was on the record.
Yes. You have the last question.
QUESTION: Hi. Lindsay Rodman (ph), I'm a Marine.
You talked a lot about these women's ability to sort of rely on each other and form a cohesive group among themselves.
One of the aspects of the conversation right now about combat integration and opening up occupational specialties has to do with how athletically difficult some of these jobs are and the ability of really, realistically, only one or two women at a time possibly to make it through.
So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about these women's ability actually to integrate with their male units and—and sort of whether they really did need each other or sort of speak to that question a little bit more.
LEMMON: Yeah. And it's interesting.
So they were originally envisioned as going out in small teams. But the truth was they were selected together and trained together, but they were selected in—in March or May, trained in June-July, and out on the battlefield on those operations by August in ones and twos.
So they were not in—they were not physically close to their teammates. But they had each other to send e-mails to. They would do video teleconferences. One former Special—former Green Beret read the book early and said, Gayle, you have a typo in here. It says S P A N X.
For women, it's not a typo. It's a Spanx. And one of the women had ordered Spanx, which is—anyway, I'll let women explain what that is to men in the audience, but they were—because they wanted their uniforms to fit better.
So they would—they would really swap stories. There was something in that camaraderie of being able to connect, not necessarily in person, but to have that connection of people who understood that was very powerful and actually still is very powerful for them.
They would have video teleconferences, in part to get over the fact that they were maybe the only female on their forward operating base, which was the case for some of them, right?
You know, we talk so much about this women in combat conversation about what women could do and should do and very little about what they've already done. And that was part of telling this story was it happened to be a great story.
But in the process I realized I certainly didn't know any of this. And it was that power of that community that they created for one another that I think did help them to keep learning, right? So they would share what's working, what isn't working.
Sometimes if one of them, you know, ate it and fell over on an infill and like went right into a lot of sewage, they would, you know, swap jokes about that on the scene. And it was like a moment of release that they would have to be themselves. And then they would go back to being, you know, soldiers who were right alongside some of the fittest, finest and most tested Special Operation units that we have.
LINDSAY: I think you've had the chance tonight to see why "Ashley's War" is a powerful and important book. I think even more so, you've had a chance to see why we in the David Rockefeller Studies program are deeply delighted to have Gayle as a member of our team.
So if you could join me in congratulating and thanking Gayle, I'd appreciate it.
LEMMON: Thank you so much.