Ashley White-Stumpf was a college student in Ohio when she joined the Kent State ROTC, and she was 23 when she applied to join the Cultural Support Team training program. Eight months later, while deployed in Afghanistan with a team of elite special-operations soldiers, she and two others were killed by an IED. What were women soldiers doing on a Ranger mission? “This is the team story, the hero story we hadn’t heard as a country,” Gayle Tzemach Lemmon said when we asked what drew her to write her new book, Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield. When we think of casualties of war, we often think of young men coming back in flag-draped coffins. And, it’s true: Women are and always have been “barred” from combat roles in the armed forces. Yet nearly 200 women have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan while working as medics, drivers, and more. Ashley’s War illuminates another part of the story of women in the military. The book focuses on the first group of women to go through a special training program for Cultural Support Teams, which were created by Special Operations Command to make it possible to communicate with Afghan women and children about potential threats without offending cultural sensitivities. Lemmon first heard about White-Stumpf and CSTs at an event she hosted, and she was was intrigued. In 2011, the first group of women gathered to go through the rounds of grueling tests and physical training, to prepare them to accompany special operations teams on missions. The CSTs were out in dangerous conditions, exposed to the same dangers as their male comrades, and they were injured and killed with them as well. Ashley White-Stumpf was killed — and her Afghan-American interpreter was injured — by an IED in Kandahar province in October 2011.
In 2013, the Pentagon officially lifted its ban on women in combat roles, which opened up a wide range of opportunities and challenges for female soldiers — from Air Force flight crews to Army combat engineers. Leaders have until the end of this year to ask for and justify requests for special exceptions for certain positions. “Women are an integral part of the force,” Greg Jacob, the legislative director for the Service Women’s Action Network, told us. “Women are required tactically and operationally to fulfill our missions. Before generals made the request to integrate the military, they did research and found that it could be done without a threat to good order and discipline.” As of the end of April, eight women were making their way through Army Ranger School, a course that proved too difficult for more than 100 of their fellow soldiers (including eight other women) after only the first week. "None of them want any kind of special treatment; they don’t want the standards lowered. They just want a chance to serve in a way that matters," says Lemmon.
But, even if some of them finish the physically and mentally grueling training course, which runs more than two months, their achievements will only be symbolic. Women aren’t allowed to be Army Rangers yet, and advocates have a long list of questions about what will really happen on January 1. “The process has not been very clear and the services haven’t been very transparent when it comes to the planning or the implementation,” Jacob said. “We’re putting together this picture one job at a time. It’s like putting together a puzzle with only a few pieces, through what’s coming out in dribs and drabs.” While sexism doesn’t play a huge part in the narrative of Ashley’s War, it’s the misogynist elephant in the room for most conversations about integrating women into military jobs. Some branches, such as the Air Force, have brought women into virtually all jobs, but fewer than 10% of Marine Corps enlisted soldiers (and only 3% of Marine officers) are women. Without more cultural training to prepare units for the arrival of women, the process will be slower and much uglier than it needs to be. “We’re seeing that play out already online,” said Jacob. “This is misogyny and sexism, and soldiers with their names and faces are on their profiles, saying these things about women being in their units.” Nevertheless, there will be female soldiers who will endure this resistance and backlash and make it easier for the next generation. Eventually, successful military units come down to cohesion, trust, and teamwork, and what Jacob called the “shared sacrifice and shared misery” of training and serving together in difficult conditions. We’ll be hearing a lot more about the women of combat support teams and roles for women in the military. Reese Witherspoon’s production company has already bought the rights to Ashley’s War, which means the story of the first class of CST soldiers is headed to the screen. And, all combat jobs are supposed to open to women by January 1, 2016. “No question: They paved the way for other people,” Lemmon says. “They may have been out there because they were women, but they proved themselves because they were soldiers.”