Gayle Tzemach Lemmon grew up in Greenbelt, a working-class kid, public schools, her mother a single mom who worked at the phone company by day and sold Tupperware in the evenings.
She grew up to be a journalist for ABC, then got a Harvard MBA (she is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations), and focused her work on the economic affairs of women in developing countries. “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana,” her 2011 book on a young woman and her family under the Taliban in Afghanistan, was a New York Times bestseller.
So when she heard about the U.S. military’s first program to put women in special operations programs — in Afghanistan — she knew it was her next book.
“Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield,” also on the Times bestseller list, is the story of that unit, anchored by the life and death of 1st Lt. Ashley White. She’ll be discussing it Tuesday, May 19, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Willard Hotel, in an event sponsored by the nonpartisan Center for a New American Security. (It’s free but you’ll need to RSVP here.)
The women in the unit “had so many of the same values of people I saw in Laurel and Greenbelt, working two jobs, taking the hard right over the easy wrong, but you don’t hear a lot about them in the fancier places in Washington,” she is saying on a recent afternoon, calling in from a book tour stopover in Seattle. “I think that’s why this story moved me so much at the beginning. These women wanted to do something that matters. To be part of something larger than themselves.”
The unit that draws Lemmon’s focus, the Cultural Support Teams, was created in 2010. It attracted women from across the Army and National Guard to go into the field with special-op troops — Army Rangers, Green Berets, Navy SEALS and so on — on lethal, nighttime missions. The women troops, officially banned from combat, were designated in military jargon as “enablers,” or soldiers who helped special ops without being part of the official team.
Humping much of the same gear and weapons in the raids as the guys, the CSTs were to talk to the Afghan women, once at the target site. In that patriarchal society, Afghan women talking to American men would be a grave transgression. The CSTs, in addition to attempting to defuse hostilities, were also to gain operational intel, such as what the men had given the women to hide from U.S. troops, and where.
“Their mission was not to run an election or open a women’s center,” Lemmon writes. “Their job was to be the softer side of the harshest side of war.”
But, special ops missions being what they are, combat situations were immediately present. “They were in real combat, seeing war at a level that less than five percent of the U.S. military sees…They were working alongside the most tested and best trained fighters in the military. They didn’t just have to keep up, but they had to also bring value.”
White, an Ohio native, was serving in the North Carolina National Guard when she was deployed. She was married to Army Capt. Jason Stumpf. She was killed by an IED blast near Kandahar on a mission on Oct. 22, 2011, a blast that also took the lives of two Rangers. She was 24.
Lemmon first learned of her death several months later and started reporting in 2013. She met with White’s family first, then criss-crossed the country tracking down other members of the unit. Already familiar with Afganistan from previous reporting, she didn’t go back this time.
“I finished the first weekend of interviews overwhelmed by the size and weight of courage involved, the import of the story and why it matters,” she says. “I just knew it when I saw a sign in Ashley’s room. Her parents have a place there where they take the things that have been left at her grave. This one was in all block letters: “You are my motivation.”
The takeaway, she says, is simple but profound: “The nature of wars is changing, and the people who fight them are changing.”