After I read Ashley’s War by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, I found myself thinking about these women warriors during my workouts. Just when I was ready to slow down during a 3-minute bike sprint or skip the last two Xs and Os abdominal crunches, I thought about First Lieutenant Ashley White and her fellow CSTs.
Published last April and scheduled to be a movie directed by Reese Witherspoon, the book tells the story of a group of women who deploy with the elite special forces of all military branches – Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Green Berets and others – in Afghanistan beginning in 2011.
Lemmon chronicles the backstories of the women who go through training with White to become Cultural Support Team members, called CSTs among comrades.
There’s 5-foot tall Amber Treadmont, a blond hair, blue-eyed Heidi lookalike; Kristen Fisher, a former NFL cheerleader who makes a multi-mile ruck march look like a walk in the park; and Tristan Mardsen, a high school track star and West Point graduate who runs sockless, but whose looks belie her smelly feet. They’re not all so appealing – among them are “female John Waynes” – but toughness marks them all.
Before they deploy, they train – a lot harder than anyone in my gym, I’d bet. Their first physical test is a “ruck,” a 20-mile march with 35 pounds of gear on their backs. The last day of training, the ruck is longer, six hours (!), and the packs are heavier. They follow that with negotiating obstacle courses, running without packs and rescuing the “fake-dead,” the limp bodies of women playing dead on the battlefield.
White and the other CSTs sign up knowing the job will take them to the most dangerous parts of the war zone with the finest men from the fittest teams. Paraphrasing Sergeant Scottie Marks, “If Rangers are in your living room in the middle of the night, things are really bad.” (Expletive deleted.)
And that’s what they do. They go into homes in remote areas to locate known insurgents, find their weapons and stop them from harming Afghan civilians and NATO troops. Every team member part of the nighttime raids has a specific task. The task of the CSTs is to interrogate Afghan women.
Afghan culture enshrines women, Lemmon explains. They are kept separate from men unrelated to them, and those men respect and preserve the honor of their women. So when America’s male military members search women, or search their rooms and belongings, the Afghan men have failed to protect their women. “The act violates a code of honor that lies at the very foundation of their society,” Lemmon writes. This is especially true in rural provinces where life more closely follows traditional practices than in cities.
Therefore, besides the physical toughness necessary for the job, the women possess the mental acumen to gently talk to Afghan women and children and glean information vital to the mission.
Lemmon’s research provides a credible account of what led to the first officially recognized program for women in combat. Though women have fought and died in war, the military resists any suggestion that women should or could be assigned combat roles. To get around it, the CSTs are labeled “enablers,” not directly assigned a combat role, but “attached” to the units they worked with.
Make no mistake. These girls could handle combat, probably more skillfully than most men. But Lemmon makes the point early in the book, each of the women want this specific job. Already military members, they volunteer with confidence and they understand what they’re getting into. They know they can meet the physical demands and withstand the mental challenges. Their guts tell them this is what they were meant to do.
Lemmon also gives a glimpse into the contribution of civilian interpreters, “terps,” who go on raids without the benefit of much preparation. Nor does she overlook military dogs, often the first to enter treacherous terrain on the battlefield.
The author says, “This book is the product of 20 months of travel, hundreds of interviews conducted in a dozen states across America, a review of primary research and documents, and an illuminating set of conversations with some of America’s most seasoned military leaders.” Lemmon does a masterful job weaving together the story of CSTs and other enablers making a difference in Afghanistan. She tells their stories, their likes, their successes and their fears so that we like them, care about them and, most of all, respect them.