Special Ops Leaders Praise Women's Role in Ranger Raids

  • 1st Lt. Ashley White. YouTube screen grab
    1st Lt. Ashley White. YouTube screen grab
  • Ashley White
  • Ashley White

A new book about a young, female Army officer who routinely accompanied Ranger units on raids in Afghanistan is shining a light on a select group of American women who have made history in modern warfare.

"Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield" focuses on 1st Lt. Ashley White, an incredibly physically fit soldier who joined the Special Operations Command Cultural Support Team effort in 2010.

The pilot program was designed to train women and have them serve with Army Ranger and other special operations direct-action units so they could gather battlefield intelligence by talking to Afghan women in situations where male soldiers had been unsuccessful.

Slideshow: First Women Start Army Ranger School

White, a North Carolina National Guard member, served in the special unit until 2011 when she was killed during a night raid on a compound in Afghanistan where a Taliban weapons maker was known to live.

White died along with the senior Ranger leader, Sgt. 1st Class Kris Domeij, and Pfc. Christopher Horns when another Ranger triggered a daisy-chained improvised explosive device, detonating a series of devastating explosions, according to the book.

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    "Ashley's War," by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, was released as the U.S. military is immersed in an effort to open direct-combat jobs such as infantry and special operations to females for the first time.

    Eight female soldiers are currently participating in the first co-ed class of Ranger School, a punishing, two-month long infantry course designed to push candidates to their physical and mental limits.

    White's exploits, and those of her female teammates, earned the CST program the respect of key leaders in the special operations community, according to the book.

    Col. Mark O'Donnell, who then served as the deputy commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment, spoke at a memorial service for White.

    Lemmon writes:

    "He read the 'The Man in the Arena' from President Theodore Roosevelt. The speech, given April 1910, focused on the importance to democracy of holding all citizens to the highest standards. The colonel noted that though this person described in the narrative was male, the words did indeed describe this female fallen soldier.

    'On countless operations in which elite special operations strike forces targeted senior Taliban and al-Qaeda safe havens in which contact was likely, Ashley was frequently the only female on the objective,' O'Donnell finished. 'Think about this and the great courage that that took.

    'She is the man in the Arena,' he said. 'Ashley, rest in peace. Know that your Ranger brothers have mourned and now continue the fight, a fight that you have committed your life to.'"

    Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2004, she left ABC News after 10 years to earn an MBA at Harvard University. At the same time, Lemmon traveled to Afghanistan many times between 2005 and 2010, writing about women entrepreneurs, which resulted in her first, best-selling book "The dressmaker of Khair Khana."

    "I went to Afghanistan and just got hooked on covering that conflict and the stories we had not heard out of Afghanistan," Lemmon told Military.com.

    "So I knew the war, and I was always fascinated about the fact that we didn't know enough about the people who were fighting this war on America's behalf."

    In 2011, she was hosting an event for the Council on Foreign Relations when a former female Marine mentioned White and how she died on a raid with a Ranger unit.

    "That set off a set of questions that led to two years' reporting, probably thousands and thousands of miles of travel, hundreds of hours of interviews and conversations with people including Adm. Eric Olson and Gen. Stanley McChrystal -- everybody from that level to very ground level -- Rangers who had done 10, 11, 12 deployments on America's behalf," Lemmon said.

    "A lot of people who didn't want to have any kind of credit ... nobody wanted any credit; they only wanted to make sure their teammate was not forgotten.

    "It just left you with so many questions because she wasn't there with the North Carolina National Guard and the combat ban for women was still in place, so how was she there? Who was she there with? What makes a person want to volunteer for that kind of a pilot program? And why don't we as Americans know that?"

    It wasn't until 2013 when then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the military's ban on women serving in direct-combat units. The services have until 2016 to make this happen.

    Lemmon said she hadn't realized the depth of this story until she talked to White's mother.

    "She said to me, 'These are incredible women and incredible friends that Ashley served with and maybe part of her legacy is introducing them to America,' " Lemmon said. "And having people understand who they are, not to give credit or glory but to give them acknowledgment to their service and their sacrifice."

    Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, then commander of Army Special Operations Command, did when he presented a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Combat Action Badge to Ashley's family at her memorial service.

    "It is important that we do recognize that what Ashley was doing is something that is a very small number, a very select group of women have raised their arms for," Lemmon quoted Mulholland in the book.

    "They come from all across the United States, and they come to Fort Bragg because they have heard this call for women willing to do something unique in our country's history to serve alongside the Rangers, alongside our Special Forces that are the best warriors that our nation has.

    "Make no mistake about it, these women are warriors; these are great women who have also provided enormous operational success to us on the battlefield by virtue of their being able to contact half of the population that we normally do not interact with.

    "They absolutely have become part of our special operations family. They absolutely will write a new chapter in the role of women soldiers in the United States Army and our military and every single one of them have proven equal to the test."

    -- Matthew Cox can be reached at Matthew.Cox@military.com.

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