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The sister soldiers who assisted Special Ops in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, an elite band of female U.S. soldiers were deployed on risky night raids with one of the toughest special operations units. Margaret Warner talks to Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, who recounts their story in her book, “Ashley’s War.”

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Next: the newest addition to the NewsHour bookshelf, women in war.

    They were an elite band of sister soldiers deployed on insurgent-targeting night raids with one of the toughest special operations units in Afghanistan, the Army Rangers. Their story is recounted in "Ashley's War," a new book by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.

    Margaret Warner recently talked with Lemmon at Busboys and Poets, a bookstore in the Washington area.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Gayle Lemmon, welcome.

    You profile some remarkable women in this book, but first explain what the theory was behind creating these all-female teams that went out on some of the riskiest missions in the Afghan war.

    GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON, Author, "Ashley's War": They were the cultural support teams, which were created to fill a security breach, which is that American soldiers could not go into quarters that were inhabited by women. Right?

    So, to have a sense of what was happening in the women's rooms and among women and children, you really needed female soldiers. And so, in 2010, Admiral Olson, who was then the head of Special Operations Command, had this idea. A little bit later, Admiral McRaven, then running Joint Special Operations Command, actually says, we need these female out there with the Ranger regiment and the other special operations teams.

    And by the start of 2011, there was a recruiting poster that said, female soldiers, be part of history. You know, come support special operations on the battlefield.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Part of the theory, too, was that the women knew a lot, if anyone would ever talk to them.

  • GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON:

    That's right.

    Basically, the idea was that half of the population was out of reach and that you needed female soldiers to have access to that half of the population. General McChrystal and others would talk about, they did not want to cause offense to Afghan men by having American forces talk to their women.

    And really they knew that if you were going to get information from the Afghan women, it had to be through American women who were on the ground getting it. And so that's why these teams were formed.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Now, this was still at a time in which Defense Department regulations barred women from serving in what they called combat units. How did they get around that?

  • GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON:

    Well, it was perfectly legal to attach women to special operations units, even if they couldn't officially belong to them. And so that is what they were. They were enablers who were attached to special operations teams.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Now, what kind of women were attracted to this?

  • GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON:

    What has been so fascinating is that they're so different. Right?

    You had a West Point track star. You had a former FBI interrogator who had served in Bosnia. You had another West Pointer who had played football all four years of high school. You had this whole variety of people. And what they had in common was, A, an intense athleticism, B, a really hidden sometimes, and sometimes at the forefront, intensity about them.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Yes.

  • GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON:

    And, third, this real desire to serve something larger than themselves and to be as close to the heart of what was happening in the Afghan war, where they could make a difference, as they possibly could.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Now, the title, you called this "Ashley's War" for Ashley White, a 1st lieutenant, the first woman team member who was killed in action.

    How did she epitomize the qualities that you're saying a lot of these women shared?

  • GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON:

    She really was, as people told me in interview after interview, the best of us, right? That was how they would describe her.

    And I think that is why she meant so much to them. She was this sort of quiet soldier who wouldn't talk to you about anything she was capable of, but would then get up and climb the rope in full kit and come back down once or twice and sort of then look down on the ground and kind of shuffle away and apologize for only having used her arms when she did it, right, because she hadn't done it the way they had explained.

    She was just the kind of person who made people want to be better because they feel selfless, they were quiet, they were kind, and they were fierce. And I don't think we see that kind of hero among us very often.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Now, the physical demands, making the cut wasn't easy, just physically.

  • GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON:

    Right.

    They called the assessment and selection 100 hours of hell. And it was really a physical test, but it was also a mental test. Can you get through this and can you still remain part of a team? Because they were all in the tent together and they were all part of a team?

    And so I think, for them, you know, it was something they had always wanted to do. Right? So many of these soldiers had hungered to be part of a team like that and they had never had the opportunity before, which made it even more important and really probably the best thing they had ever done in their careers and for some in their lives.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    It struck me when they got in the field, and they were broken up — you're with unit A, you're with unit B — that there was a kind of social isolation for them. They weren't really part of the special ops teams, so after hours, what was that like?

  • GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON:

    Well, some special ops teams really did embrace them, and so they would watch bad TV together or listen to music together, right?

    But most of the time, they were with one or another in the gym, watching movies or working out. Right? That was sort of the only options, and then you go to war. But the thing that was so interesting is their officer in charge really worked hard to keep them all together. They would have weekly e-mails. They would have video conferences. They would really share what they were learning out there because, it's true, there were maybe two of them at any one base. Right?

    There weren't 25 or 30 to go and share stories with, absolutely.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    How well were they accepted by their male — they were not counterparts — the special ops troops, and the commanders?

  • GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON:

    I would say, first of all, this is year nine or 10 in one of America's longest wars. Right?

    So, by the time that they arrived, people had never been ready to see women go out on missions, but they had had all kinds of other capabilities come. And so a lot of them said, listen, we may not want women to be Rangers, but if you can come out here and prove yourself every night, we will be glad to have you.

    What they had to do was to prove that they could deliver every single night. And I think every single one of them felt that pressure to perform, and to perform at the top of their capabilities.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So they did get information that was incredibly valuable to save lives

  • GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON:

    Absolutely. Absolutely.

    One soldier one time had a woman say, you're actually looking for the guy who is over there. And it was accurate. Another soldier had a daughter of one of the people involved in the situation tell her that there are IEDs not too far from where they're standing. Right?

    All of this actually does make a difference.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    They didn't want to leave their CST unit or the excitement of what they were doing.

  • GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON:

    You know, when I first began this project, you could see what an adjustment it was.

    They had gone from a job they loved. I mean, they would have done that job day in, day out, year in, year out, for as long as they could have, because they loved the men that they were working with. They had immense respect for what they did every single night, the sort of very hard-charging, ground-pounding elite fighters, Ranger regiment and other special operations teams.

    They appreciated the fact that those guys had given them a shot, right? And they felt like that mission mattered, that they could save lives, they could help Afghan women and children stay away from everything else that was happening at a very difficult moment. They could be the softer side of the hardest side of war.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well, Gayle Lemmon, a really interesting book. Thank you so much.

  • GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON:

    Thank you.

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