Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s Ashley’s War excerpt: Inside an elite unit of women soldiers who fought in Afghanistan.

Inside the U.S. Team of Elite Female Soldiers Who Fought on Afghanistan’s Most Dangerous Terrain

Inside the U.S. Team of Elite Female Soldiers Who Fought on Afghanistan’s Most Dangerous Terrain

Events beyond our borders.
May 8 2015 3:45 AM

Our Secret Weapon

Inside the U.S. team of elite female soldiers who fought on Afghanistan’s most dangerous terrain.

CST team member on mission.
A Cultural Support Team member on a mission in Afghanistan.

Photo courtesy Department of Defense

Excerpted and adapted from Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, published by HarperCollins.

I am going to die, Amber thought. She was clambering up a mountain in eastern Afghanistan on this fall night, through a dense grove of trees that blocked nearly all the moonlight she knew was there. I think we are now walking around the only wooded part of Afghanistan, Amber thought to herself. It was pitch-dark, and she was accompanying a team of elite soldiers she had never worked with before. She had never seen vegetation like this before in Afghanistan; it was bizarre. Every other mission had taken her through a rocky, bare moonscape that was good for line-of-sight visibility because it minimized the possibility of surprise. At first it had felt like any other “infil” as craggy mountain peaks loomed over bare earth. Then, suddenly, the landscape gave way to forest. Now she was navigating a mountain whose dense, tricky terrain seemed to be part of the enemy’s plan.

She chastised herself for sweating like a 300-pound fat kid.

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Check yourself, Amber. Check your breathing, she commanded. Dodging a tree, she kept up the internal conversation that forced her to focus: Step by step. Don’t slip into a crevice or fall off the face of the mountain and die. Don’t do anything stupid. Pay attention.

Her quads burned as she scaled an incline so steep that the muzzle of her M4 nearly touched the earth. Amber’s ankles felt as if they would break into little pieces of crushed bone. Her interpreter, Jimmie, a young Afghan male whose name wasn’t really Jimmie, held on to her shirtsleeves as they jumped over crevasses, working to avoid getting smacked in the face by tree branches or tripping over roots and vegetation, all the while trying to keep up with the far more experienced Rangers.

The sheer expanse of the mountains all around her served to focus her attention. Until now she had never truly appreciated how barren most of Afghanistan is, and how much easier that made most special operations missions. She pledged if she got off this mountain alive she would never take that spare landscape for granted again. As she lumbered through the darkness, carrying her 50-plus pounds of gear and body armor, her mind wandered to the war in Vietnam. She wondered what went through those soldiers’ minds as they trudged through the endless jungles trying to clear the trees, insects, and critters out of their way while keeping themselves and their buddies from getting killed. She always felt the deepest respect for what those guys went through, but it wasn’t until now that she fully appreciated the hell it must have been.

She did appreciate, however, the fact that her female legs were among the shortest of anyone’s out there, making the trek longer and harder. But Amber would collapse in a dead heap before admitting that leaping over 4-foot-wide gaps in the earth on a steep mountain in the middle of the night was a challenge for her. Part of her was secretly glad to observe she wasn’t the only one struggling; a big guy next to her spat out colorful obscenities describing the terrain as he marched.

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“Aren’t you glad I had you do kit runs?” she called back to her translator, referring to the drills she had made him do to make sure he could keep up on mission. Jimmie grunted his grudging assent.

At long last they clambered down the mountain for the final time and reached a tiny village nestled in the valley and circled by mountains on three sides. The intel teams said the insurgent they sought played a central role in organizing Taliban IED attacks and moving foreign fighters around the area. The threat level was high—even higher than usual—and everyone was on alert as the line of soldiers cut across the night.

The Rangers’ translator called out for the men of the house to come out. Soon the assault team entered the compound.

In another part of the compound, separate from the women and children, the Rangers began working to ascertain the identities of the men of the house, as well as locate any weapons or explosives.

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“CST, get over here,” a voice called out on the radio.

That call, for a female soldier to assist the Rangers in protecting, searching, and questioning women, was the result of an idea born more than a year earlier, an idea aimed at filling a security and knowledge gap on the special operations battlefield. A decade into the war in Afghanistan, some of America’s military leaders asked themselves: How do we win this fight if we can’t talk to half the population—meaning Afghan women? The inability of American male soldiers, even the most tested and battle-hardened elites of special operations, to speak with women in conservative, traditional Afghan society, where women often could not speak with men unrelated by birth or marriage, created a security breach. For if women’s quarters couldn’t be searched during raids and women’s knowledge of their own communities couldn’t be shared during military operations, American forces could never have a complete picture of what they were up against.

Adm. Eric Olson, the first Navy SEAL to lead U.S. Special Operations Command, believed his units were leaving information and intel on the battlefield. U.S. forces had become accomplished at the night raids and other special operations missions targeting insurgents. But they were less good at the knowledge side—and that was where women came in. U.S. forces couldn’t kill their way to victory in Afghanistan, Olson believed; they needed more information.

2011 Recruiting poster for the Cultural Support Teams.
A 2011 recruiting poster for the CST.

In this case that meant they needed American women on combat operations to talk to Afghan women. And if American women were going to join special operations on nighttime and daytime missions on the Afghanistan battlefield, those female soldiers had to be among the best.

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So the call went out in early 2011. “Female soldiers. Become part of history,” read the recruiting poster from Army Special Operations Command. Join special operations on the battlefield in Afghanistan. And from Alabama to Alaska, women who had always wanted to be on a mission that mattered, alongside the best of the best, answered the call.

More than 200 women applied. More than a 100 made it to Fort Bragg to face “100 Hours of Hell,” the physical and mental tests required to be part of this new team. And of all the women who raised their hands and the 55 or so who were accepted into this pilot program that came to be known as the “Cultural Support Teams,” 20 were selected to join the men of the 75th Ranger Regiment, Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and other special operations units on some of the toughest and most dangerous combat operations.

These women—who spanned ages and backgrounds and military careers—would become a team bound by the desire to serve at the center of the fight, the necessity to prove themselves to their special operations teams, and the knowledge that they had served at the tip of the spear while, on paper at least, women remained officially banned from ground combat.

Lt. Amber Treadmont was one member of that team. And she was just about to begin her night’s work.

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Amber hurried to the spot where six women and nearly a dozen children stood together, about 100 yards away from the compound. Inside the house the Rangers were doing their work.

“I am Amber,” she told the frightened group, looking the women directly in the eyes as Jimmie translated. “I’m an American soldier, and we are here to help keep you and your children safe. We will make sure that none of the soldiers come near here.”

Slowly she put on her blue nitrile gloves, and softened her tone. “I am going to start by searching you—this just helps us all to stay safe.” Then she removed her helmet to make herself look less scary, and make it clear she was a woman, too. One of the children immediately stopped crying, and Amber draped a teal-colored cotton scarf over what she now called her “combat braids”: two long, blond plaits of hair that extended from just above her ears to her mid-shoulders. The higher-ups had told the CSTs they should be able to prove quickly and uncontrovertibly that they were female while out on the objective; this would put the Afghan women at ease, which in turn might encourage them to speak more freely and share valuable information.

Two members of the Cultural Support Team in Afghanistan.
Two CST members in Afghanistan in 2011–2012.*

Photo courtesy the White family

The CSTs had joked about being asked to shed their helmets on target and how insane that would sound to most of the guys they worked with. “Hell, no,” one of the Rangers told Amber. “You’d never catch me doing that.” But they all agreed that making sure the women saw and understood who they were dealing with mattered most. Amber had turned to braids as a solution; they allowed her to look feminine without her hair getting caught in her helmet.

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Amber pulled Jolly Ranchers, Tootsie Rolls, and Dum Dums lollipops from the pockets of her cargo pants as she searched the children. “Hands out,” she said, and half a dozen little hands tentatively reached out to accept the multicolored treats in clear, cellophane wrappers. The little boys were all curious about which candy the others were receiving; the tallest—she guessed he was the oldest—began divvying them up among the other kids.

As they stared at the exotic treats, Amber gently patted each one on the shoulder. Once she was done, she gave the kids the internationally recognized gesture of success: a hearty high-five. No one expected the kids to be carrying weapons, but they certainly could be given things to hold by men in their family who might think they were an ideal place to store whatever they didn’t want found.

The women were watching Amber carefully, and soon realized she was not there to harm them or their children. So far she had stayed true to her word and kept the men at bay. One began speaking quietly.

“The Taliban are all over the village,” she said. “They hide up in the mountain and they are always coming down here to make us give them food and a place to stay. They know you guys come in here, but they also know you leave. And so do we.”

Amber was taking notes as the kids tugged at her Crye top, peppering her with questions in Pashto. Jimmie kept up a constant patter of translation, and Amber got to the point, asking about the men in the village and what they were up to.

Soon she was interrupted by a Ranger on the radio: “CST, what is the count?”

“Five men, six women, 12 kids,” she replied. The women had explained to Amber who was there at their home that night, and now Amber shared her tally of the total number of adults and kids gathered at the compound. The women and kids stood there with her. The Rangers should have found five men inside.

“Are you sure?” he asked. “Check your count again.”

Amber turned back to the women, and through Jimmie confirmed the number.

“Yes,” she said, “I’m sure.”

“CST, check again,” she heard the Ranger leader say. There was a tone of urgency in his voice.

Amber was frustrated but figured there had to be a reason. She and Jimmie went back over what the women had told them. The number of men was definitely five.

“Confirmed. Five, it is five men, six women, 12 kids.”

On the other side of the compound, the Rangers now realized they had a serious problem: They saw only four men in front of them, all of whom had now been removed from the house and brought to an area outside for questioning. The CST had given them a different number. Where the hell was the fifth? In recent months this Ranger unit had faced a series of barricaded shooters, gunmen who were hidden inside a house and would start mowing down American and Afghan troops the moment they entered. Everyone was quietly tense, wondering if a fifth man was about to let loose on them.

Finally one of the four men confessed that there was indeed another man inside. A Ranger stealthily approached the front entrance and rolled a flash bang through the door, in hopes of drawing the insurgent out of his hiding spot without having to open fire. All the rules said they had to try this first, before resorting to firepower. A bolt of light flashed after the explosion, and smoke filled the room.

Nothing.

“OK,” Amber heard through the voice in her headset. “Send in the canine.”

Another member of the platoon, this one a professional dog handler, led a large dog wearing a harness to the entrance of the compound and gave a command that sent the dog lurching into the house. This much-loved animal had years of special training and service under his collar. His specialty was sniffing out explosives and finding hidden enemy combatants.

Now, with the pressure mounting at the compound in eastern Afghanistan, the agile dog bounded inside. Suddenly Amber heard through her headphones the sound of gunfire. She tried to focus on the conversation she was having with the women, but it was hard to ignore the rapid tat-tat-tat of shots being fired. Jimmie was in the middle of an extended translation when Amber realized the men on the radio were talking about a soldier who was hit. The barricaded shooter opened fire the moment the dog cleared the doorway and one of the Rangers standing close to the breach had caught a bullet just under the ribs.

Amber heard a call for the medevac. She was still outside the compound, and could see nothing inside its walls, but she knew the situation had turned lethal. Still, she was determined to keep the promise she had made to the women and children to protect them from whatever happened. One of the women was struggling to nestle her baby in her gown, and without thinking about it Amber removed her teal headscarf and handed it to her. Despite the gunfire all around them, the mother actually had the presence of mind to thank her. Amber studied the woman’s face, now illuminated only by the circle of light from her headlamp. She looked thin, maybe even undernourished, beneath the many layers of dresses and shawls. Amber thought this woman could be around the same age as she—close to 30—or she could be 50. There was no way to tell. These women’s lives are so hard, she thought.

With her questioning done, Amber tried to pass the difficult minutes that followed in conversation. One of the women talked about the family of the insurgent who lived at the compound and the very regular presence of the Taliban in their neighborhood. “The mountains are full of their men,” she said. She described the violence the Taliban soldiers regularly meted out to anyone who cooperated with foreigners. Amber tried to reassure her that the Americans were here to help and only wanted to make the area safe for the local population—families like hers, as well as the Afghan soldiers and U.S. troops who were operating in the area.

The boom of an incoming medevac helicopter interrupted the conversation. It landed about 50 feet from where she and the women and children were huddled, and Amber watched in awe as the pilot glided the enormous machine onto the only patch of even ground that could safely accommodate it. The high mountain faces that surrounded them made flying in the pitch dark treacherous; she couldn’t imagine how he managed to find the one tiny rectangle of airspace in which he could safely maneuver to a landing.

Just then Amber heard the Rangers yelling over the radio to pull the women and children farther back. The shooter was still inside, and they were not about to see any more Americans shot or killed that night.

By now hours had passed since they first landed near the village. Between trekking up and down the insanely steep mountain, reaching the objective, flushing out the shooter, and getting their injured Ranger to safety, they had used up nearly all their limited hours of darkness. Shards of daylight began to lighten the sky. Amber wondered whether they were facing the dreaded “ROD”—remain over day—and hoped they weren’t. No one wanted to be there come dawn; the Americans and the Afghans would be juicy prizes in this Taliban stronghold if they were still on that hill when the sun rose. She eyed warily the hills that surrounded them and held her M4 assault rifle even closer.

We’ll be Taliban breakfast, Amber thought to herself. “CST, let’s go. Now!” the Ranger first sergeant ordered.

American firepower rained down from the sky on the barricaded shooter, who would not emerge from his hiding place.

Note: Amber is a pseudonym. The author has used pseudonyms to protect the identities of soldiers who have remained active in the special operations community.

*Correction, May 8, 2015: A photo caption in this post originally misstated that the two CST members were photographed in 2008.