"Ashley’s War" Q&A with Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Posted April 20, 2015

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon recently spoke with Got Your 6 regarding her new book Ashley’s War. The author shares why the story of the first all-Army, all-female team recruited to serve in Afghanistan along special operations forces, needed to be told.

1. Tell us about Ashley’s War?

Ashley’s War is a ground-level look at the first all-Army, all-female team recruited to serve on the battlefield in Afghanistan alongside special operations. It is also the first special operations-related story to feature nearly all female soldiers. It is a story of valor, service, friendship born in adversity, and the unbreakable bonds of war.

2. Why did you want to tell this story?

This was the hero story we hadn’t heard. Less than half a percent of this county fights the wars of the entire nation. I wanted to know who these women were who raised their hands not once to serve but twice, volunteering to be part of this pilot program to put women on the battlefield to access people and places that male soldiers couldn’t. It was a story of courage we hadn’t yet seen.

3. How did you start writing this book? Were Ashley’s parents receptive to sharing their daughter’s story?

I heard about a First Lieutenant—Ashley White—who died on a night mission in Afghanistan in 2011—while the combat ban was still in place– and I immediately wanted to know who she was, why she was there and how we didn’t know this story as a nation? The Whites, Ashley’s parents, are among the most beautiful people I have ever met anywhere in the world. They wanted only to make certain Ashley’s teammates were not lost to history and that their daughter’s story didn’t end with her. It has been a huge privilege and an even greater responsibility to tell this story.

4. How has the service of these women changed the course of history?

In 2013, then-Major General Bennet Sacolick of special operations command said at a press conference about opening combat roles to women.

“Quite frankly, I was encouraged by just the physical performance of some of the young girls that aspire to go into the cultural support teams. They very well may provide a foundation for ultimate integration.”

That is their legacy as teammates and as individuals. These are our soldiers and they helped to pave the way for those who would follow.

5. What was the most surprising—or unexpected—thing you learned about this group of soldiers?

All of it. I was surprised that we hadn’t heard this story, that we didn’t know this history of service and courage. And then when I started writing I realized that this truly was an all-star team of women—diamonds among diamonds as their Ranger trainer said it—that spanned ages and interests. Lt. White was someone who loved making dinner for her husband and putting 50 pounds on her back and rucking. She would bake bread in their Kandahar office and then go to the gym and climb ropes and do CrossFit for hours. She was a rare mix of kind and fierce and shy and intense. What all these women had in common was the desire to serve something greater and to test themselves to the fullest.

6. How did the special operations community react to Ashley’s death?

They honored her in ways large and small. They placed her name on the US Army Special Operations Command Memorial. Special operations leaders spoke at her memorial service and her funeral. A Ranger stood by her throughout her burial. And her photo was placed on the wall remembering the fallen there in Kandahar alongside the Rangers with whom she died.

7. Do you think America is ready to learn about Ashley’s story and the women she served alongside?

Yes, this is our history. These are our soldiers. And we must know who they are and what we ask of them before we can truly narrow that divide between those who serve and everyone else. There is a hunger right now for stories that embody the best of America, the best of our character as a nation, and the story of this team and of Lt. White remind us of who we are when we are at our best: selfless, determined, courageous and dedicated to things larger than ourselves.

8. Without a doubt this book will add to the ongoing conversation about women in combat—what are your thoughts after writing Ashley’s War?

This book is not about what women could do, should do or are capable of. This is one story among so very many we don’t yet know of what they have done. I hope the facts in this story will help to illuminate the sacrifices and service of women throughout this past 13 years of war.

9. What do you want readers to walk away with after finishing this book?

Each of us can make a difference. And that each one of us, regardless of who we are, can be heroes. As a complete stranger approached Mrs. White at Ashley’s funeral and said, “I wanted to bring my daughter here today because I wanted her to know what a hero was. And I wanted her to know that women could be heroes, too.”

10. Anything else you’d like to add?

It has been a privilege and responsibility to spend two years bringing this piece of American history to readers. Thank you to Got Your 6 for sharing this. The soldiers who shared their stories with me did so not because a single one wanted to be remembered, but because they wanted to make certain their teammate would not be forgotten. This is a team story of valor, courage and boundary-breaking we haven’t yet seen.

Learn more about Ashley’s War and watch Ashley’s War book trailer.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributor to the Atlantic’s Defense One writing on national security and foreign policy issues. In 2004 she left ABC News to earn her MBA at Harvard, where she began writing about women entrepreneurs in conflict and postconflict zones, including Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Rwanda. She is the bestselling author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana and has written for Newsweek, the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, CNN.com, and the Daily Beast, as well as for the World Bank and the Harvard Business School. Her 2011 TED Talk was a TED Talk of the Day in January 2012. A Fulbright scholar and Robert Bosch fellow, Gayle speaks Spanish, German, French and is conversant in Farsi.