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The Little-Known World Of Women On The Battlefield

American women were officially banned from serving in combat roles until 2013. But the new book “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield” (Harper Collins/2015) documents the story of a team of women who were on night raids alongside Navy Seals and Green Berets before the ban was lifted.

These women were called the Cultural Support Team (CST-2), and they were deployed to fill a security gap in Afghanistan. Due to strict cultural and religious rules, male soldiers were not able to interact with Afghani women, so the women of the CST-2 team were deployed to access people and places that had been out of reach.

Journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon reveals the stories of the team’s work and the role that 1st Lt. Ashley White played in its success. White, who lived in Raeford, N.C., was killed in action in 2011 and became the first woman to be remembered on the National Infantry Museum’s Memorial Walk. 

Host Frank Stasio talks to Gayle Tzemach Lemmon about the book and what it illuminates about the hidden history of women on the battlefield.

Lemmon first about this team of women in 2012 while talking to a former Marine. She had covered Afghanistan as a journalist and even written her first book there, so she thought she knew a lot about the war.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute. What do you mean women are on nighttime operations?’” Lemmon says. “A lot of these women in uniform started laughing.”

The question began Lemmon’s quest to find out more about the women. After learning about White’s story, Lemmon went to White’s family.

“Ashley White is one of the best examples of American values of people I’ve ever reported on,” Lemmon says. “Somebody joked to me she was half-Martha Stewart, half-G.I. Jane. Loved to cook dinner for her husband and was incredible at putting 45 pounds of weight on her back and marching 10 or 11 miles.”

Although White and other women were not officially allowed in combat, there was a security gap and need for females. American male soldiers, no matter how skilled, could not speak to Afghan women without violating cultural and religious norms.

“Everything women knew, everything women saw and understood about their homes and communities was unknown,” Lemmon says.

That is where CST-2 came in. The women would accompany Navy Seals and Green Berets during nighttime operations to talk to Afghan women. This allowed new access and information to half of the population.

Although their femininity was essential to their mission, the women still had to be elite soldiers. They needed to be capable of carrying lots of weight for miles in the dead of night without lagging behind. White would dedicate herself to the gym for hours on end but still go back to her office and make raisin bread in her bread machine to share.

“The selection process was designed to find these women who were fierce, fit and incredibly feminine all at the same time,” Lemmon says.

Military men initially met these CSTs with skepticism, but at the end of the day, they wanted whoever could aid the operations.

“For these women, it was never about proving a point,” Lemmon says. “It was about serving a purpose.”

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Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist and the host and creator of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content.