Whenever I would mention during the last two years that I was writing a special operations-related book, folks were intrigued. Especially after the big-screen success of American Sniper, which threw special operations in general and SEALs in particular even further into America’s consciousness.
When I said the story had to do with female soldiers, the tone would shift immediately and inevitably.
“Is the book about rape? Or PTSD?”
And therein is the challenge of how we see our female veterans.
We have two terribly important narratives out there about women and war. Both deserve public scrutiny, legal remedy, and the creation of services to remedy them. But right now neither narrative includes valor. Neither talks about the heroism, the heart, and the courage shown on the battlefield by women from all military services over the past 14 years—and, of course, well before.
If only we would stop to see the valor story, we would notice that women have been out there, in combat, receiving awards and praise for the grit and tenacity they have shown in war—often while they remained, at least officially, banned from ground combat.
In Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield, I tell the tale of a team of women soldiers who were recruited by some of the most seasoned special ops leaders, to serve at the tip of the spear on some of the most critical—and dangerous—missions of the Afghanistan war in 2011. All this while the combat ban was in place.
The women who answered that call to serve landed on the battlefield after a grueling selection process known as “100 Hours of Hell” and less than two months of training. And they served with valor and courage alongside some of America’s finest and most tested fighters, including Rangers and SEALs, many on their eighth, ninth, 10th special operations deployment in America’s longest war. With little preparation compared to the men they marched beside, these soldiers went out there every night: boarded the helicopter, bounded off in the black of evening, hiked miles with 45 or more pounds of weight on their back and talked to women and children in the heat of a nighttime raid to get the information and knowledge that would make a difference for the mission. They wanted only to make a difference for their country—and for their teammates, men alongside whom they considered it a privilege to serve.
When they raised their hands to “become part of history,” as the recruiting poster said, and join special ops on the battlefield, this band of sisters found itself in very good company. Nearly a decade earlier, women— who remain barred from the infantry today—joined infantry patrols with soldiers and Marines in Iraq to search and question women. They joined special operations missions. They served as drivers, mechanics, and intel. And they accompanied convoys. In 2005 Leigh Ann Hester, a member of a military police unit in Iraq, received a Silver Star for her display of courage and valor when the convoy she was shadowing was ambushed by insurgents during that war.
Two years later, Army Specialist Monica Lin Brown, a medic, received the same vaunted honor for dashing through gunfire to help save the lives of her fellow soldiers in Afghanistan after insurgents blew up their vehicle. She treated her fellow soldiers while taking mortar rounds.
Just this last week Captain Lisa Becker became the first “female Aviation Foreign Internal Defense/Special Operations Forces aviator to serve with the Special Mission Wing in Afghanistan.” And Lieutenant Colonel Christine Mau became the first woman to pilot an F-35 Lightning II.
So the courage is there. The valor is there. But where are we? Both military sexual assault and PTSD are incredibly important stories we must remedy and pay heed. Yet we have to see these women as courageous service members, too, and know them equally well for what they have given America and the courage they have shown on the battlefield. They have served with true honor and distinction. They have given their lives and sacrificed their futures for this country as part of answering the call to serve in their nation’s wars. They are remembered at Arlington Cemetery and on special operations memorial walls to the fallen.
And now it is time for them to be part of our own national imagination. When we think of war heroes, we rarely think of women. First Lieutenant Ashley White and her band of sisters—women who are forever bound by the combat they saw, the courage they displayed, the warriors they served alongside and the battlefield friendship they will forever share—are our daughters, our sisters, our wives and our neighbors. They are also our warriors. And it is time their wartime valor became part of our history.