When you think of special operations forces in Afghanistan, you probably picture a group of men: buff, tattooed and sunburnt. But right beside some of them, a “band of sisters” kept them safe. In her 2015 book “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield,” journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon details a little-known Army program that assigned all-female units to support male soldiers. Known as Cultural Support Teams (CST), these women helped gather intelligence from mothers and daughters in Afghan households, while male counterparts conducted raids to find insurgents.
“In a conservative and traditional society like Afghanistan, particularly places where the insurgency was strongest, male soldiers — no matter how good they were at fighting — could not speak to Afghan women,” Lemmon recounts at a Got Your 6 Storytellers event in Los Angeles. Lemmon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who spent an extensive amount of time in Afghanistan for her previous book “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana,” reported the story of Lt. Ashley White and her unit through hundreds of hours of interviews over the course of two years. In an interview with NationSwell, Lemmon discussed what she learned about women’s role in the military during her research.
What inspired you to share the story of CST in Afghanistan?
It was the impossibility of the story on the surface — this group of teammates who became friends and then family at a time when women officially were banned from ground combat. Here was a group of Americans who answered their country’s call to serve, who went onto the battlefield alongside Rangers and SEALs, and who were forever changed by it. They broke ground in service to their country, and we didn’t know them. I wanted to share this slice of history we didn’t know.
While embedded, what did you learn about what it means to serve as an American soldier?
I saw young Americans going in and out of Afghanistan, risking their lives for their nation and for the friends they had come to love. I wanted to share that connection, that friendship, that desire to serve.
What does camaraderie look like in an all-female unit?
Much the same as in an all-male unit. It was about friendship and sisterhood and caring for one another — only it was even more extreme because they were all they had out there, the only people who knew and understood all that they saw and did at the tip of the spear while women officially weren’t there.
How did meeting these female warriors change your idea of womanhood?
This story took me into a world I had never known of women who were funny and fierce, driven and kind, intense and warm. So many times the women we see on our pages or on our screens are one or the other. I wanted to show these women in all their dimensions and to tell a story that was true to who they are and were.
What three words describe your experience abroad?
Afghanistan is a generous, inspiring and heartbreaking place.
What is the quality you most admired in the troops you met?
Tenacity and grit alongside great heart.
How can someone support veterans?
Get involved. Listen to veterans’ stories. Help veterans with their transition into the next phase of life and be aware of the wars we have asked them to fight. Too many are too distant from the battle and don’t want to hear what it was like for the 1 percent of the country that has fought 100 percent of its 15 years of war. That must change.
What unique challenges do female veterans face?
We must recognize that veterans are women and women are veterans. We must expand our version of the veteran to make sure it includes women and the valor they have shown these past decades of war. Otherwise, our antiquated views of what women have and are doing keeps us as a country from offering the respect and the support they deserve from us.