When I wrote Ashley's War, I set out to tell a war story we didn't know about women I felt strongly we should. But I didn't know how funny these young women — who served alongside Army Rangers and Navy SEALS on special operations combat missions — were. They ribbed each other, laughed with each other and finished each other's sentences while we sat and drank and ate Triscuits around their kitchen tables. I didn't know how bound to each other they are. Talk to one of them and you talk to six; they are each other's divorce therapists, career counselors, baby shower hosts, 24-hour-a-day confessors and priests. And I didn't know that they had become family because they alone understood everything they had seen and done and smelled and lived and lost at the tip of the spear all while, officially, women were banned from ground combat.
We don't think of our war stories as including women. Hell, many of us don't think of war stories at all. But if we do, we definitely don't think of young women who love "Bridesmaids," wear Spanx, and do killer cross-stitch all while being ridiculously schooled and skilled in things like "Pain Train" (a CrossFit workout whose details make you sore just reading them) and "rucking" (putting on your back a pack filled with 35-plus pounds of gear and marching for miles. By choice). I certainly didn't.
I knew Afghanistan. I had spent time there reporting and come to love the country that is home to the absolute best and the bitter worst of humanity I've ever seen. I lived in a guesthouse filled with a motley mix of aid workers, itinerant journalists and former British. Army guys then running security and making a ton of tax-free money. And I spent most days with Afghans far from power whose lives had been shaped by the unrelenting grind of war without end. The country had become a part of my life: I learned I was pregnant in Kabul when a nausea I tried to treat with Cipro turned out not to be a parasite, but a baby who arrived nine months later.
But I didn't know women were out on these kinds of missions. I learned as I reported. And I wanted readers on this journey alongside me. I wanted this story to introduce you to these women who had grit and guts and heart. Who were not super-human, but exceptionally human, full of fight, familiar with fear, and filled with love for one another. I came to think of Ashley's War as the ultimate story of women's friendship in the least likely place: on the special operations battlefield.
We tell our stories to make the personal universal. I hope that in the below excerpt, their grit shows us a glimpse of ourselves.
By day four the all-night work sessions and all-day marching, running, and obstacle testing were beginning to take their toll on the women, and Tristan's strategy of sleeping in full uniform was looking increasingly sensible.
Even the relentlessly upbeat Tristan was bending under the pressures of the program. She returned to the tent exhausted and demoralized after a day at the Soldier Urban Reaction Facility, established to help soldiers better navigate the cultures in which they would be operating. The test encounter had started fine, but went south quickly when "husbands" of the "Afghan women" she was supposed to be interviewing burst into the room and began hitting their wives and screaming at the American soldier. Tristan simply froze where she sat, unable to conjure up, in the shrill chaos of the moment, the words and actions needed to calm the situation. Eventually she muttered something to explain why she was there, but it was too late: she had lost control of the situation.
It hadn't gone much better for Tristan later that evening when the instructors interrogated her about how field artillery bears any relevance to counterinsurgency.
"Guys, I don't know if I can do this," she confided late that night from her bed, her head in her hands. "I know I want it, but I think I just lost my chance."
Kate and Rigby came over to her small cot and put their arms around her shoulders. "Come on," Kate said, "you're doing great out there and you're going to be even greater after this. Stay in it. One lousy test doesn't take you off track."
Rigby had had a grueling day as well, having pushed herself as well as her teammates through their misery. At dinner she had to prod Kristen to finish eating her MRE, or Meals, Ready to Eat, after she threw up half of it. Her body simply could not take in as much food as she needed to get through the day's tests. "You gotta keep going," Rigby insisted, pushing the unappetizing meal of chicken-with-something back toward her after she vomited just beside her seat. "Keep eating it."
One night Rigby found inspiration in an unexpected place.
"Hey, you guys, check this out," she said, running back into the tent after her visit to one of the port-a-potties that stood in a row behind their sleeping quarters. "The john has a message for us!"
"You gotta be joking!" Kate shouted. "Are you really bringing us wisdom from the shitter?"
Tristan too was preparing for a few moments of rest, in full uniform, and let out a big laugh. It was the first smile her face had found in hours.
"Yes, I am indeed, ladies," Rigby said in her matter-of-fact tone, pushing back her glasses. "There is some really good stuff in there. I've been reading a lot of it. Think about who has sat on those toilets before us—every man who has ever gone on to join Special Forces. They know what they're talking about when they leave that wisdom behind."
The entire tent was listening.
"Seriously," she continued. "Listen to this. And take it to heart, girls, as the last day approaches."
She paused for effect.
"The mind is its own place. And itself can make a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell. Don't quit."
The room was pin-drop silent.
"Pretty good, isn't it? Going to have T-shirts made for us with it when this is all done," Rigby said. Then she jumped onto her cot. "It's my favorite one so far. Good night, my friends, see you before I want to."
The room went dark as someone turned off the main light. Don't quit indeed, thought Kate. Just one more day . . .
Two hours later they were awake. "Up, up, get moving!" one of the tentmates yelled. "Cadre are out there—time to get up!" It did not count as predawn, Kate thought; it was maybe 2 or 3 a.m. Her blistered feet burned and her body ached. Her eyes were completely dried out; they felt like glass that was being sandblasted.
Meanwhile, Tristan, now recovered from her brush with hopelessness of several hours earlier, was trying to rally her troops.
"Come on, guys, let's go," she said, bounding from cot to cot to make sure no one was still asleep. She checked to make sure Rigby had on fresh socks since her last pair was soaked through with blood from her blisters. "This is it—last day."
The night ruled quiet and crisp. North Carolina has the brightest stars I've ever seen, Tristan thought. She inhaled the air and psyched herself up for the march that was soon to come. The women carried rucksacks, canteens, and fake weapons, and were poised to begin the most grueling physical and mental tests they would face in their weeklong training cycle.
"It will be a suckfest," Kate promised the others. "Get ready!"
It started with a ruck that had no end. The women marched on long stretches of flat brown dirt, up rock-strewn hills and alongside murky, mud-filled creeks lined by trees on either side. For more than six hours they rucked, and as they did they watched as the pitch- black sky slowly faded and gave way to a few rays of sunlight that signaled the approaching dawn.
Occasionally the instructors stopped the marchers to ask them a riddle. Some of the women used the break to kneel on one knee and give their feet a rest. During one such pause, the instructor had no sooner gotten mid-sentence in his question about how to move an item across a gulch when Kate stopped to interrupt him with the answer.
"I got it," she blurted out. "Move this, move that, move that, you're done."
Her answer was correct.
"What the heck?" Rigby said. "How did you do that? That was amazing."
"It came to me like Jesus," Kate said, stepping back to take a bow before her team, and inspire a moment of laughter. Then it was back to the march.
By the time the march ended some of the women were dizzy with exhaustion. Others sat down for the first time in hours for their ten- minute break for mealtime—more MREs—and believed they had never eaten anything so delicious in their lives. But the break was not to last long. Another obstacle course required they scale a thirty- foot wall by hoisting one another up in the air using their cupped hands as ladders. By 3 p.m. they had been at it for close to twelve hours and there was no end in sight.
Next on the agenda: more running. Out of boots and into track shoes. Tristan took the lead for her team and once again motivated them all to keep pushing through their mental exhaustion and physical pain. "Keep going, guys," she urged them as they swapped foot-gear. "Just a little more to go."
Finally, late in the day when some of the soldiers thought they might not be able to stay awake much longer, let alone stand up and perform yet another physical task, they reached the capstone of the Assessment and Selection training: a long run followed by a series of "buddy carries." In the Army every soldier has to be fit enough and perpetually ready to carry a fellow soldier off the field in case the worst happens and he is injured or dead. Over the past fifty years in America, one of the central questions raised in the endless debates about whether women could serve in ground combat—even in support roles—has always been: would a woman be able to carry a large man off the battlefield under fire?
Kate's male Army friends had always told her that while they thought she was a great soldier, they could never trust a woman to hoist them to safety if they got shot or hurt. "It's not personal," they would say. "It's just biology."
"But what about guys who are five-four and a hundred and thirty pounds?" Kate would respond. "Why are they okay and not girls who are the same size?" No one could ever give her a satisfactory answer to that question.
As the afternoon wore on the instructors took turns walking up to the soldiers in the field and pretending to shoot them. "You're dead," they'd say, and walk away. The soldier's job was to fall onto the ground and go completely limp.
In the buddy-carry, three or four soldiers encircle the fallen comrade. Depending on how she lay, one would get behind and underneath her body and grab her armpits while another took her legs.
Together they would hoist her over a third soldier's neck and that soldier would carry the "dead" soldier, forming a sort of P around her neck.
A half hour later it was Rigby's turn to "die." She had already carried several of her more petite teammates to safety and joked to herself that the real test would come when they had to carry her, for while she was hardly big, she was taller and thicker than most of the other women in their tent. Finally the instructor came by and "killed" her.
By that time the temperature had climbed well above eighty degrees and the soldiers had sweated through every inch of their camouflage uniforms. Rigby's blisters bled freely and she was soaked through with perspiration from top to bottom. It was almost a relief to lie quietly on the dirt lane, playing dead and gazing at the gray sky, waiting to get picked up by her teammates. And then she looked down and saw that her pants were soaked in blood from her waist to her knees. She felt a jolt of panic wondering if all their combat role-playing had started to play tricks on her mind. And then she burst out in laughter. She had been out there in the field for well over twelve hours and had somehow missed the fact that her period had started hours before.
Kate looked over, saw her "dead" buddy laughing, then followed Rigby's eyes to the source of the moment's absurdity. "Oh shit," she said, "this one's going to be interesting!" She was already hatching a strategy for how the team would carry her safely home.
But Rigby darted off in another direction, and behind the spare cover of a spindly North Carolina tree she dealt with her feminine hygiene.
"I just gotta take care of my business," she shouted back. "Be there in an instant . . ." Kate looked on, trying unsuccessfully to suppress her own laughter.
"The bears are going to have a field day!" Kate shouted to her teammates.
Along with a woman's inability to carry a comrade off the field, another reason soldiers frequently gave for keeping women out of the infantry was that their periods would attract bears out in the wild. Among Army women there was a long tradition of joking about the ridiculousness of this idea, as if a bear would find a menstrual cycle any more attractive than they did.
The male instructor was standing twenty feet from the women and watched without saying a word. His own training had taught him to be stoic at all times and to betray no spontaneous expression. His eyes grew large, full of what Kate later called "shock and awe," but he stood there and simply watched as the women arranged themselves like nothing at all had happened, then got on with the task at hand.
"Okay, let's go," Rigby called out a minute later. Another teammate hoisted her up with help from Kate and another soldier and heaved Rigby's torso behind her shoulders and on top of her rucksack. The fake-dead Rigby hung limp, as the team humped its way back to the staging area.
"One hundred hours of hell" had lived up to the promise of its name.