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.