Journalist and author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is no stranger to war zones. She made her first trip to Afghanistan back in 2005 and she’s written about the country’s economy and politics, the changing roles of Afghan women, and the small but crucial class of young entrepreneurs in the country. Her latest book, Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield shines a light on women in combat, and follows a group of bold, groundbreaking female soldiers who actually aren’t that different than you and me. Well, besides the fact that they can do 50 pull-ups and are willing to risk their lives in battle.
The women in Ashley’s War (including Ashley White, the first female soldier to die in combat) might be doing things that most of us could never imagine, but they’re still relatable — funny, warm, and ambitious. They’re determined to succeed in their chosen field, which is dominated by men. I think that’s a goal most of us can identify with, no matter what career we’re pursuing.
White and her fellow soldiers were part of an elite cultural support team, a pilot program that placed women on the battlefield with Green Berets and Army Rangers on sensitive missions in Afghanistan. The thought was that women could access and communicate with women in Afghanistan in ways that the men couldn’t, because of social and cultural customs. The women were officially banned from combat, but with this program they were out there, alongside the men, every step of the way.
The women in Lemmon’s book are inspiring, and some of their struggles are familiar: Succeeding at work, balancing family and career, and supporting each other through the tough times.
Reese Witherspoon recently optioned the book, so the story of White and her fellow soldiers will be coming to a theater near you. In the meantime, check out the book, and take a look at seven ways the women in Ashley’s War are, as Lemmon says, “just as complex as the women all around us.”
Female Soldiers Do Their Jobs for the Same Reasons As Men
Like the question, “Is women’s comedy the same as men’s comedy,” the question, “Are female soldiers different than male soldiers” will hopefully be eradicated one day soon.
“The things that motivated these women to sign up to be on the battlefield night in, night out in Afghanistan are the same reasons men sign up,” Lemmon says, “but most of those jobs remain off limits to women. This was really the best shot they had to be part of serving with some of the most elite forces. I think they did it for exactly the same reason that men do — to be part of something bigger and serve with the best of the best.”
Female Bonding Gets Them Through Tough Situations
“This was a team story,” Lemmon says. “It’s about women who found their family in war. This program brought them together and they found their people through service. It’s really a battlefield sisterhood we haven’t seen. They finish each other’s sentences, they’re each other’s career coaches and baby shower hosts and the people who they would call first in an emergency.”
Sounds familiar, right?
A Job Well Done Stands Out
Lemmon says that the men embraced what the women were doing on the battlefield because “it helped them get their mission done in ways that even they would never have expected. Some were maybe thinking, ‘Oh great, now we have to go train girls,’ and then they saw the heart and the guts these women brought to the battlefield. As one Ranger said to me, ‘A job well-done sticks out.’”
You Can Be Feminine and Fierce
“These are Millennials,” Lemmon says of White and her fellow soldiers. “They’re young women who were such a fascinating mix of feminine and fierce and tough and warm. Ashley White was a very happily married newlywed who would put thirty pounds of rocks in her rucksack and start marching, or go to the gym and bust out thirty pull-ups. You can be wearing makeup and be out on the battlefield. You can be many more dimensions that women don’t always get to be all at once.” Amen to that.
Ordinary People Can Do Extraordinary Things
If you think women — or men — in the military are uncommonly brave, you’d be right. But, as Lemmon says, “There are opportunities to serve all around us. These women were extraordinarily committed, but they would be the first to say they were ordinary people doing extraordinary things. They’re not superhuman; they’re people who were willing to push themselves to the limit and be part of something bigger. There are all kinds of ways to do that.”
It’s About Leadership
The conversations we have in any workplace are the same conversations women in the military are having — what are women capable of, what can they do?
“This is a story about women who went to work every night and did the best they could and put their heart into it because they wanted to be part of something they truly believed in. It’s about leadership,” says Lemmon.
You’re Not Alone
If you’re the only woman out of 15 people sitting in a meeting, it might look like you’re the only one that wanted to be there, “but what’s so powerful about this story is when the women see one another for the first time, they realize, ‘It’s not just me,’” Lemmon says. “There are so many women who are this whole package of fierce and feminine and committed and ambitious and who want to be doing very big things. I hope all women see that’s possible.”
Check out the book, out from Harper.