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What Wars Were Missing: Women Soldiers On The Battlefield

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Ashley's War cover

The book "Ashley's War" focuses on women's role in special ops.

Katherine Kaelin was in the National Guard office in Elko, Nev., when she saw the Army flier calling for female volunteers for a Special Operations command program. 

It immediately piqued her interest, since at the time she knew that women couldn't officially serve in any unit that engaged in direct ground combat, and Special Operations was known for being one of the most combat-focused parts of the military. 

Already an Iraq veteran, the Spring Creek, Nev., native decided to answer the call, and was eventually selected to become one of the nation's first women to serve with an elite force of Rangers. 

Kaelin's story is one included in author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon's book "Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield." The book's namesake, First Lt. Ashley White, was killed in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province while on a raid with the 75th Ranger Regiment as a member of the Cultural Support Team. 

"(Ashley) was really the heart of this band of sisters," Lemmon said. "She was definitely not trying to serve a point or make a political statement, she raised her hand not just once but twice to be part of what was basically building a plane in mid flight." 

During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the military began to realize they were missing out on intelligence from half the local populations, since Afghan women were not allowed to come into contact with foreign men. 

Support comes from

The Cultural Support Teams were designed to bridge that security gap. 

"It's an incredibly benign name for a groundbreaking concept," Lemmon said. "(Male soldiers) couldn't enter the Afghan women's quarters and talk to them, which meant that everything women saw and knew and understood about their own communities was going unknown and unseen."

Thus began the journey of a select group of female soldiers to train and be ready for a combat-focused part of the war. Their training was designed to prepare them physcially and emotionally to be able to handle the task at hand: To get the women of Afghanistan to trust them. 

Not only were they trained for battle, but to receive the potential negative welcome they would receive from battle hardened veterans, some of whom were on multiple deployments. Kaelin said, however, the welcome she received was not one she had expected. 

"Once you prove yourself that you can carry your own weight and do your job correctly, then you're part of the team," Kaelin said. "Gender is irrelevant."

Of a select team, Kaelin was one of the few delegated to the Ranger Regiment, where she served with White. Kaelin said she lives every day the moment she heard that White had fallen. 

"When that happened, we became a sisterhood," Kaelin said. "There were no teams, it was one team and it was all of us bound together to get through this."

When outgoing secretary of defense Leon Panetta announced in January 2013 that the military was lifting its ban on women in ground combat positions, women could now become full members of the Special Operations teams they once could only support. 

On Aug. 18, 2015, two women passed the Army Ranger School, and became the first females to complete the program and attain the coveted Ranger tab. Known as the Army's premier leadership course, this grueling 62-day training set out with one standard for both male and female applicants. 

"I think the all the women soldiers who seek these combat positions hope that the standards remain the same for everyone," Kaelin said. 

(Editor's note: This story originally aired August 2015)

 

Guests

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, author, "Ashley's War The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield" 

Katherine Kaelin, veteran, Iraq and Afghanistan 

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