A band of sisters on the Special Ops battlefield

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Story highlights

  • Even before women were allowed in combat, a group of female soldiers was attached to special ops units
  • Gayle Lemmon: Soldiers like Ashley White were able to gain crucial information men couldn't get

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the New York Times best seller, "Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield." The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)"I remember when they were firing at these guys, the brass from the machine gun falling right over top of us," then-2nd Lt. Ashley White wrote from her base in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

In the early hours of an August 2011 night, White boarded a helicopter alongside the men of the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment in southern Afghanistan.
The night's mission would take them to the home of a suspected insurgent in an effort to keep the pressure on the Taliban, al-Qaeda and those allied with them. A firefight soon broke out as the suspected insurgents sought to escape through the back of the compound.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Part of White's job was to keep women and children in the targeted house away from the gunfire and White's training kicked in: she tossed herself over the women and children she was speaking to and soon felt the brass from the machine gun casings hit her back as the sounds of gunfire spilled into the night.
Few knew that women served on night raids alongside American and Afghan special operations fighters in 2011 while the ban on women in ground combat remained very much in place. And yet Lt. White was there on her nation's behalf after facing a selection process aimed at finding the most elite women soldiers for some of America's most important -- and dangerous -- wartime missions.

Gaining crucial knowledge

In 2010 some of America's most battle-tested special operations leaders created the all-women team of which Lt. White was a part. The idea was that a security gap existed because male soldiers couldn't speak to Afghan women in this conservative, traditional society.
Ashley White at Kent State ROTC.
This meant that on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism special operations missions, they left knowledge behind on the battlefield -- critical information that men couldn't get from women. And in a fight in which every edge mattered, that information was powerful enough to demand that women be recruited, trained and deployed specifically to serve alongside Army Rangers, Navy SEALs and Delta Force troops. While women could not officially be Rangers or SEALs, they could be "attached" to nearly any unit, and that included special operations.
The idea began with Adm. Eric Olson, the first Navy SEAL to lead U.S. Special Operations Command, and was reinforced by a formal request from Adm. William McRaven, a fellow SEAL then leading the ultrasecret Joint Special Operations Command, for female soldiers in the field to go out on combat missions alongside the Rangers.
Special ops had some women already serving within its ranks in intel, civil affairs and even, as my book reveals, within Army Special Forces -- often known as Delta Force -- but not enough to fill the teams and the need. So the recruiting call went out across the Army, National Guard and Reserves: "Female Soldiers -- Become Part of History" and join special ops on the battlefield in Afghanistan.
And from Alabama to Alaska, on U.S. bases from South Carolina to South Korea, women who had always wanted to be in the heart of the fight, making a difference on a mission that mattered to America, testing their limits and serving alongside the best of the best, answered the call.
What these soldiers learned and contributed in combat is especially relevant today as America considers the Afghanistan war's future shape and a possible greater commitment in Iraq in the fight against ISIS.
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In today's conflicts against foes without internationally recognized states battling on invisible front lines, accessing all knowledge possible is part of gaining the battlefield advantage. And being able to talk with women who knew what was happening in their villages and in their homes could yield information that contributed to accomplishing that night's mission, to finding information and to locating insurgents.
As one retired Ranger first sergeant who served 13 deployments in America's post-9/11 wars told me, "a job well done sticks out," and White and her teammates "added value to the mission."

'100 Hours of Hell'

A self-selecting group of all-stars swiftly raised their hands to be part of this special operations pilot program.
More than 100 women arrived at Fort Bragg for what became known as "100 Hours of Hell," the week-long selection process designed to find women who could keep up and contribute alongside warriors who trained year-round and whose deployments often reached well into double-digits.
Among them: a Heidi lookalike trained as an intel officer who had helped the FBI bust drug gangs in Pennsylvania; a military police officer from Florida who managed to be a sorority sister, an ROTC cadet and a women's studies minor all in one; a West Point track star famous for marching and running sockless; a New Yorker who had been a Girl Scout and once considered becoming a nun, and another West Pointer who had played high school football all four years on the boys team just because she loved the camaraderie -- and wanted to defy those who said girls shouldn't be out there on the field.

A bread-maker and 30 pullups

And then there was Lt. Ashley White, who possessed the domestic agility of Martha Stewart and the intensity of a soldier, a young woman who loved to cook dinner for her husband, her Kent State ROTC sweetheart, and relished putting 45 pounds of weight in her rucksack and heading out for a miles-long road march.
A millennial who kept a bread-maker in her office in Kandahar and who headed to the gym each day to climb 15-foot ropes using only her arms and then bust out 30 pullups from a dead hang.
These women went out each night to serve America, to offer to their country their heart, their minds and their strength, because they wanted to make a difference.
Once they joined the Rangers on the battlefield they proved their worth: they found AK-47s in women's quarters, intel items hidden in baby's diapers, and helped locate the parts that made the explosives that were killing Afghan and American forces. And as they earned their spots on the helicopter, they proved themselves to their teammates, men who had never gone into combat with women alongside them, but who welcomed anyone who could help accomplish the mission.

A rare bond

This band of sisters started their time at war as classmates. They ended their tour as family. They share a wartime bond we have never, in the U.S., gotten to see because rarely are women recruited, trained and deployed as a team.
That bond grew even stronger on October 22, 2011, when then-1st Lt. Ashley White died on a night raid in Kandahar, Afghanistan, alongside two Rangers, Sgt. 1st Class Kristoffer Domeij and Pfc. Christopher Horns.
The night began as any other mission, one of so many the Rangers had undertaken. But it turned tragic when a daisy-chained explosive device stepped on by one service member set off an explosion in another part of the compound, injuring several and claiming the lives of the three.
In a speech at Ashley's memorial service, the head of Army Special Operations Command summed up what Ashley and her teammates meant to the U.S. military and to America:
"Make no mistake about it: these women are warriors," Gen. John Mulholland said to the crowd gathered for Ashley's service in her high school gym. "They absolutely will write a new chapter in the role of women soldiers in the U.S. Army and our military and every single one of them has proven equal to the test. Every single one of them has not only met the standard, they have taken it to a new level; we have learned from them and we are humbled by them. So I want you to have that sense of context for what it is that Ashley did. She and her sisters have set an entirely new mark on what it means to be a woman soldier in the United States Army."
It is not only on Memorial Day, but every day that we should remember the difference -- and the history -- they made. And the enduring bond of this band of sisters.