Chuck Williams

Chuck Williams: Ashley White paved the way for women in Ranger School

First Lt. Ashley White won’t ever be a U.S. Army Ranger, but she died with them.

On Oct. 22, 2011, White, a member of the North Carolina National Guard, was killed in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province while on a raid with the 75th Ranger Regiment.

Again, she wasn’t a Ranger, but she was in the deepest, darkest part of war with the Army’s most elite force. White was part of what the Army termed a Cultural Support Team. They were quietly assembled and specially trained to work with the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan.

They were there to do what the men couldn’t do on the raids into enemy compounds: gain useful information from the women and children. In other words, they brought value to the mission.

Author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon introduced us to White in the New York Times best-seller “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” Reese Witherspoon is part of a group that purchased the movie rights earlier this year.

It won’t be long before people meet Ashley White in the same way they met Chris Kyle in “American Sniper.”

Ashley’s White’s story — and that of all the women who served on the Cultural Support Team — serves as a backdrop for what is currently happening in Ranger School.

After spending more than two years researching and writing “Ashley’s War,” Lemmon said she is not surprised that two female soldiers are in the final phase of Ranger School and could become the first women to complete the most demanding physical and mental training the Army offers.

“Before I wrote ‘Ashley’s War,’ I would have been,” Lemmon said Sunday. “But you spend months and months and have the privilege of embedding in the lives of a group of women who wanted only to answer the call to serve, you see they are motivated by exactly the same thing that motivates every service member in uniform: they are wanting to make a difference, doing the most they can alongside the best of the best and to be at the heart of whatever America asks of them.”

Ranger School was not a possibility in 2010 and 2011 when the Cultural Support Team was being pieced together at Fort Bragg. It wasn’t open to women, though they were going through Ranger-like training to get ready for their assignments.

“I never heard a conversation about, ‘I can’t believe it is closed to me,’” Lemmon said. “I always heard the conversation of ‘when it opens, I want to do it.’ Because they want to be as expert as they possibly can. They want to serve to the utmost. And Ranger School is the most difficult of the leadership courses. Period.”

Lemmon asks a question we should all be asking as this real-life drama unfolds this week and next in the Florida swamps: “Why wouldn’t they want to tackle that mountain in service to their country?”

If you want to better understand why the gender integration of Ranger School is important, read Lemmon’s book.

“Since 2011, women have served and died alongside 75th Ranger Regiment,” Lemmon said. “... That is what this conversation has been all about: Can you get the people with the best training in the best roles?”

The female soldiers Lemmon knows are adamant about not altering the training standards to make it easier for women.

“They would be the first ones to be vigilant about not changing the standards,” she said of the Cultural Support Team members she knows. “But for them it would be just one more path to making a difference and making a real contribution. They would all be uncomfortable with the fuss around the politics of it. Not a single one of them was political in that sense. They were not doing this to prove a point.”

But a statement would be made if a woman earns the Ranger tab later this month. Lemmon knows that.

“From the perspective of women in uniform I have talked to, of course, they are pulling for them,” Lemmon said. “They want them to meet the same standards and they want them to show people all they want to do is be out there serving with the best training possible. Period.”

What is happening at Ranger School is not as much about putting women in combat — they are already there as Lemmon has so well documented — as it is about training them for that role. Those who were attached to the elite units were pioneers that those up the chain of command watched with keen interest, Lemmon said.

“They were proving themselves alongside the most tested fighters and making a difference night in and night out — certainly a lot of people were watching,” Lemmon said.

As two women march toward history, they are watching now, too.