The Words After War Interview With Gayle Tzemach Lemmon and Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite

06/10/2015 10:55 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016
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Edited by Brandon Willitts

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of New York Times Bestsellers The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, about a young entrepreneur who supported her community under the Taliban, and most recently, Ashley's War. Ashley's War tells the story of Cultural Support Team (CST) 2, a team of women handpicked from across the Army, Guard and Reserve to accompany Special Operations units in combat in 2011. As part of Words After War's May book club selection, Gayle answers a few questions from Gavin Kovite and Christopher Robinson, the co-authors of the recently released War of the Encyclopaedists.


What was the most difficult moment for you in writing this book?

This book had two most difficult moments: 1) figuring out the actual story I was writing, since I had not known that women were out serving in war alongside special operations and getting the story required access and understanding the entirety of that world and the men and women who served in it; 2) interviewing people through their grief. When a family has lost a child, a soldier has lost her best friend, a husband has lost his wife the enormity of the responsibility and privilege of sharing that story stays with you -- and some scenes become harder to write than others.

You conducted extensive interviews and research for Ashley's War. Are there any stand-out stories or anecdotes that didn't make it into the book? A DVD extra of sorts for readers who want more?

Yes, there was a story about one of the team members who went on a mission at night in which her platoon got lost. They went up and down and up and down the mountain seeking the village and the insurgent that was that night's objective. Everyone was huffing -- the incline was so steep that they could touch the earth in front of them as they clambered upward -- and it ended up that two of the members of the platoon fell out. Throughout her climb Kimberly told herself there was no way she could fall out despite the extreme burn in her legs and the pressure on her chest as they climbed and climbed for hours that night. But she knew if she fell out it would not just be her who fell out, but all the women who came after her -- and she didn't want to let down her teammates - so she kept pushing. Afterward, one of the Rangers she served with joked that she had just passed the mountain phase of Army Ranger School by keeping up that night.

Your last book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, also focused on the empowerment of women, but in a very different setting. What drew you to the story of female soldiers' struggle to join the special forces and how did you find the topic of female empowerment different when in a military context?

It is funny -- I never set out to write a book about "female empowerment." I just look for stories that turn everything we think we know about a topic on its head. In the case of Dressmaker, here were young women who managed to become breadwinners during years in which they could not safely be on their own streets. And in Ashley's War it is a story about women who became teammates, then friends and, finally, family on the special operations battlefield seeing the kind of combat experienced by less than five percent of the entire U.S. military and who sought to make a difference each night on some of the most critical and dangerous missions America was then undertaking in Afghanistan -- all while the combat ban was in place. Both are stories of courage, resilience, family, community and the power of serving something greater than yourself.

What made you choose 1LT Ashley White as the subject for this book?

Ashley's War is really a team story about a group of soldiers from Alabama to Alaska, at bases from South Carolina to South Korea, who came together to answer the call from special operations "Female Soldiers -- Become Part of History." At the heart of this group of track stars and Iraq veterans and West Pointers and women who had helped the FBI bust drug gangs was Ashley White, a quiet and intensely fierce young woman who never told you how good she was but who would lead through action. She was a newlywed who loved to cook for her husband and who loved to put 45 or 50 pounds of weight on her back and march for miles. She was, as everyone would say, "the best of us." And she made people better through her quiet example.

Did anything surprise you during the course of research for this book? Did you have any preconceived notions?

I knew so little going in -- I had no idea women served on these missions -- and there was precious little history out there about how women ended up in these special operations roles back while the combat ban remained in place. So every interview led to more questions for the first six or seven months. And then finally I understood just how much combat these women had seen, what camaraderie they had enjoyed and the family they had become. And I knew I had to bring that story to readers.

You describe CST Soldiers as constituting a "third gender" in Afghan society. It's a fascinating concept. Can you speak more about how that characteristic made these female soldiers essential to the war effort in Afghanistan?

It is the same for reporters and somehow it always surprises folks. Foreign women are neither Afghan women nor foreign men, which means that they inhabit this third gender in which you can move between both worlds. If I had tried to write The Dressmaker as a foreign man it would have been so much harder to have the physical access to the inspiring young women who make up that story because their families likely would never have approved. For the CSTs the story was much the same: they could talk to Afghan men because they were foreign females and they could also enter the world of Afghan women, particularly in the most conservative, traditional parts where the insurgency often held the most sway.

One of the objections we've heard to having female combat soldiers is that society can't handle it when they get killed. What do you think the response to LT Ashley White's death says about this?

This was a conversation I had a lot in the reporting of this story. And I understand people bring myriad perspectives to this question. But to me, after spending two years working on this book, the death of Lt. White tells me the exact opposite: Ashley White was treated in death with honor and respect by Army Ranger leaders and the commanders of the Army Special Operations community. Her photo went on the wall honoring the fallen Rangers at their camp in Kandahar. And at her funeral the head of Army Special Operations command offered a very public reckoning of this program built for the shadows, saying, "Make no mistake about it, these women are warriors." These women see and saw themselves as soldiers. They sought no different treatment in life. And wanted none in death. And the men alongside whom they served felt the enormity and the tragedy of the loss. But the next day and the day after that they were back at war. With hearts broken from the loss of SFC Kris Domeij and PFC Christopher Horns. And First Lt. Ashley White.

Words After War is a literary organization with a mission to bring veterans and civilians together to examine war and conflict through the lens of literature.