09/24/2015 02:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What It's Like to Be a Woman in the Military


A few days ago I had the opportunity to speak with Gayle Tzemach-Lemmon about her travels to Afghanistan and her latest book, Ashley's War, about the training and deployment of a group of women in the United States Army who fought alongside male Special Operations forces in Afghanistan. This is part of our conversation. All images are courtesy of Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

You're pretty well known for your writing on women's issues around the world, before we dive into a discussion about Ashley's War, given the recent reports of religiously sanctioned rape in areas where ISIS is in control in the Middle East and the huge debate around women's health in our own country, I'm beginning to wonder if women's rights and empowerment might be THE issue of our time. For those readers not familiar with your work, how would you classify the stories you tell and why do you tell them?

I don't consider myself an advocate, rather I feel like someone walking around with a flashlight and looking for things other people have missed. I like to take everything you think you know about a story and flip it on its head: women aren't victims, women have been places where people thought they weren't and women, the women of the countries we go to, or the women who are part of the military, have been and usually re smack dab in the middle of the conflict and why?

I'm interested in who the people are in the places where we fight.

For example in the Dress Maker, we learn about young women who did not wait for a foreigner to come save them, but got to work to make a difference, not just for themselves, but for their whole community.

And in Ashley's War, we meet all these women who were making a huge difference and providing incredible support when they weren't even supposed to be there and serving with passion and purpose for their country not to make a political point. They were doing it for a cause greater than themselves.

What is Ashley's War about?

In many ways it is the ultimate story of female friendship in the least likely place, a team of women who came and answered the call to serve alongside some of the most tested leaders in the Special Operations community.

It might be the first war book that has SPANX in it.

What was the call to service?

Americans in Afghanistan were losing out on valuable information because Afghani women could not speak to men who were not related to them. The Army realized the need to have women on the battlefield. Recruiting posters and emails said, "women come be a part of history". The women I spoke with talked about the value of finding a community, when they met the others that they had never found before. A community of women where they didn't have to apologize for being who they were; dedicated, driven.

Women have fought in combat roles throughout the world and throughout history, but the United States as a whole seem to be having a hard time accepting women in combat, why is that?

Change is hard. The truth is that women have been out fighting for years, but we haven't been paying attention as a country. That has consequences and it affects the way you see women veterans. There was officially a ban on women in combat but that was a regulation not a reality. The reality is that women have been out there getting silver stars, purple hearts, and bronze stars with a valor device.

The title character of the book is Ashley White. Who was she?

1LT Ashley White was a mix of incredible soldier and powerful homemaker. She loved to cook dinner for her husband, who was her ROTC sweetheart, but she also loved to put 40 or 45 lbs of weight on her back and go marching for miles.

She was an incredibly committed soldier who wanted to go home and start a family. She and her teammates showed you could be very fierce and feminine, love cross fit and cross stitch and one didn't make you less serious than the other.

How do you think this book, and the experiences and action described in it, will impact, or should impact, America's understanding of the role women can play in service?

Well it's not a book about women who are 'superheroes' it's a book about what each of us have within us to rise to the moment.

I've got a lot of beautiful notes from service women who say, "This book gave my history back." I don't think women were looking for credit for what they did, but they were looking for understanding. It was hard for women to come back home and home have no idea what they've done. That's very hard in terms of reintegrating.

Now there's a record of service for what women can do and have done in this book.

Dads who have daughters are writing to say thank you for this story about strong women, about what women can be.

Truth is I never set out to do any of that, I just set out to write a great story.

What's going to happen in Afghanistan now? What about continued American involvement?

I'm concerned because people in America think staying involved in the country is an option. If we want a peaceful country though, we must stay engaged, we cannot walk away. An Afghanistan left to itself will not stay its own problem for long.

Even if you [don't care about the Afghan people] and only care about American foreign policy, we have to stay engaged.

There's a whole generation of young Afghanis fighting for their future and we desperately must be on their side.

Afghanistan is an amazing place.