SERVING WITH PURPOSE
As Gayle explained in a recent TED Talk, “If you want to understand what's happening in a community and in a home, you talk to women, whether you're talking about Southern Afghanistan or Southern California. But in this case, men could not talk to women because in a conservative and traditional society like Afghanistan, that would cause grave offense.
So you needed women soldiers out there.”
The formation of the all-female troop marked the first time that women soldiers could join male soldiers throughout the Army, the National Guard, and the Reserves on special ops missions.
Though women were banned from combat at the time of the team's creation—a 1994 Pentagon ruling restricted women from artillery, armor, infantry, and other combat roles—the Cultural Supports Teams could help combat teams on special assignments, thus being involved in combat themselves.
The restrictions of the ruling are expected to be lifted in January 2016, which would open all U.S. military jobs to women, unless services seek exceptions to the ban's review.
“It’s important that women are working and being deployed in all kinds of roles in the military right now,” Lemmon told TakePart. “I think it’s the capability of women to connect with other women that makes the difference on these missions, and that was the case with the Cultural Support Teams.”
Many of the male rangers said that without the help of the female soldiers, they would never have found some of the things they were looking for. For instance, Lemmon said that a female soldier found a piece of intel wrapped in a baby’s wet diaper. Another discovered a line of explosives that was set up between the house they were standing in and the place they were going to visit later that night.
One soldier stood out and became the focus of Lemmon’s novel: 1st Lt. Ashley White. At five foot three, she was known to her teammates as “the best of us,” someone who would bake bread before hitting the gym and would apologize for climbing a 15-foot rope using only her arms.
White was also the first in her unit to be killed—on a combat mission, along with two male rangers, on Oct. 22, 2011.
“Gayle is sharing a story that is missing from today's narrative on veterans,” Kate Hoit, the director of communications for the veteran-focused campaign "Got Your 6", told TakePart. “We tend to hear about the men who have served—their heroism and triumphs—despite the undeniable sacrifices women in the military have made for years. Not only is she putting a face to women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but she's showing a new generation of women what is possible.”
Two weeks ago, the Army announced that it officially was opening more than 19,700 field artillery jobs to enlisted women.
Though Lemmon says the program in Afghanistan is winding down as more troops are being pulled out, she says that some of the women on the Cultural Supports Teams are still deployed there. In October, Obama announced that 5,500 troops would remain in Afghanistan to continue fighting America’s longest standing war, but it’s unclear whether the Cultural Supports Teams will be among those troops.