Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Meet the women fighting on the front lines of an American war
May 29, 2015
In 2011, the US Armed Forces still had a ban on women in combat -- but in that year, a Special Operations team of women was sent to Afghanistan to serve on the front lines, to build rapport with locals and try to help bring an end to the war. Reporter Gayle Tzemach Lemmon tells the story of this "band of sisters," an extraordinary group of women warriors who helped break a long-standing barrier to serve.Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon writes about women around the world living their lives at war and in conflict zones. Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Every group of female friends
has the funny one,
the one you go to
when you need a good cry,
the one who tells you to suck it up
when you've had a hard day.
And this group was no different.
Except that this was a community
of groundbreaking women
who came together --
first to become teammates,
then friends, and then family --
in the least likely of places:
on the Special Operations battlefield.
This was a group of women
whose friendship and valor was cemented
not only by what they had seen
and done at the tip of the spear,
but by the fact that they were there
at a time when women --
officially, at least --
remained banned from ground combat,
and America had no idea they existed.
This story begins
with Special Operations leaders,
some of the most tested men
in the United States military, saying,
"We need women to help us wage this war."
"America would never kill its way
to the end of its wars," it argued.
"Needed more knowledge
and more understanding."
And as everyone knows,
if you want to understand what's happening
in a community and in a home,
you talk to women,
whether you're talking about
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.
That meant, at this time in the war,
that the women who would be recruited
to serve alongside Army Rangers
and Navy SEALs,
would be seeing the kind of combat
experienced by less than five percent
of the entire United States military.
Less than five percent.
So the call went out.
Become a part of history.
Join Special Operations
on the battlefield in Afghanistan."
This is in 2011.
And from Alabama to Alaska,
a group of women who had always
wanted to do something that mattered
alongside the best of the best,
and to make a difference
for their country,
answered that call to serve.
And for them it was not about politics,
it was about serving with purpose.
And so, the women who came
to North Carolina
to compete for a spot on these teams
which would put women
on the Special Operations front lines,
landed and found
very quickly a community,
the likes of which they had never seen.
Full of women who were as fierce
and as fit as they were,
and as driven to make a difference.
They didn't have to apologize
for who they were,
and in fact, they could celebrate it.
And what they found when they were there
was that all of a sudden,
there were lots of people like them.
As one of them said,
"It was like you looked
around and realized
there was more
than one giraffe at the zoo."
Among this team of standouts was Cassie,
a young woman who managed to be
an ROTC cadet, a sorority sister
and a Women's Studies minor,
all in one person.
Tristan, a West Point track star,
who always ran and road marched
with no socks,
and had shoes whose smell proved it.
Amber, a Heidi look-alike, who had
always wanted to be in the infantry,
and when she found out
that women couldn't be,
she decided to become an intel officer.
She served in Bosnia,
and later helped the FBI
to bust drug gangs in Pennsylvania.
And then there was Kate,
who played high school football
all four years,
and actually wanted to drop out
after the first,
to go into the glee club,
but when boys told her
that girls couldn't play football,
she decided to stay
for all the little girls
who would come after her.
For them, biology had shaped
part of their destiny,
and put, as Cassie once said,
out of reach for girls."
And yet, here was a chance
to serve with the best of the best
on a mission that mattered
to their country,
not despite the fact
that they were female,
but because of it.
This team of women, in many ways,
was like women everywhere.
They wore makeup, and in fact,
they would bond in the ladies' room
over eyeliner and eye pencil.
They also wore body armor.
They would put 50 pounds
of weight on their backs,
and board the helicopter for an operation,
and they would come back and watch
a movie called "Bridesmaids."
They even wore a thing called Spanx,
because, as they found very quickly,
the uniforms made for men were
big where they should be small,
and small where they should be big.
So Lane, an Iraq War veteran --
you see her here on my left --
decided she was going to go on Amazon
and order a pair of Spanx to her base,
so that her pants would fit better
when she went out on mission each night.
These women would get together
over video conference
from all around Afghanistan
from their various bases,
and they would talk about what it was like
to be one of the only women
doing what they were doing.
They would swap jokes,
they would talk about
what was working, what wasn't,
what they had learned to do well,
what they needed to do better.
And they would talk about
some of the lighter moments of being women
out on the Special Operations front lines,
including the Shewee,
which was a tool
that let you pee like a guy,
although it's said to have had only
a 40 percent accuracy rate out there.
These women lived in the "and."
They proved you could be fierce
and you could be feminine.
You could wear mascara and body armor.
You could love CrossFit,
and really like cross-stitch.
You could love to climb out of helicopters
and you could also love to bake cookies.
Women live in the and every single day,
and these women brought that
to this mission as well.
On this life and death battlefield
they never forgot
that being female may have brought them
to the front lines,
but being a soldier is what would
prove themselves there.
There was the night Amber went
out on mission,
and in talking to the women of the house,
realized that there was
a barricaded shooter lying in wait
for the Afghan and American forces
who were waiting to enter the home.
Another night it was Tristan
who found out
that there were pieces
that make up explosives
all around the house
in which they were standing,
and that in fact, explosives lay
all the way between there
and where they were
about to head that night.
There was the night another one
of their teammates proved herself
to a decidedly skeptical team of SEALs,
when she found the intel item
they were looking for
wrapped up in a baby's wet diaper.
And there was the night that Isabel,
another one of their teammates,
found the things
that they were looking for,
and received an Impact Award
from the Rangers
who said that without her,
the things and the people
they were looking for that night
would never have been found.
That night and so many others,
they went out to prove themselves,
not only for one another,
but for everybody
who would come after them.
And also for the men
alongside whom they served.
We talk a lot about how
behind every great man is a good woman.
And in this case,
next to these women stood men
who wanted to see them succeed.
The Army Ranger who trained them
had served 12 deployments.
And when they told him
that he had to go train girls,
he had no idea what to expect.
But at the end of eight days with these
women in the summer of 2011,
he told his fellow Ranger,
"We have just witnessed history.
These may well be
our own Tuskegee Airmen."
At the heart of this team
was the one person
who everyone called "the best of us."
She was a petite blonde dynamo,
who barely reached five-foot-three.
And she was this wild mix
of Martha Stewart,
and what we know as G.I. Jane.
She was someone who loved
to make dinner for her husband,
her Kent State ROTC sweetheart
who pushed her to be her best,
and to trust herself,
and to test every limit she could.
She also loved to put 50 pounds of weight
on her back and run for miles,
and she loved to be a soldier.
She was somebody who had a bread maker
in her office in Kandahar,
and would bake a batch of raisin bread,
and then go to the gym
and bust out 25 or 30 pull-ups
from a dead hang.
She was the person who, if you needed
an extra pair of boots
or a home-cooked dinner,
would be on your speed dial.
Because she never, ever would talk to you
about how good she was,
but let her character speak
She was famous for taking the hard right
over the easy wrong.
And she was also famous
for walking up to a 15-foot rope,
climbing it using only her arms,
and then shuffling away and apologizing,
because she knew she was supposed
to use both her arms and her legs,
as the Rangers had trained them.
Some of our heroes return home
to tell their stories.
And some of them don't.
And on October 22, 2011,
First Lieutenant Ashley White was killed
alongside two Rangers,
and Kristoffer Domeij.
Her death threw this program built
for the shadows
into a very public spotlight.
Because after all,
the ban on women in combat
was still very much in place.
And at her funeral,
the head of Army Special Operations came,
and gave a public testimony
not just to the courage of Ashley White,
but to all her team of sisters.
"Make no mistake about it," he said,
"these women are warriors,
and they have written a new chapter
in what it means to be a female
in the United States Army."
Ashley's mom is a teacher's aide
and a school bus driver,
who bakes cookies on the side.
She doesn't remember much
about that overwhelming set of days,
in which grief -- enormous grief --
mixed with pride.
But she does remember one moment.
A stranger with a child
in her hand came up to her
and she said, "Mrs. White,
I brought my daughter here today,
because I wanted her to know
what a hero was.
And I wanted her to know
that heroes could be women, too."
It is time to celebrate
all the unsung heroines
who reach into their guts
and find the heart and the grit
to keep going and to test every limit.
This very unlikely band of sisters
bound forever in life and afterward
did indeed become part of history,
and they paved the way for so many
who would come after them,
as much as they stood on the shoulders
of those who had come before.
These women showed that warriors come
in all shapes and sizes.
And women can be heroes, too.
Thank you so much.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon writes about women around the world living their lives at war and in conflict zones.Why you should listen
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon never set out to write about women entrepreneurs. After leaving ABC News for MBA study at Harvard, she was simply looking for a great -- and underreported -- economics story. What she found was women entrepreneurs in some of the toughest business environments creating jobs against daunting obstacles. Since then her writing on entrepreneurship has been published by the International Herald Tribune and Financial Times along with the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation.
Now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Lemmon continues to travel the world reporting on economic and development issues with a focus on women. She is the author of Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield (2014), as well as the best seller The Dressmaker of Khair Khana (2011) about a young entrepreneur who supported her community under the Taliban.
The original video is available on TED.com