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“It sure felt like combat.”
– Caroline Cleveland, former First Lieutenant, US Army
Caroline Cleveland, just 23 at the time, remembers vividly the night she thought she’d be killed. During a raid of a suspected terrorist stronghold in Afghanistan, 1st Lt. Cleveland and her Army Ranger regiment were stealthily picking through narrow alleys toward their target when shots exploded. “It was an ambush, a firefight with rounds passing all around me,” she recalls.
“There was a point where I thought, ‘We’re nearly surrounded!’ And that what-if floated into my brain for just a moment,” says Cleveland, who has since left the military and is soon starting school for physical therapy.
Cleveland was one of 20 women recruited by the Army in 2011 to “be a part of history” on a new, low-profile, female-only Cultural Support Team that deployed to Afghanistan for nine months starting in August of that year. CSTs, as they were officially known (or “The Pink Team,” as they were nicknamed by others), operated under a ban on U.S. military women in combat roles even as they accompanied Ranger strike forces on dangerous night raids of suspected terrorist hideouts.
Kat Kaelin, 27, was a staff sergeant who served with Cleveland and the other CST “girls,” as both women call themselves. Kaelin, now an at-home mom to three young girls, says the CSTs proved that women deserve to have Special Ops jobs open to whoever can meet their rigorous selection and training standards.
It was the CSTs’ job to gather intelligence by searching and questioning any women and children. Their story is told in the new book Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.
In 2010, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command created Cultural Support Teams, a pilot program to put women on the battlefield alongside Green Berets and Army Rangers on sensitive missions in Afghanistan. The idea was that women could access places and people that had remained out of reach, and could build relationships—woman to woman—in ways that male soldiers in a conservative, traditional country could not. Though officially banned from combat, female soldiers could be “attached” to different teams, and for the first time, women throughout the Army heard the call to try out for this special ops program.
The Defense Department barred women from ground-combat units until that ban was lifted in January 2013. Commanders in each of the services now have until Jan. 1, 2016 to open all roles to women or justify why a certain military job should remain male-only.
BONUS: In Ashley’s War, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon uses exhaustive firsthand reporting and a finely tuned understanding of the complexities of war to tell the story of CST-2, a unit of women hand-picked from across the Army, and the remarkable hero at its heart: 1st Lt. Ashley White, who would become the first Cultural Support Team member killed in action and the first CST remembered on the Army Special Operations Memorial Wall of Honor alongside the Army Rangers with whom she served.
4GGL thanks People for this inspiring story.