That’s the story of a band of women recruited to be part of a U.S. Army special operations team in 2010 and 2011. Their mission: to help some of America’s most elite fighters gain access to a never-before-reached population in Afghanistan — women.
The backstory: Special operations leaders feared U.S. forces were leaving critical knowledge behind on the battlefield because, in Afghanistan’s conservative, traditional society, male soldiers could not speak with women without causing grave offense. That meant that everything women knew about what was happening in their homes and who was passing through remained out of reach. And during years of combat — where the focus was on keeping pressure on the insurgency — that knowledge was essential to gaining ground in the war.
That meant women soldiers needed to join on combat operations, working alongside Rangers, SEALs, and other special ops teams in dangerous missions. (Even with an official ban on women in ground combat, women could be “attached” to special ops units to help them accomplish their missions.)
“Female soldiers – Become Part of History,” read the recruiting poster from Army Special Operations.
At U.S. bases from Alabama to Alaska, South Carolina to South Korea, more than 200 female soldiers answered the call — and only 20 were chosen to be part of this final team of elite women. They became friends and, eventually, family, as they served America at the “tip of the spear.” But it wasn’t just courage, grit, and heart that bonded these women together — it was also fitness.
Athletes abounded. Among them: Tristan, a West Point track star who ran and ruck marched sockless. Kate, another West Pointer who had played high school football all four years in her small New England town. Leda, a cross-country standout who had coached high school track. And Lane, a track-and-field first-place finisher who learned only after she enlisted in the Army that she could have won a college scholarship for her track-and-field prowess.
And then there was 1st Lieutenant Ashley White. Even though she trained as a gymnast from the time she was small, Ashley had never been the most innately talented athlete. Her twin sister won nearly every gymnastics competition she entered. Her older brother excelled in basketball and football. But Ashley had two things that were perhaps even more important than natural skill: heart and relentlessness. Coaches loved her not because she was the most winning athlete they had, but because she had the right attitude. She pushed other people to be better through her positivity and unstoppable persistence in training.
1st Lieutenant Ashley White in her gear. (Photo courtesy of the White family)
Gym time was critical for these women as they sought to win the confidence — and acceptance — of the male soldiers they would be serving alongside. The work would be physically demanding: The Army Rangers, SEALs, and other special operations teams were known to board a helicopter in darkness, run off silently into the unlit night, and then march for miles with up to 50 pounds of weight on their backs. And sometimes, they would do all this while being shot at or taking fire from rocket-propelled grenades.
“Stay in the gym,” urged the Army Rangers in charge of the women’s pre-mission training at Ft. Bragg. “Earn your spot on the helicopter.”
CrossFit was a key piece of earning that acceptance. Ashley and her teammates worked out three times a day during their six-week training, starting their days at the crack of dawn with exercise. And once they reached Afghanistan, it only became more important for them to maintain their fitness as they went out on missions nearly every night.
White while on an overnight mission. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense)
Ashley and her teammates tracked their progress and time in the gym in notebooks. Their workouts included lunges, lifting kettle bells, climbing rope, and sprints. The CrossFit workouts they bonded over carried rather descriptive names like “Pain Train.”
Ashley and her teammate Anne formed a special bond and cemented their friendship during their CrossFit workouts: They climbed rope in the gym, ran around the base in Kandahar, and did lunges and weight training at least once a day. Ashley’s pull-up prowess became known among the Rangers she served with, who would rib one another when the “girl” busted out 30 pull-ups from a dead hang — no easy feat for women or men.
White was known as the “girl” who could bust out 30 pull-ups from a dead hang. (Photo courtesy of the White family)
For this group of women, working out was a way of life — and CrossFit was a way for them to push themselves, increase their strength, build their friendships, and prove their mettle. They spent birthdays and holidays in the gym with one another, sweating, groaning, and sharing laughs.
On Oct. 22, 2011, Ashley was killed in a night raid along with two Rangers, SFC Kristoffer Domeij and PFC Christopher Horns.
Her death threw a program built for the shadows into a very public spotlight. She became the first member of this new team to be remembered on the Army Special Operations Memorial Wall, and the first female to have a plaque named after her at the National Infantry Museum’s Memorial Walk.
Her fitness was not forgotten. Rangers wrote to her family of the respect they had for Ashley, saying she was a “beast” in the gym – the highest compliment from men whose life depended on their fitness. In her honor, CrossFit named a Hero Workout Of the Day (WOD) the “White.”
Today, Ashley lives on in the memories and the hearts of her friends and teammates. Her life is an example of what can happen when you push yourself to be better and test your own limits — not for personal glory, but for a greater purpose.
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