Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
1,163,086 views • 11:25

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 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. 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. "Female soldiers: 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. (Laughter) 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, "everything noble 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." (Laughter) 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. (Laughter)

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." (Applause)

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 through action. 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. (Laughter)

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, Christopher Horns 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. (Applause)