Thanksgiving Thought: A Woman in Combat

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Army 1st LT Ashley White Stumpf

This is one of those little stories that lights the bigger truth. A month ago today – October 22 — Army 1st Lieutenant Ashley White, 24, died in Afghanistan when her Joint Special Operations task force was hit by an IED. Two other soldiers also were killed in the blast. One, Sgt. 1st Class Kristoffer B. Domeij, 29, of San Diego, Calif., died on his 14th deployment. He got most of the press.

But we need to reflect on Ashley White. That’s what the Pentagon called her. Back home – in North Carolina, where she was based as a member of the North Carolina National Guard, and in Ohio, where she grew up — she had been known as Ashley White Stumpf. Since May, anyway, when she married Army Captain Jason Stumpf:

Jason Stumpf told the congregation that he was not the ideal husband, “but Ashley was the ideal wife,” always greeting him at the door with the smile that made him fall in love at first sight. He joked that when he was deployed, he would call home and she would listen to him rant, “and when she was deployed, she’d call home and listen to me rant.”

…the Canton Repository reported from her funeral.

Why was a female soldier assigned to a special forces unit? Aren’t women barred from such outfits? Not really. Ashley White Stumpf had volunteered for duty with a so-called special ops Cultural Support Team. In that mission, she traveled with a Ranger unit in Kandahar province and met and talked to local Afghan women, something local customs bar male U.S. troops from doing.

“She was frequently the only female on the objective,” Colonel Mark O’Donnell, deputy commanding officer of the 75th Ranger Regiment, said at her service. “Think about the personal courage that took. I’m humbled to have served with her.”

Stumpf’s assignment, and death, led Traci Swanson, a Pentagon researcher, and Shelia Medeiros, an Army officer currently doing work like Stumpf’s in Afghanistan, to raise some pertinent questions in Small Wars Journal on Sunday:

Despite the public praise and emphasis on the value of women on the battlefield, the fact remains that Ashley White should not have been in the company of that particular assault force on that day in Kandahar. In fact, unless U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) had granted an exception specifically for White to be assigned to that particular ground unit, she should not have been there at all.  At least, not according to the DoD Combat Exclusion Policy and Army Regulation 600-13…White’s death should serve as a catalyst for serious debate about the role of women in the military more generally.

That reminds me of something military historian Richard Kohn told me as I reported my recent piece on An Army Apart. “Without the introduction of women in the 1970s,” the Air Force’s former top historian said, “the all-volunteer force never would have made it.”

Something, perhaps, to give thanks for over the coming holiday. Along with the sacrifices of Ashley Irene White Stumpf, the 134 other female American warriors who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, and their 6,200 lost brothers in arms.