The heartbreaking story of Ashley White, who helped pave the way for women in combat

By Liz McNeil
Updated April 25, 2015 03:30 PM
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LiVigni Photography

When Ashley White was killed by a homemade bomb during a night raid in Afghanistan on Oct. 22, 2011, her family had no clue what kind of danger she was in.

“We had no idea she was out there right alongside the Rangers on night missions,” her mom, Deborah White, 60, tells this week’s PEOPLE. “It wasn’t until her commander told us later at Dover Air Force Base that we learned what she was doing. We were totally blown way.”

White, 24, was a member of the Cultural Support Team, a select group of elite female soldiers who secretly worked alongside Special Ops in Afghanistan, at a time when women were not officially allowed in combat.

“She didn’t tell us anything about the program,” says Deborah, a school bus driver in Ohio. “We thought she was putting up medical tents and taking care of the sick and wounded children. She didn’t want us to worry so much.”

Now White’s story is being told in a new book, Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield, by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, which was recently optioned by Reese Witherspoon.

The Quiet One

Ashley, the first born of twin girls, “was a quiet girl,” recalls her mom, who also has an older son, Josh. At Kent State University, she joined the ROTC, where her mom says she “liked the camaraderie and the tight-knit closeness.”

While stationed in North Carolina, where she lived with her husband, Jason Stumpf, Ashley was selected for the CST program. “She didn’t talk much about going to war,” says her mom. “Except to say, ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m going to be fine. I’m with the best of the best.’ ”

Once stationed in Afghanistan, she called her family every Sunday. “She always turned the conversation around and wanted to know how we were doing,” says Deborah. “Her brother will tell you the last time he talked to her, she sounded scared. He said, ‘I think it’s a lot worse than what she thought it was going to be.’ ”

In their last conversation, Ashley “wanted to know how many cakes I had baked that week – and how we were doing,” her mom recalls. Several days later, while baking cupcakes in the kitchen, she found out her daughter had been killed. “I can still see [her father] walking across the backyard shaking his head,” she says, her voice breaking. “I said, ‘Did she get hurt, how bad is she hurt?’ And he said, ‘She’s not hurt, she’s gone.’ ”

“That’s what we live with every day,” says Deborah. “You learn to adjust yourself, to put a mask on and go to work. I make it through most days. When I go to bed at night, I usually cry a little.”

A Band of Sisters

After their tour of duty was complete, seven of the women from Ashley’s unit came to visit her parents.

“They all sat in our living room and told us everything they had done over there,” says Deborah. “There she was, 5’2”, 120 pounds, jumping out of helicopters carrying ammo. They told us how she beat them all in a rope climbing competition, and how she’d make cinnamon raisin bread for them. The Rangers nicknamed her “Muffin” because she was hard as a rock on the outside and soft as butter on the inside. They’ve become part of our family now.”

“Ashley had no desire to show off what she had learned or what she did,” says Deborah. “She’s probably up there now shaking her head because of the movie rights and the book. She is probably going, ‘Why? I just did what I was suppose to do.’ ”

“I think what they did was history,” she says of Ashley and the other women who served in the CST. “The story needs to be toId. She touched a lot of people’s lives. She left quite a legacy and we lost quite a daughter. And we lost generations of her.”

For more on Ashley White and the elite group of female soldiers she served with, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.