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,” Cleveland recalls now, four years later, for PEOPLE. “There was a point where I thought, ‘We’re nearly surrounded!’ And that what-if floated into my brain for just a moment.”
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.
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 March, Reese Witherspoon obtained the movie rights to the book.
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.
There, it was the CSTs’ job to gather intelligence by searching and questioning any women and children.
But when the Afghan men of any given compound resisted the raid, “It sure felt like combat,” says Cleveland, who has since left the military and is soon starting school for physical therapy.
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.
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.
“We are right next to these Rangers. We just don’t have a title,” says Kaelin. “Americans don’t want to hear their daughters and mothers and sisters are out there fighting and dying, but it’s like, ‘Sorry. We were.'”
For more about these G.I. Janes’ dangerous missions, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.