Ashley White died patrolling alongside Special Forces in Afghanistan. The U.S. Army veteran was a pioneer for women soldiers.

Ashley White earned her initial combat action badge from the United States Army shortly after the first lieutenant arrived in Afghanistan. The silver military decoration, recognizing soldiers who’ve been personally engaged by an assailant during conflict, was considered an accomplishment in and of itself as well as a validating rite of passage for the recently deployed. White had earned it by using her own body to protect a group of civilian women and children from gunfire that erupted during her third mission in Kandahar province. All of them survived. She never mentioned the badge to anyone in her battalion.”My daughter was extremely, extremely modest,” said Ashley’s mother, Deborah White, ahead of Memorial Day this year. “She would be dismayed at all the accolades that she has received since her passing.”Ashley White died on Oct. 22, 2011, approximately three months into her tour in Afghanistan, when a soldier in the Special Operations task force she was working alongside accidentally detonated an improvised explosive device that killed her and two others. She was 24. After her demise, White was posthumously awarded a lengthy list of some of the military’s highest honors, including the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Meritorious Service Medal.

White was among a few dozen women selected from hundreds of applicants to join Special Operations forces on the front lines of the U.S. conflict in Afghanistan, at a time when female soldiers were still barred from combat roles. Born and raised in northeastern Ohio, White joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program during her second semester at Kent State University, where she studied sports medicine.

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Ashley White is remembered as a war hero and pathfinder for her service in Afghanistan, at a time when the U.S. military still prohibited female soldiers from combat roles.

“I think she enjoyed camaraderie and the closeness within the group,” Deborah White said. ROTC is a leadership training program to prepare college students for various roles in the Armed Forces, and it requires them to complete a term of military service after obtaining their degrees. Ashley White began hers as a Medical Services Corps Officer and served for several years with the U.S. National Guard in Greensboro, North Carolina.

But in 2011, the military was commissioning women for Cultural Support Teams, the cornerstones of an initiative to communicate with Afghan women, whose customs often prevented them from interacting with U.S. soldiers as long as the soldiers were men. Women on cultural support teams were explicitly tasked with facilitating interactions with civilian women and children. A flier advertising the positions invited female soldiers to “become part of history” alongside predominantly male Special Ops. White applied for the program and accepted a spot. She underwent additional training and deployed in August.White’s service in Afghanistan likely contributed to the military’s decision to officially lift the ban in 2013—a landmark moment that recognized the work many female soldiers had been doing for years and opened the door to career opportunities previously reserved for men. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of the 2015 book “Ashley’s War” about White and the women who served with her, mentioned in a discussion with the Council of Foreign Relations after the book’s release that she and her teammates “quite frankly may well have laid the foundation for ultimate integration.” With her passing, White’s mother said “she has shattered the glass ceiling.”Lemmon’s documentation of the women who discreetly guided part of the war effort without any promise of recognition placed White at the core of it all and brought her story into the public eye. “Ashley’s War” became a New York Times bestseller.

Those who knew her felt inspired by White’s history of accomplishments, but they’ve told Lemmon—and White’s mother—that it was how White personally conducted herself, with kindness and resilience, that made her special.”Ashley was the soul of this really outstanding team of soldiers who came together to respond to this call to serve and who actually could not volunteer fast enough to be there,” said Lemmon during that talk in 2015. “I think what people remember about her so much was she never talked to you about what she could do… she let her actions speak for themselves. And I think she demonstrated the power of character in action. She never had to tell you how good she was and, in fact, never would.”White’s legacy is extensive. As Deborah White said, “it’s everywhere.” She was among only a handful of women honored for acts of particular bravery in a display at the National Museum of the U.S. Army in Virginia, multiple housing complexes for women veterans in two states bear her name, and two students graduating from her Marlboro Township high school receive $1,500 scholarships each year through a foundation established by White’s family in her memory. People across the nation, within and outside the military, have revered White as a hero, an exemplary soldier, and a pathfinder who helped pave the way for the next generation of women advancing through the ranks with fewer constraints than ever before.Asked where White’s bravery came from, especially at such a young age, Deborah White credited her daughter mostly.”I mean, all of my children are driven. Maybe we raised them right,” she said. “I don’t know. She amazed me.”

Emily Mae Czachor

Emily Mae Czachor is a reporter and news editor. She covers breaking news, often focusing on crime and extreme weather. Emily Mae has previously written for outlets including the Los Angeles Times, BuzzFeed, and Newsweek.

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