WASHINGTON - Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester had been in two firefights in her four months in Iraq. But on a March day along a dusty stretch south of Baghdad, she immediately knew this one was going to be different. A thought flashed through the mind of the 23-year-old MP who dreamed of becoming a city police officer.
"I didn't know if we were going to make it out of there alive," she said in a phone interview from Baghdad yesterday.
On Thursday, Hester lined up with her fellow soldiers at Camp Liberty near the Baghdad Airport and was awarded a Silver Star "for exceptionally valorous achievement" - the first given to a woman since World War II and the highest military medal ever awarded to a woman for fighting an enemy.
Hester is 5-feet-4, a self-described "tomboy" who speaks with the twang of her native Kentucky. She and other members of the Army National Guard's 617th Military Police Company from Kentucky defeated a much larger insurgent force that day as they protected a U.S. convoy of about 30 semi-tractor-trailers coursing through Salman Pak with supplies.
The last woman to receive a Silver Star was Mary Louise Roberts, an Army nurse serving at a field hospital during the battle at Anzio, Italy, in 1944. Roberts ignored orders to take cover as shrapnel from German shells tore through the surgical tents, and she remained on duty to help "her boys."
Women before Hester have received higher military honors - the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award, and the distinguished crosses given by individual military branches, the second-highest award. However, until now, women received those medals for injuries received or medical service, not for combat.
Another woman in Hester's squad, Spec. Ashley J. Pullen, received a Bronze Star on Thursday for valor for taking part in the attacks and providing medical care to her fellow soldiers.
At a time when Congress is considering what, if any, role women should have in combat, the actions of Hester and Pullen will likely add to the debate.
Women are barred from "direct ground combat" jobs such as infantry, armor, cannon artillery and special operations forces. And earlier this spring, some House members tried unsuccessfully to bar women from support units that they deemed too close to the front lines. Some lawmakers believe it's time to convene a commission to consider the issue.
The battle for which Hester was honored spotlights the difficulty in trying to separate women from direct combat.
"Being in the MPs, we're out there every day doing the same jobs as men," said Hester, although she declined to take a position on the debate. Asked about her ambitions for a more direct combat job, she said only, "I'm perfectly happy being a military police officer."
When the 617th deployed to Iraq in November, it was clear that Hester was "one of a kind," said 22-year-old company medic Spec. Jason L. Mike.
"I think she was all about work and no play." Her award for valor, he said, "is good for all women in the armed forces."
March 20 began like many other days for their squad, Raven 42, according to Hester and other soldiers in her unit.
Signs of trouble
They were on escort duty at the end of a long convoy, driving in three Humvees topped with gunners. Suddenly, some of the trucks ahead lurched to one side and others slowed down, a sign of a roadside bomb or a small arms attack ahead.
Hester could see smoke rising up the road just as the squad leader, Staff Sgt. Timothy F. Nein, radioed for the Humvees to follow him along a path that would put them between the convoy and the insurgents. Suddenly, a rocket-propelled grenade slapped against Nein's armored Humvee, exploding in a flash of fire and dust.
Nein was stunned, and the blast knocked Spec. Casey M. Cooper from his machine gun turret. He fell into the seats, bloody and motionless. Nein thought Cooper was dead until the soldier roused and climbed back up and started firing.
"I knew it was real," Hester said of the attack. "I was scared that they were injured. They continued rolling. I knew they were OK."
The insurgents opened up with AK-47s, machine guns and grenades as the three Humvees raced onto a small access road that Nein had noticed on earlier missions. The move allowed them to flank the insurgents.
Two months earlier, Nein, the 36-year-old squad leader from Indiana, had made a critical decision to load extra ammunition into the Humvees. Now, some of the soldiers would draw on that ammo to beat back a determined insurgent ambush.
As Hester and the other soldiers spilled out of their Humvees and to an earthen berm, they spotted dozens of insurgents, firing from behind trees, from inside gullies and a house. Bullets kicked up dust and pinged off their vehicles.
The eight U.S. soldiers thought they were facing perhaps seven or eight insurgents. Now they could see there were closer to 50.
Hester, who played softball and basketball in high school, said she felt a "huge adrenaline rush" as she trained her M-4 assault rifle. She shot and killed three insurgents. Nein, a nine-year Guard veteran who had an earlier tour in Iraq and served in Bosnia, spotted an enemy behind a tree 50 yards away with an RPG pointed toward the Humvees. He fired three rounds and the insurgent slumped. The soldiers also launched grenades and anti-tank rockets against the larger force.
When one soldier was shot in the arm, Mike applied a field dressing and placed him in the Humvee. Another soldier was shot in the back, and Mike was able to treat him and push him under the Humvee to shield him from enemy fire.
Atop the Humvee, Spec. William Haynes II fired on insurgents taking cover in a canal when an enemy round bored into his hand. Before Haynes patched up his own wound and again began pulling the machine gun trigger, Mike found himself shooting insurgents in two directions.
"In my mind, I'm saying, 'I'm not going to be on Al Jazeera begging for my life,'" Mike said in an interview, referring to the Arab satellite television network that has broadcast captured U.S. soldiers and others in the past. "That motivated me to stay in the fight." Nein and Mike also received Silver Stars.
By the time the shooting stopped a half-hour later, the squad had killed 29 insurgents and captured nine.
"There was a huge sigh of relief," Hester said. "We were all still alive."
It would be three more months before the Guard soldiers stood before Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, the U.S. ground commander in Iraq, where three would receive the Silver Star.
There was Nein, a printer in civilian life who works for International Paper in Kentucky, and Mike, an Army brat and self-described entrepreneur who works in real estate and restaurants. He joined the Guard after the Sept. 11 attacks and hopes to join the active-duty Army and fly a Black Hawk helicopter.
And there was Hester, a store manager at Shoe Carnival in Nashville, Tenn., who always wanted to be in the military and has set her sights on the police force in Nashville or Louisville, Ky.
Vines told the assembled soldiers from Raven 42 that with the NBA playoffs under way and pro golfers walking the greens at the U.S. Open, there is much talk on TV of sports heroes and celebrity, recalled Col. Jim Brown, commander of the 18th Military Police Brigade, which includes the 617th.
Vines teared up when he turned to the soldiers, said Brown.
"My heroes don't play in the [National Basketball Association] and don't play in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst," Brown quoted Vines. "They're standing in front of me today. These are American heroes."