Silver Stars Affirm One Unit's Mettle

Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, who fought insurgents in close combat outside Baghdad, is the first woman to receive the Silver Star since an Army nurse in World War II.
Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, who fought insurgents in close combat outside Baghdad, is the first woman to receive the Silver Star since an Army nurse in World War II. (Family Photo)
By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 26, 2005

BAGHDAD -- The two soldiers crept along the trench line, bullets thumping into the dirt around them. One was a lanky family man, 36, with two young sons and a 15-year career at International Paper Co. The other was a petite, single woman, 23, the floor manager at a Nashville shoe store.

Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester handed Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein a grenade. He had the better arm. Nein hurled it at the insurgents, who were crouched in the same trench, firing their AK-47 rifles at the Americans in the early afternoon.

Hester and Nein inched forward, the two recalled, Hester firing her black M-4 assault rifle next to Nein's ear. By the time the soldiers climbed out of the trench, their lips were chapped from the heat, their faces smeared with dirt, and four insurgents lay dead or dying nearby.

"I really don't know who killed who," said Hester, who stands 5-foot-4, speaks with a twang and walks with a swagger. "He could have got three, I could have got one, I don't know. I know for sure I got at least one."

The U.S. military handed out combat citations last week for the March 20 battle, in which a military police squad of two women and eight men from the Kentucky Army National Guard killed 27 insurgents and wounded six in an orchard south of Baghdad. Hester won the Silver Star. She was the first female soldier to receive the award for exceptional valor since World War II and the first ever to be cited for close combat.

This account of the 25-minute firefight, near the town of Salman Pak, is based on interviews with seven squad members and their commanders and a brief video that ends abruptly with the insurgent cameraman's death. The three squad members not interviewed were wounded and are still recovering.

Hester killed at least three enemy combatants, according to her account and the citation, including two in the orchard before she and Nein plunged into the trench together to take on the last insurgents.

The battle occurred immediately before the recent controversy in Congress over the suitability of having women in combat. Hester's squad and commanders derided the debate as insignificant and absurd. "It kind of makes me mad," Hester said. "Women can basically do any job that men can."

"I sit here in amazement that Congress would debate this issue when we've been doing it for so long," said Command Sgt. Major Joseph Shelley of the 18th Military Police Brigade, which oversees Hester's squad.

The squad, called Raven 42, presents a vivid portrait of the diverse American fighting force in Iraq. The squad includes not only women, but also African American and Hispanic soldiers, and others who are nearly twice the age of their comrades.

The military awarded three Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars and two army commendation medals to the squad last week. Receiving the Silver Star, along with Hester and Nein, was a platoon medic, Spec. Jason Mike, a 5-foot-9, 250-pound former fullback at Jacksonville University in Florida.

In the middle of the battle, Mike, 22, fired two weapons in opposite directions after three of the four soldiers traveling in his Humvee were struck by bullets, he and other members of the squad recounted.

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