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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)

He showed his hand to Mike, who recalled he told Haynes to wrap it. As he did, Mike focused on the source of the fire. "I could hear the bullets hitting the Humvee," he said. "They were coming from both directions, both in front and behind."

With the other soldiers out of action, Mike set up an M-249 light machine gun, known as a Squad Automatic Weapon, or SAW, on the Humvee's trunk. With his right hand, he fired it into the main trench. With his left, he gripped an M-4 assault rifle and shot in the other direction at the insurgent firing from atop the 10-foot berm. He continued shooting both weapons until Haynes had bandaged his hand and resumed fighting.

Cooper informed Nein that the squad was now taking fire from the rear. He said the insurgent appeared to be firing from a dirt plateau just on the other side of the berm. Nein grabbed a grenade, ran at the berm and lobbed it over.

The firing stopped. To make sure he had eliminated the threat, Nein backed up, took a running start and tried to climb the steep berm. Clawing at the dirt with his hands and his rifle, he pulled himself to the top. No one was there.

Pullen ran over to Nein and told him Rivera had been seriously wounded. Nein ordered her to treat him. The fighting was still heavy. Pullen, concerned Rivera was exposed, returned to her truck and backed it up to where Rivera lay on the ground. Pullen recalled she placed a bandage over the wound and applied pressure. Rivera screamed and rocked; he said he couldn't feel his legs. "Think about your son," said Pullen, recalling Rivera had a young boy. "Think about him. Think about anything but this."

The shooting had begun to subside, but with Rivera needing to be evacuated as soon as possible, Nein believed he was running out of time. Below him, in the trench that ran along the side road, four insurgents were still firing up at the squad and then ducking behind a berm.

He looked at Hester, now crouching next to him. "We've got to go in there," he said.

Nein rolled over the berm into the trench, Hester following behind. The trench was uneven, and they took cover in the small spaces. The insurgents, clustered about 30 yards down and spaced five yards apart, poked out their heads and fired their AK-47s in bursts. "I could see the bullets kicking up the dried dirt and I remember thinking, 'I can't believe that's stopping them.' " Nein said.

"We went through there foot by foot," said Hester. "We'd stop every couple meters or so, two or three meters, and lay down fire. I'd be firing over his shoulder."

The soldiers tossed grenades as they moved closer. Hester saw one insurgent about 15 yards away. She lobbed a grenade toward the figure, then pressed her body into the side of the trench to avoid the blast. "I saw one of them go down," she said.

Soon, one insurgent was still firing. Nein lobbed another grenade. The shooting stopped.

Hester and Nein climbed out the trench. Bodies littered the orchard and the trenches. The only sounds were the cries of the wounded.

Other units arrived. Mike and Pullen helped transport the wounded to a makeshift landing zone for evacuation by helicopters.

Hester sat down and stared into space. She said she didn't feel like a hero, only that "I did my job." In some ways, she's still staring.

"I think about March 20 at least a couple times a day, every day, and I probably will for the rest of my life," she said last week. "It's taken its toll. Every night I'm lucky if I don't see the picture of it in my mind before I go to sleep, and then, even if I don't, I'm dreaming about what we did."

Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

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